The concept of waste is a strange one, isn’t it? To think that there could be something on this Earth that we have no use for, so we simply discard it. I can hardly imagine early hunter gatherers leaving behind food or useful tools, nor can I see those who lived during the war throwing away their clothes when they got a hole in them (opting to delicately mend each item instead). So why do we, as citizens of the 21st century, find it SO easy to throw something into the bin?
The obvious answer is that we just have too much stuff. It’s so cheap and easy to buy new items to fill our lives and homes that we don’t care about letting some of them go. But it’s also because when we throw something ‘away’, we don’t ever stop to think where ‘away’ really is. Let me ask you the question right now - what happened to your rubbish from last week? Last year? 10 years ago? Unfortunately just because we don’t see where our rubbish ends up doesn’t mean it disappears, that it isn’t a problem.
Every year over 2 billion tons of solid waste is dumped: food we didn’t like, cheap things we ordered online that stopped working or weren’t as we expected, the ridiculous amount of packaging that came with every single item we bought… enough material to go around the world 24 times.
And this magical 'away' place that it ends up in is usually a landfill site or the ocean. In landfill, this waste is unable to decompose properly due to oxygen-limited conditions. Instead it releases dangerous methane emissions (about 28 times more harmful than carbon dioxide) which contributes massively to climate change. In 2016, waste accounted for 5% of total global emissions.
Waste is also one of the largest sources of pollution in oceans, particularly plastic waste. Plastic is an incredibly resilient material and can take hundreds of years to break down (one startling realisation is that the toothbrush you had as a child still exists somewhere). Whether it’s a plastic bottle in an overflowing bin, or a straw that is picked up by the wind, this waste often gets sucked out into the ocean where it disrupts food chains and degrades natural habitats.
We’ve all seen the horrible images of sea life getting trapped in discarded nets or six-pack rings, or pieces of plastic inside the stomachs of fish. You would have hoped that seeing this would be enough for us to change, but unfortunately the problem is only getting worse.
It is anticipated that by 2050, there will be more plastic in the oceans than fish.
It’s terrible to think that our actions are affecting the environment in this way. Even though sometimes it might be hard to visualise the problem because we’re not directly impacted by it, it shouldn’t be an excuse to continue throwing things away. If we are to reduce our negative impact on this world, we must confront the uncomfortable images and ask the aforementioned difficult questions - where does my waste go? How is it affecting the environment? We must and can do better.