reducing waste

Let’s change our relationship with rubbish

When you stop to think about it, throwing away rubbish is one of the cheapest things you can do in this life.

Podcast version:

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Consider your typical Wellington City Council yellow rubbish bag. I can fill it to the absolute brim with the foulest-stinking rubbish you can imagine, dump it on the footpath outside my back gate and someone will swing by, like clockwork, at the same time every week and take it away.

All for the measly cost of $3.29 (April, 2023)

$3.29 people!!!

I can’t buy a large fries at McDonalds for $3.29. I certainly can’t buy a beer at our local pub for $3.29. But I can dump an entire week’s worth of rubbish generated by 4 people and a dog plus guests.

When my rubbish gets taken away, they take it and dump it in a big beautiful green valley out the back of Brooklyn. We literally dump it in NZ bushland. Imagine how poorly you would look at me if we went for a bushwalk together, but 10 minutes in I stopped and emptied out a sack of rubbish in a little dip somewhere. You would be horrified. Yet that is what we all do right now.

I can’t even park my car in the City for 60 minutes for $3.29. Yet for that same price, I can throw away a bag of rubbish that takes up more space than my entire body.

Just because we call it a landfill doesn’t make it ok. It’s not some radioactive wasteland that used to be a nuclear power plant. It’s just a normal, bushy, tree-filled, Wellington valley.

If it wasn’t a landfill, that valley in Brooklyn might be just as beautiful as Seton-Nossiter park in Paparangi where I take my dog walking. Or Percy’s reserve in Lower Hutt where my friend recently proposed to his fiance.

It could be a new housing subdivision, helping to alleviate the housing crisis.

Why do we allow this to happen? Why is this ok?

I realise it’s a question of incentives. We need a functioning waste management system and we need to make it easy for citizens to dispose of waste. Otherwise, you have public dumping and trash-lined motorways.

The problem we have now is that I believe the pendulum has swung too far. We have lost sight of what it means to throw things away. The rubbish doesn’t disappear miraculously or get crushed into nothingness. The truck that picks up your yellow bag or your red-top bin takes it to the top of a hill and tips it over the edge of a cliff.

The rubbish you sent to landfill last week, last year, 5 years ago, 10 years is still sitting there. Every yoghurt pottle you and I have ever opened. Every bag of chips we’ve ever eaten. Every bit of glad wrap we have ever used.

Where there once was a valley, there is now just a massive pile of plastic that will outlast us all.

What’s the solution?

I believe it’s two-fold.

It comes down to personal responsibility and policy change.

We need to think about the end result of our consumption.

We won’t run out of space in the landfill anytime soon. For many lifetimes to come, there will be a place we can find that’s far enough away from everything else that we can dump rubbish to our heart’s content, then shovel land over it like everything’s ok.

This is more about looking in the mirror and thinking about how we want to interact with this land we call our home.

Would you drive down the road and chuck a coffee cup out the window if a sign said: “Designated Crap-Dumping Area”?

More than likely, you would be horrified by the sight of a million takeaway coffee cups piled up on the side of the road.

But that’s essentially what a landfill is. It’s just that you can’t see it from the road. We set it up that way on purpose so we don’t have to think about the consequences of our actions.

When it comes to landfills: Just because you can’t see it, doesn’t mean it’s not there.

So what do we do instead?

We can’t just burn the rubbish – surely that would cause far more pollution. And as a society, we are always going to produce rubbish.

Step 1. Personal responsibility.

We could all start by composting our own organic waste.

According to the Wellington City Council, over half of the rubbish collected in yellow bags is organic waste that could be composted.

Now you might think, if it’s organic why does it matter? Won’t it just decompose in the landfill? Sadly not. When organic waste is left to decompose without air, it produces methane – an extremely harmful gas estimated to be 80x more powerful than carbon dioxide. In other words, super bad for the planet.

Composting, on the other hand, is the practice of mixing organic waste with other inputs like lawn clippings and fallen leaves to let it decompose naturally, creating far less methane. Once it has broken down (which takes a few months) you can use the resulting compost to grow your own fruit and vegetables!

Welcome, my friends, to the circle of life!

Anyone with a small outdoor area can use a compost bin. And if you live in an apartment, there are indoor methods available too.

On top of this, we need to support and encourage more compost collection organisations like Kaicycle who are collecting organic waste from all over Newtown every week using bikes.

If you work in an office environment, please encourage your employer to install an organic waste system. The collection service is not only affordable, but it can often save your company (or landlord) money by diverting waste away from general rubbish bins.

Note: There are currently two companies that provide commercial organic waste collection services in Wellington: EnviroWaste and Organic Waste Management.

You can also reduce your waste by buying in bulk, shopping online at stores like The Source and avoiding (where possible) food that comes in single-use plastic packaging.

For more ideas, check out our podcast on how to reduce your plastic waste. Plus, take a look at the incredible zero-waste shopping guides available at ‘The Rubbish Trip’ website.

Step 2. Policy change.

As with many big issues, the answer lies with changing incentives.

Companies that use single-use packaging need to be taxed for the use of that single-use packaging. Plain and simple.

Currently, there is no cost to the manufacturer for using cheap packaging that can’t be recycled. In fact, they are incentivized to use plastic packaging since it is cheaper than re-usable or recyclable options or compostable packaging alternatives.

As an example, consider yoghurt. A typical product available in every supermarket…

Company A cares about the environment and packages their yoghurt in a glass container which can be recycled. It costs them more to do this but it protects the planet.

Company B packages their yoghurt in small, single-use plastic cups with throwaway plastic lids. It costs them less to do this so they can afford to sell the product for less than company A, building their market share at the expense of our environment. The plastic cups all end up in landfill but they don’t pay the price to dispose of their packaging. You and I do, instead.

Company B is rewarded with higher profits, for using inferior packaging which society has to dispose of.

Solution: If company B wants to use single-use packaging, they should have to pay for the cost of its disposal.

Perhaps there could be a standard tax of 5 cents for every individual item wrapped in a piece of single-use plastic.

This money could be used to plant more trees or fund clever machines, like the one at our Southern landfill which turns some of the methane generated by rotting landfill waste into power for local homes.

But wouldn’t the costs just be passed on to the consumer? Cheaper products will just become more expensive.

This may be true, but over time what happens is that companies adapt and move to more environmentally friendly alternatives like glass, or cardboard packaging (which can be recycled or composted), or compostable packaging made from plant fibres.

This superior packaging becomes cheaper because more companies are using it, driving the cost down once production ramps up.

Some companies, like The Cool Gardender are already choosing to do the right thing by packaging their frozen plant-based patties and rosti’s in a cardboard box, with no interior plastic packaging.

Keep in mind, the burden of disposal falls somewhere. Right now, its the environment that bears the brunt of our addiction to single-use plastic. The companies that produce this material pay nothing towards its disposal, and that just doesn’t seem fair.

Update April 2023: The government has moved to ban some single-use plastics. It’s a good start but we need more!

In Conclusion

As Mike Joy so eloquently says in a recent article on ‘green growth’:

“Our only future is one where we consume less, do less, waste less and stop our obsession with accumulating.”

Let’s all do our part by:

  • Consuming only what we need
  • Buying second hand when we can
  • Avoiding single-use packaging wherever possible (especially when buying food)
  • Composting our own organic waste
  • Supporting companies that are making a difference by using less packaging

Don’t wait for the government to solve this issue. You can be the change you want to see in the world. Starting today.

You only vote once every three years, but your rubbish gets collected every week.

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