I fancy myself as a bit of a greenie. My first dabble into conservation and the like was at the age of about 16. I suppose it’s the typical age for such idealistic pursuits, along with forays into religion and expressing non-specific ambitions to “help people”. My own 16 teen-green efforts consisted of buying a “Save The Planet” t-shirt, cutting environment-related articles out of the newspaper and concealing pages of used paper (notes, letters, etc) into piles of newspaper which, at the time in my area, was the only form of paper for which there was any kind of organised recycling collection. I thought it was ridiculous they’d collect newspaper for recycling but not normal paper. My laborious deception was well-intentioned, although probably somewhat misguided, to this day I feel slightly guilty that I may have been unwittingly sabotaging the local council’s recycling process and that whole vats of newspaper pulp contaminated with my Year 10 French homework needed to be discarded.
Like religion, environmental issues (although more concrete) seem to generate a substantial amount of controversy and conflict on a community and political level, as well as immense confusion on a more personal one. Unlike religion, however, “being green” is something I do aspire to, even if I haven’t found many (or indeed, any) of the answers.
So I make no apologies for the fact that this simply poses questions rather than answering them. I make absolutely no pretence at having a deep understanding or having researched the issues in depth. It’s not a cynic’s knock-down of the way our society has attempted to protect our environment, it’s a genuine admission of confusion and brain-fry!
The facts as I see them are:
- Our planet has limited resources. They are likely to outlast me, I’m not so sure about my children though. While this is, to some extent, part of the natural cycle of the universe, including the evolution and extinction of species throughout time, it’s a beautiful planet and my children are (usually) beautiful specimens on it so it’d be a shame not to try and look after it.
- The most efficient way to minimise our impact on the environment is to use less of everything we incorporate into our consumer, convenience-orientated lives to start with, rather than trying to find inventive ways to dispose of our waste.
The main thing I stubble with when trying to understand “environmental impact” (whatever that means) is that most disposal processes seem to use up some kind of resource.
- Landfill. Even without going into the complexities of a rubbish-tip ecosystem and all the various side-effects of letting our stuff fester in them, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that some of the stuff we throw away takes a loooooong time to decompose/dissolve/disappear. Actually there’s not much conflict there. I can see how, if it doesn’t have to go into landfill, that’s a plus.
- Recycling. I can’t help but feel that everyone feeling virtuous about recycling is kidding themselves (or being kidded) just a tiny bit. I’m not saying a glass bottle is better off in the rubbish dump than in the recycling bin, but when you think about the process of recycling, the whole thing (from the collection to the processing to the manufacture of the recycled stuff) is still using natural resources- fuel for the recycling truck, electricity and water and who knows what else for the recycling plant and the rest of the process. It’s not zero impact. Even more so with paper recycling. Not that I know much about the process itself, but surely a piece of paper in a rubbish tip breaks down much faster than a glass bottle…. Apart from saving trees (and apparently they now plant forests specifically intended for making paper and therefore renewable), I’m not sure what benefit recycling paper has, except that the rubbish tips fill up slower. Is the extra room in the rubbish tip worth the energy expenditure to recycle the paper? I don’t know and I don’t understand how you can make that comparison when you’re weighing up completely different resources.
- Food disposal. Apparently food in rubbish tips sets up some awful chemical reaction and generates methane and other planet-warming gases. Plus it makes up a large percentage of household waste (back to full rubbish tip issue again). In the L household, we don’t throw away a lot of food waste anyway, as (in Australia, anyway) we’d compost most food scraps or feed it to the chickens or the dog. But I don’t understand how our backyard compost bin (which I have not noticed emitting offensive gases of any sort, perhaps they are odourless) is so very different to food waste composting in a rubbish tip. Our Kiwi rental house on the other hand, has a waste-disposal unit, which chops up food residue and flushes is down the sink. Is flushing it into the sewer better than putting it on the ground? Doesn’t it upset the marine ecosystem? I’m confused.
- All these issues are, of course, set in a personal context of sometimes conflicting motivations and priorities. For me, those are mainly:
- Cost versus “eco-friendliness”- eco-friendly are often more expensive than standard. Usually not a lot, but at times this is a consideration and I’m sure more so for people less comfortably off than us.
- Decluttering vs reusing- yes I love the idea of using old bath towels as dog towels then cleaning rags then goodness-knows-what until they are threadbare and falling apart. I could say the same for every container, piece of cardboard, hook, nail, piece of string which I could “repurpose”- in other words, leave to clutter up my home until I decide I want to use it for something else. But this just doesn’t sit well with me. I know there ARE people who have little drawers full of spare buttons, categorised by colour and size, and never need to buy a button again. But come to think of it, I don’t think I have ever bought a button either and neither have I used one from my (now in landfill) button collection. Besides, most people I’ve met who have this kind of stuff lying around, don’t have it sorted and stashed, they have it spread in a cluttered mess and can’t find what they need when the need it so have to go out and buy it anyway. Only you probably can’t buy 1 button, you probably have to buy a packet of 5….
- Aesthetics- yes I know it’s vain and superficial and all the rest of it, but when I said I fancied myself as a greenie, I meant a pleasant smelling, reasonably well-dressed greenie, not a social outcast dressed in clothes from 20 years ago and greasy hair. Sometimes you just want clean, brand new stuff.
So what have I tried myself?
- Cloth nappies- ok well I must admit I think they probably are an environmental winner. I am not forking out for “biodegradable” (see later) disposables. However, my kids last a lot longer in a disposable than a cloth nappy, so I am using more cloth nappies per day than disposables. Apart from the obvious inconvenience, when you do the maths, you are talking about washing maybe 6-8 cloth nappies vs using maybe 3-4 disposables. Not to mention the extra clothes from the leakages because you forgot to change the nappy after 2 hours. I machine wash them in cold (usually) water and (always) air-dry them. They are made from synthetic fabric, coloured brightly with synthetic dyes in a factory which I’m sure is powered by hamsters running on a wheel…. Yep. Oh and they came in a zippered plastic pouch which I kept for ages intending to repurpose but threw out in a decluttering frenzy. Or was it when I found my baby with it over her head and thought maybe it wasn’t such a good thing to have lying around?
- Toilet paper and sorbolene as an alternative to baby wipes. Does toilet paper down the toilet have less “environmental impact” than a baby wipe in a rubbish tip? I thought it probably did but now I’m not so sure. And what about sorbolene, isn’t it a petroleum/hydrocarbon derivative…. Should I be using plain water???? Or just going without nappies altogether and doing that reflex voiding thing?? There are people who use old rags as baby wipes and wash them. Good for them. Some of these people even go to the extremes of using the same process in lieu of toilet paper for the adults in the house. What’s wrong with that? Unlike a baby, at least an adult can put their own wipes in the washing machine.
- Eco-friendly dishwashing liquid, washing powder, cleaning products. After shopping around till I find one I like, I do feel happy about using these.
- Home-made washing powder and cleaning products. The cleaning products I can cope with (bicarb IS an amazing thing and as long as you can cope with the smell and acid burn of white vinegar in your airways you’re fine) but the washing powder was a dud- the clothes just didn’t smell clean (I know, I know, aesthetics again)…. So I threw away the painfully sourced bulk quantities of washing powder ingredients….
- Biodegradeable plastic bags- whether you accept them for your shopping or buy them to line your bins, it is hard to live without plastic bags. (It’s actually also quite hard to buy fruit and veg that aren’t in plastic bags at times.) I always thought biodegradeable meant they were ok! They magically disappear without a trace! Right? No, apparently they disintegrate into tiny plastic particles, which get into the waterways and poison the whales or something…. Oh god really? No whales at the bottom of a rubbish tip…. When caught short walking the dog the other day and forced to pickup her business with a large wad of tissues I had in my bag and scoop it straight into the bin I thought “aha! Tissue is surely better for the environment than a plastic bag???” Then I thought a bit more about the practicalities and…. Um, well, no.
- Paper- at home, we’ve shredded it (with an electric shredder, which overheated and blew after about a week and is now in landfill) and used it for chicken bedding and then compost (it doesn’t compost very well, by the way), and now we’re burning it in our wood-burning heater. Paper + fire + O2 -> CO2 + small dose of guilt. Hmmm.
- Toilet paper- I used to use recycled, unbleached stuff, but truly, it’s ugly. I looked at a website recently called “who gives a crap?”…. Nice idea and I might be tempted to try it if we were in Sydney still, but it’s expensive! So use less, I hear you say…. Back to the baby wipes on the kids then…
And so it goes on…. When talking about “environmental impact”, what is the magic equation? Is it better to waste water than electricity? Is putting stuff in landfill better than putting it in the waterways? Part the problem is I’m trying to compare apples with oranges.
Without a doubt though, if I can say no to the packaging, the containers, the plastic and reuse things, that surely has to be better then either discarding or recycling? Rethink, reduce, reuse, before you recycle. [Punchy slogan stolen from our local tip in Sydney, I always meant to do one of their tours to find out more about all this stuff, but never got round to it.]