Away isn't really away.
"We have become such a “throw-away” culture and create more trash than any other generation before us. But we pay a high price for it: our landfills get bigger, our wallets emptier and ourselves less attached to any of our belongings, reinforcing this cycle of pointless consumerism.”
Inspired by this quote, found on Instagram and written by Josephine Becker (@treesnpeace), as well as a recent trip to Zambia- where some of my fellow travelers were disgusted by the amount of waste on the sidewalks and in open fields, the question of where my waste ends up, came to mind.
If not in open fields or next to my house, and the journey definitely not ending with the truck that collects it curbside once a week- where does it ultimately come to rest?
I decided to investigate- and found some shocking facts along the way.
When I refer to “waste” in this essay, I refer to anything thrown-away by person who originally purchased it, with the intent of it ending up on a landfill.
Cape Town produces more than 6000 tons of waste every day, that’s 2.3 million tons per year , and this staggering number excludes the large amounts of rubbish dumped illegally. That means Capetonians, on average, produces between 1,5kg to 2kg of waste per person per day, with residents in middle- and upper class households at the top end of the spectrum.
Whilst at first it may be sent to various different, smaller transfer sites all around Cape Town, non-recycled or non-sorted waste ultimately ends up on one of the three main landfills: Belville-South, Coastal Park (Muizenberg) or the biggest one, Vissershok Waste Management Facility.
This may not be seen as problematic, as it is often believed that the system has been working this way for many years and will do so for many more to come, but sadly this isn’t the case. Our landfills can, and are, filling up- more than 10 years earlier than anticipated, as I was told by the facility manager of the Coastal Park Landfill site. The landfill was due to be full and covered by the year 2030, now it will be closed down as early as 2019.
Although many people might argue that they recycle at home, the fact is that only 20% of usable material in South Africa gets recycled.
Close to 250 000 plastic bottles are sent to landfills every hour and make up 50% of the products that end up there. 250 000 bottles that could have been broken down to create new products if it was sent to recycling, instead it’s going to end up underground, decomposing for the next 700 years.
When glass ends up on landfills it will never decompose. On the other hand, glass can be broken down and re-used unlimited times if it ends up getting recycled.
The take-away cups that are largely used by all the Cape Town coffee lovers will take more than 500 years to break down in a landfill. In other words, every takeaway cup you’ve ever used is still laying somewhere- and will remain there long after you are gone.
There are unlimited examples of why we should consider recycling mandatory. Other than conserving raw materials- for example the 17 trees, 275 pounds of sulfur, 350 pounds of limestone, 9,000 pounds of steam, 60,000 gallons of water, 225 kilowatt hours, 3.3 cubic yards of landfill space, that gets saved for every ton of paper recycled. Recycling also leads to job creation, and therefor growth in our economy. Sorting, cleaning and transporting recycled materials ensures for many new job opportunities.
By visiting these sites I realized that the biggest issue we have, and that takes up the most space in our landfills- (two thirds to be exact) is that of food packaging.
It’s nearly impossible to walk into a modern-day supermarket and not buy some sort of overly-or unnecessarily packaged product. Whilst it may be debated that this is ultimately a design choice, a marketing strategy or a means to add costs to product, the fact remains that it is up to the consumer to take responsibility for the amount of waste that they choose the buy- and where they allow for that waste to end up.
A spokesperson from WastePlan said the following, and I couldn’t have said it better myself:
“Our job is not just to recycle more waste and in better ways. Our primary job is to change the way people think. At the end of the day, waste management isn't really about waste. It's about preserving basic freedoms for future generations. With that in mind, we have to innovate and initiate financial, environmental and social solutions. We have to own the big story before we play our small part.”
People should realize that every product we use has an extensive history- and it is up to us, as consumers, to ensure that this specific history does as little harm as possible, before ending up in our homes- whether it be to the environment far removed from our daily lives, our natural resources, or our immediate surroundings.
Although, I might not have the answers as to how to make this globally-needed, shift happen, or if we should start with the corporations, designers, businesses or individual consumers. I do know that I can contribute to making a change, even if just to a few individuals in my immediate community- by using my artistic voice, talents and skills to bring this, often overlooked, issue to light.
As Annie Leonard said in her documentary, The Story of Stuff:
“There is no such thing as ‘away’. When we throw anything away it must go somewhere.”