In Australia we live in a consumerist, capitalist society which is encouraged and given permission to buy endless things and goods in the pursuit of happiness, status and entertainment. But do we give much thought to the endless mountains of consumer goods we purchase each year? What happens to all this waste? We investigate…
Australia, like most western societies have a large consumer base with high levels of disposable income who are easily seduced by slick advertising and marketing to buying new things for themselves, their families and homes. Whilst there is nothing fundamentally wrong with wanting new items that may improve your lifestyle, the amount of goods being purchased and often never used, then discarded and going to landfill is astronomical. Sadly, at the end of a products life many goods are not recycled (or can’t be) and sent to a landfill with the Australian Bureau of Statistic’s reports confirming the majority of our waste is not recycled or reused(1).
The extent of this problem is shown through some alarming statistics. Australia is one of the highest waste producers in the world at approximately 650 kilograms per person, second only to the United States at 715 kilograms per person. Each Australian family contributes enough rubbish annually to fill a standard house from floor to ceiling (2) (3). Whilst Australian’s are enthusiastic recyclers and the rate of recycling is increasing thanks to education programs it still only comprises 52% of household waste, the amount of waste going to landfill is increasing (4). Why? Simply because we are consuming more than ever, and with a greater population and government reluctance to close landfills and look for more environmentally friendly alternatives, our waste problem is likely to get worse.
Australia is one of the highest waste producers in the world at approximately 650 kilograms per person, second only to the United States at 715 kilograms per person
Landfills cause significant environmental problems, mainly atmospheric and hydrological effects. The methane released by rotting organic matter in unmanaged landfills is 20 times more effective than carbon dioxide at trapping heat from the sun, leading to increased greenhouse gas emissions. As many people throw out industrial and home cleaning products, these products mix over time and many animals and humans can be exposed to contamination, potentially resulting in death (5).
Plastic bags in particular are a major waste and environmental problem due to their mass scale, 3.92 billion plastic bags are used annually and an estimated 3.76 billion bags or 20,700 tonnes of plastic are disposed of in landfill sites throughout Australia every year. Unfortunately poor marine animals and seabirds die every year around the world by getting caught or mistakenly eating plastic. Plastic bags can last 200-1000 years causing long term damage worldwide and their ability to travel long distances in water and in air (6).
Plastic bags can be recycled, though the rate of recycling is uncommon and many people would be unaware they can be recycled at most supermarkets. The most common type of plastic bag is the high density polyethylene bags, which very few council’s are recycling through their household schemes (where most people dispose of their rubbish). It is hoped that councils and businesses will roll out technology to recycle all types of plastic bags to discontinue this disgusting waste (6).
People can make a more concerted effort to recycle more by doing simple things like using the correct bins when at home. Councils normally clearly label which items can and can’t go in each household waste bin and most public areas have bins marked general waste, paper, recycle. Also starting your own compost bin reduces the amount of organic waste going to landfill, which reduces the production of methane and limits the impacts of climate change.
Lastly, people should try and buy fewer things! Do you really need the latest iphone? That new TV? More items produced means the old items often go to waste and are not recycled and the more people who buy new products and lines of models, encourages companies to produce more and create newer versions. Producing new items costs the earth significantly in terms of resources, as raw materials extract significant amounts of energy and water and can impact local communities (7).
Do your part and recycle!
By Simon Chitre