Our bins have been the focal point of what we throw away for so long, that they have become an aesthetic item as well as a functional necessity. There they sit, a picture of perfect discretion, complicit by their convenience.
This sounds a little dramatic, but considering that most days we wake up to hear that a metropolitan area or region is underwater, another is on fire, another is under the grip of an epidemic, or a famine, it is not hard to make apocalyptical connections.
They fill up, and they are taken away. We put them outside once a fortnight, and the rubbish disappears.
The statistics of what we throw away are easy to find, but hard to comprehend, even in a single country like the UK. A tonne of landfill per year, per household. A small car’s worth. Seven times our own body weight. Enough steel cans each year, to build a steel can tower to the moon.
The story is the same across the World, and the fact that some of what we throw away might not have been needed in the first place, adds a further problem in the web of problems that our disposable lifestyle has created.
Products that we barely need, are packaged in ways that are enticing to us, but packaged in ways that are fatal to living creatures that might innocently become entangled in it, try to eat part of it or in some other way misunderstand what it is.
Packaged in ways that live for days on a shelf and then years in the ground, perhaps killing anything that tries to grow nearby.
Some of what we throw away we should not because it can be recycled. This again is perhaps the very naïve surface of the larger problem. Just because it is recyclable, does not mean we needed it in the first place. A new variant of a product, in a recyclable container, or an old product re-packaged in a new recyclable piece of packaging, should not take the scrutiny away from the legitimacy of its place in our list of necessary items on the shopping list.
If we all made more effort, to what we can see, against what we do now, I believe that we can all contribute to changing these statistics. We are all connected. Our little changes have an impact directly, they have an impact attitudinally, and ideologically. It all starts with the individual, and so from this week – we will try harder to recycle.
We think we do it, but we can improve. For example and most obviously – and very much unlike our bin - our recycling containers lurk in a corner in the utility room. We still have the outside-ones, inside. The large green or black crates that are put out bi-weekly on the kerbside, are tossed in the corner in the utility room and are what we use to collect the daily recycling.
Near enough to give an impression of virtuousness, but a few steps too far and without the organisation to be effective. Most weeks, they are overflowing after a few days, so that the recycling becomes a mound of mixed materials, that we then spend time hurriedly sorting on recycling day, and in the Summer begins to smell, to attract flies and to generally become a discouragement to recycling.
Our first job, was therefore to invest in a set of closed, colour coded recycling bins. Sleek design, flip top, the biggest litre size that you could buy for the house and at a reasonable price. We introduced our son to them, and everyone is feeling proud that we have made this step. We designated the red pedal to plastics and tins, the green one to glass, and the yellow one to paper and card. This is perhaps not the universal colour coding, but we are working with what we have right now.
In the first few days, it was definitely easier to recycle, and sorting the recycling was much easier. But they still lived in the utility room due to the arrangement of the house, and so they are still not quite part of the family just yet. To become a true habit, we needed to find a way that recycling just becomes part of the overall cycle of life, and that we are always thinking about what we can separate, rinse, and store for the recycling vehicles. Moving them into the living area isn’t enough, we needed a system and an incentive.
Then, we had an idea. We would turn it somehow into fun, and add our own identity to the recycling bins. We would especially give our son a connection and make recycling a game, as he has the trait that many children do, that once they buy into the rules, their ability to call out non-compliance is exceptional.
We did this, by allowing Leo to design and create the pictorial representation of the recycling material that each bin contains. We created an arts and craft event that gives him a connection to the bins, and helps his and our understanding of how to sort recycling, what items we recycled, what each of the colours mean, and the reason we do it. In other words – he made a picture for each of the bins, from pens and by cutting up magazines, which we laminated and stuck on the top of each.
He then appointed himself chief recycler and the main person to take items and place them in the bin, quite without us needing to do this ourselves, and chief referee to mummy and daddy should he observe us placing a recyclable item in the main landfill bin.
We talk about it flippantly, but this combination of being a little bit more organised, and by noticing and being little bit more aware of the issue, has had an impact to us. In the first week of having made this small and achievable change, we have at least doubled if not tripled the amount of waste that we send for recycling. We have not consumed any more, this has simply come from being more conscious of what we are doing, and creating a habit of thinking about what’s in our hand before we put it in the bin, and asking ourselves whether that is the right place for it.
There is still a lingering question about what happens even to the recycling afterwards. I have read many alarming stories about waste being simply shipped overseas, or dumped in landfill even if consumers have diligently sorted it, under the impression at makes a difference.
It is also important to note that statistics to young children especially, don’t mean much. You can try and explain cubic tonnes, but frankly if you ask our son the biggest number he can think of – he says 21. It is important to note that making a game of recycling, does not give the full picture.
So instead of staying in the house to experience it, we also went to see it.
Seeing a small child next to a bin is impressive, seeing him next to an household waste centre industrial sized landfill container, starts to make it real.
Of course, a small child, on a landfill the size of many football fields, that perhaps continues to receive multiple thousands of tonnes of waste each day, begins to conceptualise the size of the actual problem. This is not happening in the country we live in right now, but it is happening, and please look it up, because validating that the problem is this large is not hard to find.
As a final thought - and by simply observing recycling first hand at a municipal collection point – you also have the opportunity to observe the individuals who work there, diligently sorting through other people’s waste, without question, judgement, an in my opinion without enough thanks or recognition. We sometimes wince a little bit in our homes, having to wash out a tray of anchovies, or a yoghurt pot, and meanwhile just up the road there are people who are voluntarily and manually organising other people’s rubbish, to contribute in an individual way to a collective human problem.
This occupation ranks very highly in my mind, against the list of unappreciated occupations in the World. We need more people with this attitude, and less that think it is someone else's problem.
If we all make little changes, then the big changes will happen.