When Convenience Hurts the Environment

May 7, 2021 | Conscious Consuming, Reducing Waste

Often, it seems to me, convenience hurts the environment. Specifically, I’m thinking about convenient services offered to deal with things such as our waste. Bear with me here. Let me explain further.

Bulky Waste Collections

Recently my local government announced it would be rolling out ‘bulky waste collections‘ throughout the ACT. This service has been available for concession card holders for some time. Now the government is rolling it out to all households. This got me thinking about convenience and how it potentially changes our behaviour in ways that are not in the interests of the environment.

The convenience of services that deal with our waste for us can’t be denied. It also removes, however, a level of personal responsibility for the waste we produce.

I guess we could look back all the way to when municipal waste collection services began. Wikipedia tells me that this happened in London in the 1800s. Prior to this, households had to manage their own waste. In higher-density places, such as the city of London, this became increasingly difficult due to the lack of space. Plus, the incineration of waste had adverse effects on air quality in built-up areas.

I’m not suggesting for a moment that we return to sewerage being tipped from upstairs windows and rubbish being dumped in public space. Clearly, we are healthier and our streets cleaner for the provision of municipal and centralised services for handling household waste. I am just wondering about how to counter some of the ‘out of sight, out of mind’ thinking (well, lack of thinking I guess) to the management of our waste.

Interesting Fact: If you have wondered why garbage bins are sometimes called dustbins, it is because the first ‘solid waste’ collection picked up household coal ash which could be used in brick making. Households would put out their ‘dustbin’ for collection.

There is no such thing as away. When you throw something away, it must go somewhere.

Annie Leonard

Soft Plastic Recycling

Another convenience that hurts the environment, potentially, is soft plastic recycling. RedCycle, in Australia, provides soft plastic recycling collection in our major supermarkets. This looks on the surface to be a fantastic thing. I believe, though, that diverting a mountain of soft plastic from landfill, has a darker side.

Soft plastic packaging now has the RedCycle symbol. Consumers may believe that it is okay to buy plastic packaged products because they can take the package back to the supermarket when they are finished with it and it will be recycled. This thinking does not recognise the embodied energy in the packaging and carbon emissions already produced. Furthermore, soft plastic is recycled into things like park benches which will go to landfill at the end of their life. Soft plastic is not infinitely recyclable like glass or aluminium because plastics lose quality with reprocessing. This is not ‘recycling’, it is ‘downcycling’. To use plastic more than once is great but, in fact, it will likely only be used once more before being trash.

Charity Shops

The option to donate to charity or op shops is also problematic. Most are overwhelmed these days. They must send a high proportion of donated items to landfill. We can also fall into the trap of believing that if we donate our unwanted clothes to the charity shop, we can buy more new clothes because our discarded buys will get another life. It is all too easy to perpetuate a consumer mindset if discarding our cast-offs is seemingly guilt-free.

The convenient services we have at our disposal (no pun intended!), while very welcome, may also lead to greater consumption because the responsibility for the waste produced is removed from us.

Of course, I use curbside recycling, the soft plastics bin (actually giant plastic bag!) at our local supermarket, and we do throw stuff away. The way I approach it, however, is to always be mindful of reducing the amount of waste we create by starting at the top of the waste reducing principles hierarchy with REFUSE-REDUCE-REUSE, keeping Annie Leonard’s words above in mind.

As I always say, we live in an imperfect system so we can only take imperfect action. Let’s just bring more mindfulness (or consciousness if you prefer) to how we deal with our waste. That starts with conscious consumption. Let’s not allow the convenience of waste services to set us free from responsibility for our lifestyle and choices. Be aware of convenience that hurts the environment.