A Throw Away Society

There is a mentality in the developed world that one can ‘throw away’ things and they cease to exist. The magical garbage bin that gets reliably picked up every week often doesn’t cost you anything to fill up, either in actual money or mental space. Many of us only think about the garbage can or rubbish bin when its rotting contents start to wage an olfactory war in the kitchen. This is a problem. See, away isn’t a mythical place where eco-fairies clean up the planet after we’ve covered it in plastic; away is still here, away is polluting our only home and we need to start to change our mentality from that of unthinking consumption, especially of plastic items that don’t biodegrade into useful components of the ecosystem (organic materials rot and break down to regenerate soil through nutrient return, plastics do not do this).

Two weeks ago I wrote extensively about exactly how much trash we are throwing away as a global population (in 2019 we threw away the weight of 52 million elephants in plastic garbage!) and talked about a few of the different ways countries ‘throw away’ their plastic trash, the categories being landfilling, incinerating, recycling, and, well, not doing much of anything (this is the mismanaged waste category that includes plastic leakage to the environment through unintentional means, such as where there is no formalised garbage collection, and intentional means, such as littering and illegal dumping to circumvent waste management fees). It was horrifying to see those numbers written in front of me, to see that Americans are the worst in the world for per capita plastic consumption and wastage (even though I was shocked by the amount of plastic I saw in the USA when I went back last year), but the most horrifying was yet to come. Ironically, just a few days after confronting those abstract concepts of plastic waste worldwide, I was confronted with the reality of plastic waste in person.

34 lbs or 15.5 kg of trash picked up at Double Island Point
34 lbs/ 15.5 kg of plastic rubbish collected in less than half an hour (plus 50 lbs/ 23 kg of tires)

This was the plastic waste that four of us picked up in 25 rushed minutes on our way back from Double Island Point in the Sunshine Coast, Queensland. My normally pristine Australian beaches were covered in plastics from a combination of unprecedented recent flooding and very large tides that brought waste with it from as far away as Japan. In total we collected 34 lbs/15.5 kg of plastic waste and 50 lbs/23 kg of tires. If we had more time (we needed to be off the beach before the tide rose too high for us to get through) we could have filled our entire truck and then some. It was heartbreaking to see the impact of plastic pollution so close to home, in a place that I see as a place of hope for the marine environment, a place where turtles congregate in the thousands, fisheries are held to fairly strong sustainability standards, and the ocean has a chance.

The rubbish we found was very clearly aquatic trash and much of it had begun its devolution into hard-to-remove microplastics. Based on what products we could identify about half of it came from Australia and half came from offshore. The larger items, such as tires and discarded fishing rods, were clearly Australian, but the plastic bottles were mostly Asian in origin, with identifiable objects coming from China, Japan, Malaysia, and Vietnam. The Malaysian water bottle in particular made me laugh/cry with the irony of it’s “Life Goes on With Cactus” slogan…yup, life certainly went on for this plastic water bottle that crossed oceans to land miles away on foreign shores. The thing is, if we hadn’t picked it up and disposed of it properly (that one was in good enough condition to recycle), its life would continue to go on and on and on, likely polluting the oceans for hundreds of years more. So much for ‘throw away’, more like pass the problem.

Plastic trash from around the world
A plastic water bottle’s life goes on well after it is thrown away, especially when it becomes marine pollution.

This is why we need to focus on refusing and reducing our plastic consumption, because our throw away society has created a problem we cannot hide from anymore; we cannot pretend it is someone else’s issue, that it’s not for us to deal with. The problem is washing up on our shores and being hidden in our landfills, we need to act and we need to act now.

I believe that there is hope and a desire to shift from our current throw away mentality to a mindset of regeneration. The youth of this world, from Bali to Byron Bay and beyond, are tired of the older generations assuring us that ”she’ll be right” when it comes to the environmental issues we face, all while pocketing the profits from coal and gas developments that benefit them now, but will cost us and those that come after us in the future.

The most recent election results in Australia point to the need and desire for real action on climate change. An unprecedented swing away from major parties (Labour and Liberal – which, for my American readers, are moderately progressive and conservative respectively) lead to a wave of green and teal that crashed over the country proving that Australians want their leaders to take action to protect the environment. It was a night of immense hope for myself, someone who has always been green-oriented, but, who, as of late, has felt an existential terror about the state of the environment. I am one of the many young people who feels eco-anxiety at the uncertain state of our planet and our future. Hell, my desire to see the coral reefs of this world before they are gone was a driving factor in our plan to go sailing now, rather than wait until we had more money; because, if I’m being completely honest, I don’t know if the reefs I love to dive today will be around when I’m 65 and supposed to retire, at least according to society.

We don’t know what the world will look like in the future, and I am afraid it will get worse before it gets better, but I do know that change is coming. Even China, one of the world’s biggest contributor’s to carbon emissions, is changing, with a push towards renewables on a large scale. The center-left Labour government in Australia has promised larger cuts in emissions sooner, 43% by 2030 rather than the Liberal government’s 23% cut, and the American government has re-committed to the Paris Agreement and strengthened, rather than weakened as the previous government did, key environmental laws. There is hope and I believe that if we act together, we can become the regeneration generation. We can be remembered for moving from a throw away society to a circular economy that values and protects the natural world.

We can be the change we wish to see in the world, so keep the environment front and center in your mind. Refuse single use plastic. Reduce what you buy and how much plastic you us. Think about how to reuse what you already own. Rot your organic waste and, once you’ve done all the rest, recycle what you must use.

Together we can choose to be the regeneration generation.

1 thought on “A Throw Away Society

  1. I agree that we all must do whatever we can as individuals and hopefully others in power can do some good as well.

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