Growing up in Venezuela the only environmental advice I received at school was around water conservation and the use of garbage bins. I remember hearing messages like ‘Do Not litter’, ‘Save Water’, ‘Use the garbage bin’. This was all I knew about the environment.
Then when I came to Australia in 2009 I incorporated recycling. Here I was, using diligently the different bins at home, at work and in the streets, trying to save water and feeling super proud of myself going to the supermarket with my reusable green bags! I thought I was an eco-warrior.
As I kept learning about sustainability and the environment I quickly realised (to my disappointment) I was very far from being the green person I thought I was.
So today’s post is about expanding and updating these old pieces of environmental advice I (and probably many people) received many years ago.
Do not litter/Use the bin
Still very valid, we do not litter, we dispose rubbish properly in the designated bins so that these items don’t end up polluting our oceans/water ways/other natural environments, clogging city drains, harming wildlife and causing many other problems.
This is great stuff, but non-recyclable rubbish does not disappear because we put it in a bin, we don’t throw things “away”, rubbish still goes to landfill and the planet one way or another gets affected.
In landfill rubbish causes several problems, for instance:
- Some materials in landfill release toxic chemicals and these toxins mixed with water eventually leach into the soil and groundwater.
- Affects wildlife as they visit these places looking for food and they end up ingesting toxic substances and harmful items.
- Organic and biodegradable items in landfill release methane, a greenhouse gas more powerful than CO2, contributing to climate change.
Reduce waste as much as possible and what you can’t reuse or recycle, dispose properly.
Again this one is super valid, water is life! We take it for granted because many of us can simply go and get at the faucet, but millions of people around the world don’t have access to clean water, some have to walk long distances just to get some.
Majority of water in the planet is in the oceans and it is saline water, over 96% according to USGS website. We really need to save water and keep it clean and healthy.
I would reword/expand this one as:
Save all natural resources (including water)
Our planet’s natural resources are extremely valuable and our existence depends on them. Everything we consume from food, clothes, energy, all is based on natural resources. So it is not only water, the air we breath, the forests that are rapidly disappearing, natural gas, soil and many more.
A couple of months ago I wrote a blog post dedicated to this topic, so please check it out Our planet’s hidden value, its resources.
Recycling is probably the most common piece of advice we still hear a lot. Also a legitimate one, we do need to recycle and do it right. Recycling reduces the amount of waste that goes to landfill, reduces pollution linked to the extraction and transportation of raw materials and preserves natural resources.
Now I believe recycling is not the ultimate solution. I don’t think we can continue consuming resources and generating waste at the same rate and trusting recycling will solve it all. Recycling doesn’t address the real problems, like the amount of single-use plastic items that are manufactured and used these days.
At work every time I mention the environment in a casual conversation, the common answer is: “I recycle a lot”, “I recycle more than all my neighbours”, “I am careful when I sort my rubbish so that I recycle things right”. It is so ingrained in our mind, and again, it is good to recycle, but there is more to the story.
I don’t know, I sometimes feel that recycling can be a “make me feel good” kind of thing and relying on that is the perfect excuse for us to continue with our convenient habits and companies to continue using/manufacturing cheap materials like plastic.
Let’s consider the following:
- Currently many types of plastic can’t be recycled to produce the same original product, they are actually down-cycled. Most likely the new products (fabrics, doormats, fences) will end up in landfill. This is not a closed-loop cycle as more oil will be required to keep producing the original product.
- Recycling facilities and processes need energy and resources (e.g. transportation from our houses to the facilities), the more we rely on recycling and don’t address the root cause, the more of these places need to be created and maintained.
- According to this article in the New York Times “it’s still typically more expensive for municipalities to recycle household waste than to send it to a landfill. Prices for recyclable materials have plummeted because of lower oil prices and reduced demand for them overseas“
- Many materials (e.g. soft plastics – plastic bags) are not included in the kerbside collection, so people have to know about the recycling alternatives and care enough to take all these items to the collection points.
We could reword this one:
Focus on reusing and reducing waste first and let’s think about recycling as our last choice.
The environment has been going through a lot of changes and it faces massive challenges and these basic principles I was once taught, although still valid, are just not enough. I feel many people, like me several years ago, think they really care about the planet because they recycle and dispose rubbish properly, but we really need to do more than that to improve somewhat this situation.
I have written several posts about single use plastic and how we can “reuse” to reduce our waste. You can follow this link to learn more: Greener Identity on Plastic.
That’s it for today. Please let me know in the comments below about your experience. What pieces of environmental advice did you receive when you were a kid?
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Thanks for reading,