Which "R" are we up to with our rubbish?
Rubbish generation and waste disposal. This is a tricky topic, one that can create conflict, confusion and all sorts of feelings of defensiveness, shame, guilt, anger and discomfort. Rubbish has been a growing societal problem for a long time now, and will not go away anytime soon. No longer is the solution for us to lobby a government or to hope that someone else will sort it out for us. We all contribute to waste, so we all must find a way to deal with our own rubbish, use our $$$ wisely, or refuse to spend our money to contribute unnecessary waste, to do our bit and feel like our contribution matters.
I have heard of a lot of “R” words used around rubbish. In my memory, it started with “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle”. Now there are many more. Rethink, Rot, Refuse, Reuse, Repair are just a few. They’re all useful, they’re all great ideas, and they are leading to action and change in some areas, but we still have mountains of waste that we’re trying to hand to someone else to deal with. We’ve had campaigns to “Do The Right Thing”, encouraging people to put their rubbish in the bin. We have had “Tidy Town” awards, and “CleanUp Australia” days. Just putting our rubbish in the bin is a start, but not the final solution to the problem.
For meaningful change to happen with rubbish, to be able to turn good ideas into actions that actually lessen the waste problem as well as managing the waste that is unavoidable, perhaps we need to go back a few steps…
I’ve made this one up. It’s not the perfect word, as I think more descriptive words starts with “A” “U” and “O”. Part of understanding a problem in a way that will shift behaviours and create real change, is to first understand what drives these behaviours in the first place.
I like to start the process of change with “observe”. Just observing, without needing to rush into solutions, can take away strong emotions from a situation, especially one that we want to change. “Observing” can help to separate our self from our behaviour. Judgement of ourselves and other, “he should”, “if only she would”, “I should” can get us all tangled in knots of blame, while the rubbish keeps building.
With observation of our own behaviour, we can start to “understand” and “acknowledge” what is really happening and why we are behaving as we are. In terms of rubbish generation, notice what your behaviours are. Do you get a takeaway coffee cup every morning because it’s convenient? Do you use plastic bags for a bunch of bananas or a few tomatoes? Do you buy a large packet of biscuits containing many smaller packets of biscuits? Are you always in a hurry, so need to get the quick solutions, which are often heavily packaged?
One observation I made in my family, was the day my eldest child picked up the most rubbish at a particular venue on “CleanUp Australia” day. It was a proud moment, until the “prize” was handed over. This consisted of a plastic bag containing a few lollypops in single-use plastic packaging, a cap, a plastic slinky toy with a logo on the side (that was broken before we even got home) and a few other bits of plastic. I was a little surprised when I realised that 95% of her “prize” was single-use plastic and would go straight into landfill. (6 years on…the cap is the only thing still in use). Faced with the same prize today, we may well just say “no thanks”.
The process of recognizing, observing and acknowledging will be ongoing and can be tough. It’s likely you’ll realise all sorts of things about your behaviours as well as about cultural norms. You’ll need to find a way to turn these feelings into actually doing something. So talk to a friend about it, get your partner, your parent, your sibling on board with you, or just get together to throw some ideas around.
Rethink - Do I actually need this “thing”?
It’s hard to change what we don’t understand. If there is a problem that needs fixing, and if we desire long-term, sustainable change, we need to dig a little deeper and understand what the actual problem is. After you’ve spent some time observing your own waste-generating patterns, start to “Rethink” how you can do them differently.
Do you feel you need to buy food in packaging? Is there any other way to achieve the same end-goal, using less or zero packaging? Do you need a separate plastic bag for each different fruit or vegetable? Do you need to purchase another “reusable” bag that will sit in the cupboard at home? Do you need to collect the latest plastic toy, whether it’s free or not? Can you bring a reusable container to the sushi shop at lunchtime or when you buy takeaway food? It’s no longer good enough to just “Recycle”, because that doesn’t actually happen! We can spend time, money and energy lobbying the government or businesses, or we can use our $$$ to make a choice about how we contribute.
Is the reason you are using this “thing” to save time, get through the day, keep the peace, because you’ve never thought about it before, because you’re overwhelmed and don’t know where to start, or something else? Maybe your next step to finding a solution is to organise some childcare, so that you have some space to think, and time to search for local food suppliers that don’t package their food in plastic? Perhaps your starting point is to take a minute to breathe, take a walk and help your mind become more clear so that you can start to think! This is not a quick-fix, miracle-solution, someone-else-will-do-it sort of a problem, nor is it something we can manage alone.
The “Rethink” can be fun and creative. Small changes can feel good. My main reason for changing my behaviour (after much ongoing observation and trial and error) was because I realised I don’t actually want to deal with waste, so my preference has become to generate as little as possible. A few changes I made after rethinking are;
I don’t ever buy a coffee in a takeaway cup anymore. If I want a coffee, I’ll either bring my own mug, make the time to sit and drink it, or save my money and make a cup when I’m back at my own kettle.
I bring reusable containers to my local Thai restaurant when I get takeaway. I will also do this for sushi. They’re all great about accepting my glass containers.
I pick a bit of mint or other herbs from a pot or my garden when I want a cup of herbal tea and I don’t use teabags in my home. When I feel like black tea, I have gone back to loose leaf tea again and I brew it in a little pot. I never felt like I had time to wait so long, as I was always too “busy”, but now I make the time to do so.
I have had some reusable produce bags for a few years now and they’re excellent. I was always forgetting to bring them with me in the early days, so I would juggle 6 apples on the scales with no bag, and dropped a few things here and there. Now I just seem to remember them, without too much effort.
I ALWAYS pick up rubbish from the beach/forest, every time I am out for a walk/swim in Nature, I will always pick up rubbish. I’m troubled by how much rubbish I see when I’m at the beach or in the bush/forest, we NEVER go someone where that doesn’t have some sort of rubbish. So I just pick it up, take it with me and dispose of it properly (which means most of it goes to landfill). I notice my children and other families doing the same. Don’t wait for a “Clean Up” day, just do it when you see it.
Refuse - “No thanks”
This is also huge! “Would you like a bag?” “Would you like a free pen?”, here’s a water bottle, bag, keepcup, straw, toy, lanyard, etc with a company’s logo on it… all “free”. I know many who take it, use it, keep it and love getting a freebie. I also know many who take things that are offered to them because they feel bad about saying no, as it’s impolite. So they end up with a whole lot of “stuff” that they don’t want. Much of this “stuff” is then given to an op shop, but really it ends up in landfill as no one there wants it either.
If you don’t want that pen, water bottle, t-shirt, cap, bag etc, then a polite “no thanks” can work wonders. I find people love to offer bags and things to children, as it’s fun for kids to carry their own things. My children are comfortable saying “no thanks” most of the time now, but when they were younger I found myself speaking for them at times, and then offering a reason for my “no thanks”. I’m not sure whether I was speaking to the person offering the bag, to my kids, to other people around me, or to myself? (Maybe all of us?) I would say that we cannot keep consuming at such an unsustainable pace as we’re running out of resources and building up mountains of rubbish. I don’t know what difference this has made to others, but I feel it’s better than saying and doing nothing.
As with any new behaviour, we can feel enormously uncomfortable the first time we try them, but over time these new behaviours will become a habit and we do them without even noticing.
This list is far from exhaustive. There are many people, councils, communities, businesses and government departments aiming to do their best to deal with rubbish. I don’t believe there is one answer or that the problem will be “fixed” any time soon. I do think it’s important to keep having conversations, to share stories and inspire each other to keep working at it.
I’m curious to hear how you get on with your rubbish. What creative ideas have you come up with?