I have vivid memories of going to the tip with my family when I was a kid and being fascinated by the huge mountains of rubbish piled up around me. It was a regular thing we did together, and we thought it was great fun. I knew this place was where all the stuff we didn’t want any longer ended up, but I never saw any problem with it. Now I understand the implications of dumping garbage into landfill. I dislike it with a passion, yet I still do it, although the amount of waste I dispose of is significantly less than it used to be, and is gradually decreasing, as I find better ways to recycle, reduce or eliminate the waste I generate. In nature, nothing is wasted. One organism’s waste becomes food or fuel for another. Many scientists believe we need to mimic these natural systems, and re-design the materials economy, so the waste of one system becomes the raw material for other systems, if we are to live sustainably on the Earth. But is the aim of zero waste possible, or even achievable on a global scale?
Earlier this year, I attended a Melbourne screening of the film Trashed, presented by the Australian Marine Conservation Society. The film is about waste, landfill and the social and environmental impacts of the garbage we, as a species, generate, and the way we tend to ignore where this garbage goes after we’re done with it. Watching the film, I was reminded of how easily rubbish can enter the ocean, where toxins from waste pollute the marine environment and plastic debris harms marine wildlife. It re-affirmed my commitment to reducing my consumption. It’s a film worth seeing and hopefully it will generate greater awareness on a wider scale, an awareness that our actions do have consequences, but we can do something about it. I don’t like treating the Earth as a garbage dump, especially when it’s the result of excessive over-consumption, and our tendency to throw out stuff when we get tired of it, only to buy new stuff, in an endless cycle of environmentally (and socially) destructive behaviour.
The landfill issue is complex (as are all environmental impact issues). There are concerns about community acceptance, aesthetic values and public health, but only the environmental impacts are discussed here, including groundwater and aquifer contamination, air pollution, soil contamination and production of methane from decaying organic waste. Hazardous materials containing toxic substances like mercury, lead, PVC, arsenic and cadmium leach into soil and groundwater. Organic material (food waste, green waste and other plant or animal-based material) compacts in landfill and, together with the lack of oxygen, creates an anaerobic environment, generating production of methane, a greenhouse gas.
I studied ecology and environmental science at university. Learning ecological principles gave me a better understanding of how life worked, but more importantly, interacted, where matter and energy are continually recycled through biological systems. In nature, the waste generated by one species or organism becomes food or fuel for another. Humans are the only species on Earth to generate waste that cannot be utilised further. Nature does it better.
The Centre for Ecoliteracy in California promotes education in basic ecological knowledge and has outlined five fundamental ‘facts of life’ we all need to know (my notes are in italics):
- Matter cycles continually through the web of life (nature recycles itself)
- Most of the energy driving the ecological cycles flows from the sun (solar energy is a clean, renewable source of energy that needs to be better utilised)
- Diversity assures resilience (biodiversity = robust and sustainable ecosystems)
- One species’ waste is another species’ food (nothing is wasted)
- Life did not take over the planet by combat but by networking (co-operation works)
There is growing recognition by the scientific and technological community that we need to re-design our current systems so the waste we create is recycled back into the system to eliminate any waste entering the environment and decreasing the burden on finite natural resources.
The concept of Zero Waste is based on this idea and was inspired by how energy and matter are continuously recycled in nature. We need to move from linear, open-ended systems to circular, closed-loop systems, so any waste generated from a process gets utilised in another part of the cycle.
Permaculture is an interesting concept that can get us thinking differently about issues of waste, recycling and closed-loop systems. It’s a fascinating subject and unique way of working with nature, instead of against it, and the concept was created by Australians, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren. There are 12 principles of permaculture – Principle #6 is Produce No Waste, recognising the need for outputs (generated waste) to become inputs for other systems. I recommend the excellent book Permaculture Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability if you want to explore the permaculture concept.
Can the goal of sustainable living and zero waste be achieved? Yes, I believe it can be, and it must be if life is to be sustained on the Earth. Maybe we won’t be able to live exactly the way we have become accustomed to, but if we keep living the way we do, it won’t last. We need to accept that we have to change ourselves and our patterns of consumption. Our current lifestyles are generating huge amounts of waste. We are wasting away, under mountains of rubbish, in a sea of garbage.
What can we, as individuals, do?
Here are ‘The 10 R’s of Conscious Consumerism’ – ten actions we can take to help reduce the amount of waste we generate.
REFUSE – Can I go without it?
REPLACE – Can I find an alternative that offers the same benefits without the costs?
REDUCE – Can I reduce my use of it?
REUSE – Can I reuse it instead of throwing it out or recycling it?
RETURN* – Is it made of biodegradable or compostable material that can be given back to the Earth?
*I’ve seen others refer to this action as ROT, which I quite like, and applies to most food waste that can be composted.
RECYCLE – Is it made of a material that can be easily recycled?
REFILL – Am I able to purchase it loose and in bulk, in bring-my-own packaging?
REPAIR – Can I repair it and give it a new lease of life, so I don’t have to throw it out?
RETAIN – Can I keep it instead of upgrading to the latest gadget, model or style?
REQUEST – Can I ask to get it wrapped in recyclable packaging, or can I get it without any packaging?
RECHARGE – Can I purchase it in a form where it can be used again instead of buying it single-use?
Our current lifestyles are unsustainable. Our industrial system is highly inefficient and wastes precious finite natural resources. The re-designing of our current system to mimic nature is vital if we are to live sustainably on the Earth. What an incredible challenge for our scientists, architects and engineers to design a new system that is based on the way nature recycles energy back into itself? Until this concept becomes a reality on a wider scale, there are many things we can do to take control of our own behaviour.