Every day we face a barrage of micro-solutions to micro-problems; plastic free, zero waste, recyclable, energy efficient, fairtrade… it goes on and on. All well intentioned, and all addressing one tiny aspect of our much bigger challenge. As sustainability and communications professionals, we juggle our time trying to help brands (and their customers) to improve waste management, recycling, reduce energy use, avoid resource depletion or prevent littering – but always with one eye turned to a bigger theory of change.
Amid the noise, we need to know how to prioritise our efforts so we can all play a part in a more sustainable future.
In a hugely complex, interconnected and finite world, our thinking requires a systems level approach. Materials, products and packaging cannot be considered in isolation, consumption will always have some impact – we just push our impacts to different parts of the product lifecycle. For now, here are a few simple examples of how to see the big picture when it comes to reducing your environmental footprint.
Managing your shopping cart
Let’s consider the much-maligned plastic wrap on cucumbers as an example. That seemingly needless plastic film triples the shelf life of that vegetable which means less frequent deliveries and transport impact, but most importantly – less food wastage. While we despair over a plastic wrapped vegetable, it’s use has avoided huge food wastage in our supermarket supply chains before it gets to the point of sale.
Food waste creates greenhouse gas emissions in landfill, but it also carries the burden of all water, land clearing, energy (diesel & refrigeration), resource use (fertilisers & water) of production. It is difficult to think of any food/grocery product where the impact of its packaging comes close to the impact of the food itself. Take a look at relative environment impact distribution (in terms of CO2) for one households weekly consumption of packaged produce, meats & dairy.
If you want to do the best you can – don’t buy more food than you need, and never throw it in the bin! Once you’ve achieved that, focus on reducing packaging.
The fact it lasts forever is both plastic’s most incredible asset, and its greatest issue of contention. We can use plastic for purpose – the reason plastic is a problem is because of our misuse of it, not the material itself.
Balancing the ‘reuse’ equation
Recycling offsets the extraction of virgin alternatives, but also requires additional inputs. Collection systems, transport, water for cleaning, energy for reprocessing, and then more transport of the recovered product to the manufacturer.
So, if there is one thing to take away from this article, it’s this – recycling should never justify consumption. If you’re throwing it in the recycling bin – I challenge you to ask whether you needed it in the first place.
The diagram below is what we call the waste management hierarchy, and it reflects the logical outcomes of Life Cycle Thinking. The higher up the pyramid – the better!
On the overall environmental impact of plastic bags, a government-led UK study found that you must use a cotton tote bag 131 times before you break even with the use of 131 lightweight single-use HDPE High-density polyethylene) bags.. An Australian study by RMIT suggested a woven polypropylene ‘green’ bag must be used more than 52 times before it delivers a lower environmental impact than single use lightweight HDPE bags.
The point being, most reusable ‘green’ products advertised will have a ‘payback period’ as their initial impacts in creating a heavier weight, reusable product typically exceeds lighter, disposable packaging. So, here’s the truth bomb, if you own too many reusables – you’ve got a pretty big debt to pay back. Before you buy a reusable product – take a look around, chances are you’ve already got something perfectly sufficient. A backpack is a great alternative to any shopping bag.
To understand how you can avoid consumption, here’s a confession. I’m a sustainability professional, but I’ve never owned a KeepCup. I’ve avoided buying one because: $30 isn’t a cheap mug.
It’s a product made from new materials extracted from the earth I’ve always had so many rad looking jam jars around (that also happen to seal much better) Throw a few old rubber bands or a spare silicone ring around them and you’ve got the cheapest and lowest environmental footprint alternative to a disposable coffee cup – recycle it in your yellow bin when your find a different one!
Where does our recycling go?
It’s great to be proactive with recycling what you have, but all that paper, glass, plastics and metals needs somewhere (i.e. a product) to be used in. Think of how much recycling you put out each week – are you buying that same amount back in recycled content?
In light of changes to international markets for recyclables, the best thing you can do (other than keep doing an excellent job recycling what you have) is seek out products using recycled content.
Take a look here at the relative impact (CO2 per kg) of the common plastic, PET, and its environmental impact varied by % recycled content. Yep, that’s a 90% reduction in the impact of consumption just from choosing to buy recycled.
There are a lot of products using recycled content in swimwear, clothing, homewares, building products and packaging – preference these products to give our recycling industry a chance!
Starting at the top
If I can distil that to one sentence – Avoid what you can, reduce how much you use, and then reuse what you have, preference recycled content and make sure you can recycle it yourself (your local council will have clear guidelines on what you can/can’t recycle).
The better we are at sorting, cleaning and decontaminating recycling, the more efficient, cost effective and viable our recycling industry can be. The power of waste management really is in our hands.
BIO – By Blake Lindley from Edge Environment, is a B-Corp working with Australia’s sustainability leaders, policy makers and innovators to catalyse a more sustainable future. Blake leads Edge’s work in the Circular Economy to preserve or material stocks, and drives alternative means of communicating sustainability to consumers.