“Think. Learn. Act. The more you know, the better and more educated choices you have the opportunity to make.” Mehgan Heaney-Grier, ocean advocate and youth trainer.
Acting against waste is important, but understanding how that action fits into the bigger picture is vital to ending the world’s waste problem.
Have you been part of a clean-up? Taken a Trash Hack pledge? Trash Hacked your home or upcycled something? Our responsibility doesn’t stop at the moment we’re putting the piece of trash in the bin.
Firstly, you would know there are different types of waste. Organic, paper, textiles, metal, tins, medical, electronic, ceramics, glass, plastic… The management is different for each.
Here we’ll use the example of plastic, and we’ll see a range of processes and how we can get informed about the general waste management in your area.
More than 40 percent of plastic is used just once, then tossed and half of all plastic manufactured becomes trash in less than a year. Eventually, a significant part of this plastic production finishes in nature or eventually on our plates, since estimates for how long plastic endures range from 450 years to forever.
Waste management options to consider… or not
What happens when you put plastic in the recycling bin? The answer to this question will be different depending on where you are.
Sometimes it will travel thousands of kilometers – from continents to continents.
It can be managed, in various ways, or not managed at all. By getting informed about waste management, we’ll empower ourselves to take action or at least to be aware of the impact of our behaviors.
Let’s look at the main waste management processes.
Leave it where it is – dumping
Some areas of the world have no public waste management systems in place. Trash is not collected or sorted, but dumped.
The consequences of mismanagement are various: soil, water, climate and air contaminations, plus harm towards animal and marine life, and human damage.
The impacts are the same for individual or company behaviors of illegal landfills.
Unlike dumps, landfills are more carefully designed structure isolating waste from the surrounding environment. Therefore, it is a quite similar process, with the difference that it’s then organized and sometimes controlled by the States and their authorities, reducing the social and environmental impacts. Yet, firstly because it’s not so well managed, as explain by UNEP in this article, and secondly because of the decomposition gases and wildlife disruption for example, it can’t be considered as a sustainable waste management system.
Incineration involves burning trash. Most of the time filtration systems reduce greenhouse gases and toxic emissions and fine particles. Yet, there are other issues linked to this management as the energy used to reach these high temperatures and the toxic ash management, unequal between regions worldwide. For example, to make the same amount of energy as a coal power plant, waste incinerators release 5 times as much carbon monoxide (a poisonous gas known as the “silent killer”).
This often-idealized option – because of the circularity of resources – is far from being a perfect solution. Earth Dayaddresses some of the problems with recycling in its article “The recycling problem: a feel-good story that’s too good to be true” .
Indeed, today glass or metal can be recycled with limited impact on the environment and the possibility to reuse a high proportion of the resource recycled. This is not the case for plastics.
Most plastics have lower level of finished resources after the recycling process and they are “downcycled” meaning that the quality of the recycled resource is lowered and that the process cannot be done indefinitely. Moreover, recycling trades have led many countries to be overloaded by the recycling waste of developed countries, which found too costly to manage their own trash.
Waste management can take various other forms, each of them with their own advantages and drawbacks; and innovative processes are regularly developed. Some examples:
- Waste-to-energy incineration: aiming at generating energy and/or heat, mainly from the process of incineration.
- Anaerobic digestion: natural processes by which microorganisms break down biodegradable material and which can also lead at power generation.
- Composting: process for converting decomposable organic materials into useful stable products
Because of the quantities that have to be managed and the difficulty to sort waste, none of these processes is innocuous and all of them need regulations to reduce their social and environmental consequences. The two next options are still the best.
In addition of the previous examples of alternatives, re-use is also the process of collecting the “waste” of some people for them to be used differently by others. Indeed, a significant proportion of trash are still valuable for other contexts. May it be used papers for draft, cans reused as planters, jars reused as lunch boxes, jewelry made from pieces of metal or plastics… Share with us your own ideas to re-use trash with #TrashHack.
Eventually, as you may know, the best way to manage trash is still to not create them at all, and particularly to limit the ones that are the most complex to manage, as plastics and e-waste. To reach this goal, it’s for sure the responsibility of States and companies, but it’s also our individual responsibility because our ways of consuming have an impact on production and regulations introduction. And for that, the more people are aware of their behaviors’ consequences, the better it is.
How to get informed?
So what happens to your trash when you put it in the bin?
To gather people around you to improve waste management in your area, start by finding out the waste management system and the responsible organizations around you. You can find this information by searching for your:
- Municipality websites
- Local authorities
- Garbage collector
- National data
- NGOs’ and experts’ reports…
Now that you know more on waste management in your region, share what you’ve learnt with your family, friends, neighbors and on social networks with #TrashHack.
While being mindful of your local safety situation with the pandemic, rethink trash and get your friends and family to join you on your journey against waste.
Upcycling hack? Tip to reduce? Made something about waste? We’re looking forward to discovering your initiatives with #TrashHack.