Waste reduction: better consumption for less pollution
Posted on June 9 2020
Today, the production of waste is increasing at a dramatic rate. In France, we produce nearly 590 kg per year per person, twice as much as 40 years ago! And this is only for our household and similar waste.
Plastic, which we find everywhere in our daily lives, is one of the first to blame. Many other forms of waste also exist: electronic devices, chemical containers, nuclear waste, construction materials, etc.
This impressive amount of matter, which mostly ends up in nature, is not without consequences for life on earth. This is why it is important to think about the way we manage our garbage, and especially about the way we consume in general.
Garbage, and so what?
Many of us are now convinced of the importance of throwing our waste in the trash. Even though there are still many uncontrolled rubbish dumps, or that cigarette butts are unfortunately often missing the rule, this is increasingly disapproved of by the population. This gives us the impression that a sufficient effort is being made.
However, many places in the world do not have these collection systems. Others are even the target of Western waste dumping as is the case in Africa with our faulty electronics.
Moreover, two thirds of our collected waste still ends up in landfills or incinerators. This means that, despite the high energy costs involved in their collection, 36% will end up in nature, compared with only 21% recycled and 14% composted.
• A major impact on health and environment
But why such an issue around our waste? Quite simply because they are harmful. For our health in a direct way, but also for our living environment.
Their degradation leads to pollution of soil, rivers or air when they are burned. All elements of the food chain are therefore impacted. Water and crops become unfit for consumption. Animals, both terrestrial and marine, may die from their ingestion or may be poisoned.
As an example, about 8 million tons of plastics are dumped into the oceans every year. Causing the death of more than a million birds and more than 100,000 marine mammals.
As it degrades, this material is also ingested by fish and ends up in the food chain. According to a WWF report, we in turn absorb about 5g of plastic per week. That’s the equivalent of a credit card every week! And this substance could be the cause of many cancers, or act as an endocrine disruptor.
Electronic devices are also particularly targeted for their toxic components: heavy metals, arsenic, selenium, flame retardants… not to mention nuclear waste, which is still a challenge to manage today.
• A significant energy cost
Apart from the dangerousness of the waste we produce, it must also be understood that its production and transportation has an energy cost too.
Before arriving in our garbage cans, an object will have an ecological footprint upstream. This includes the extraction of raw materials: oil, natural gas, metals, … but also the need for water and energy for its manufacture, its transport and the greenhouse gases generated by them.
According to a report written by Francis Radermaker, « The 500 kg of municipal waste produced annually on average by each European corresponds in reality to a consumption of 50 tons of material resources per inhabitant per year ».
This notion of « ecological backpack » tells us, for example, that a simple toothbrush requires 1.5 kg of raw materials, a mobile phone almost 75 kg and an electronic chip 20 kg! This gives us an idea of the extent of the resources we use every day…
Recycling is good, reducing is better!
All of this leads us to ask ourselves firstly about our waste production. Because even if our collecting systems are essential, they cannot be sufficient! They also have a significant cost. It is estimated at several billion euros in France, 90% of which is borne by local communities.
Recycling is in fact only the 4th step in the waste reduction process.
It is true that recycling allows the recovery of certain materials. However, it must be taken into account that a significant amount of waste escapes the sorting chain. Another substantial part cannot simply be recycled. For the rest, the transformation energy cost is also very important.
Recycling is in fact only the 4th step in the waste reduction process. The most important thing is on one hand to encourage large production lines to minimize the use of these materials. And on the other hand to reduce the consumption we make of them. To achieve this, we need to rethink the way we consume.
The 5R rule
It is in this perspective that the 5R rule was created: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and finally Return to the ground. This philosophy was invented by Béa Johnson, a Frenchwoman living in the United States who, thanks to this, has reduced her waste to 1kg per year, with a family of two children. She has also reduced her expenses by 40%.
It may not be the simplest part, but it is the most important. You have to learn how to say “no” and how to select your purchases. Just refuse plastic bags, flyers, straws… All these items that are automatically given to us without any real necessity.
But it also means favouring respectful companies and rejecting large chains without ecological commitments. Or fight against planned obsolescence by buying brands that do not practice it. The Purism brand, for example, has developed a phone for this purpose, the Librum 5, at a fairly high price but no more expensive than the competition if you consider the longer time of use.
The goal of this step is to make strong choices about our consumption, to identify our needs and to refuse the superfluous that generates waste.
It’s time to drop the sail. Indeed, we often get overloaded with useless things that accumulate on our shelves or in our attics.
So it is interesting to ask the question: do I really need it?
Resisting the pressure of over-consumption and reducing unnecessary purchases saves a lot of waste and money. Moreover, it saves space and makes your home more pleasant to live in. It may even make it possible to live in smaller and less hyper-secure houses?
What remains are the essential objects, those that will resist this first sorting. For them, quality is more important than quantity. Maintain them properly. Repair them and why not exchange them?
This also applies to the energy sector. Producing energy generates waste of various kinds, such as greenhouse gases or nuclear waste.
To reduce our consumption, we can on one hand reduce our electrical appliances and on the other hand minimize their energy requirements. Preventing all everyday actions from being replaced by electronic devices. Unplugging appliances when not in use. Turning off lights when leaving a room… are small and easy efforts to make.
A final example is the food sector. Thousands of recipes exist on the internet to find out what to do with leftover food. And we can also avoid food waste by buying the right quantities, in bulk, locally… And favour restaurants that do the same. Why not also have a container to take away the heavy meals?
Anything that can be! The idea is to extend as much as possible the lifespan of objects that cannot be reduced or refused.
Fabric bags or glass jars are excellent containers for many things. Collect envelopes as drafts for writing. Or newsprint to make gift wrap paper etc.
Use stainless steel water bottles to drink tap water whenever possible. This results in significant savings and reduces the production of plastic bottles. Because these bottles travel on average several hundred kilometers to reach us, take more than a millennium to degrade … and we consume nearly 500 billion per year when only 7% are recycled!
And under « Reuse » there is also « Repair »! Broken or malfunctioning objects, such as electronic devices, which sometimes have a very short lifespan. Today it is possible to repair a good part of them, and to resell them once reconditioned. This is the example of the « BackMarket » site. And even better, you can buy refurbished products at interesting prices! This allows us to save money, to benefit from quality products and to give a second life to electronic devices.
As you can see, recycling is not the first step towards reducing waste, but the fourth. Once you’ve managed to refuse, reduce and reuse, your trash cans will seem empty. All you have to do is sort what is recyclable in the right bins. And since it’s not always obvious, it’s best to take the time to find out a little bit about it. There is a website in France that can guide you in this process, it is called « Consigne de Tri ». Thanks to this site, all you have to do is enter the name of your waste and your municipality to find out which bin to put it in.
Recycling means bringing objects back to life in a different form or function, and thus saving raw materials.
• Return to the ground
If there is one great example of recycling, it is the life cycle. Organic matter lives, dies and then decomposes to be reborn in other forms. It is therefore important that these materials’d be disposed of in a compost. Moreover, if they are buried without access to the air, they produce methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. On the other hand, well done, compost is an excellent resource for growing your garden. Good organic vegetables are yours!
If you don’t have the possibility to make a compost, there are city composts or shared gardens where you can deposit your organic materials. In France, compostable waste represents about a third of all waste, so composting will save even more space in your bins!
One step at a time towards zero waste
As is often the case, it is the first step that counts the most! And we quickly realize that once we have entered into a logic of waste reduction, the efforts put in place at the beginning seem more and more logical and easy to follow. The garbage cans decrease considerably until you don’t want to see them anymore…
So get started!
And if you have other benefits to reducing your waste, you can let us know by commenting!