One of my least favorite mindless domestic activities is recycling. Don’t get me wrong, I am a diligent supporter of recycling. It’s just not one of my favorite things to be doing of a Saturday morning. It’s dirty, time consuming and if you live in West Cork, windy and wet in winter, or windy and full of wasps in summer.
As we went from a household of six to eight people, down to a household of two to four, I had hoped to see a drastic reduction in the amount of waste we produced. Alas, though we probably do produce less in weight, in bulk you would hardly notice the difference. In fairness we don’t have a set day to recycle. We tend to only think about it when we can’t get past the giant bags in the back-back hall, so though we probably go less often, each carload is still jammers.
I decided to try and see if there was any way we could produce less waste. First I had to try and understand what waste we produce, and where it comes from. Our household waste does not include any food or organic material. Thanks to a compost mountain out the back, all vegetable matter, eggshells and shells are turned into lovely black compost that we use in the garden. Any cooked food is just chucked out the door, where it is rapidly gobbled up by the dogs and birds. I love standing on the stoop with old bread. The dogs sit obediently before me, while a line of birds form behind them. Nothing lasts very long. Anything edible is rapidly absorbed into the food chain of animal life, both domestic and wild. I remember once sitting in the sun and being delighted, as I watched an ant carry away a stale rice-crispy.
Paper and cardboard are an issue. To burn in the stove, or not to burn in the stove – that is the question. They both can contain chemicals, which are harmful when they are burnt. But is that worse than dumping them into landfill? In any case, the general consensus is that both can be successfully recycled. I’m still on the fence on this one. I burn some paper and cardboard, but recycle most of it. Glass was one of the first materials to be collected and recycled. In fact, when I was a little girl most packaging was glass; from yoghurt pots to soft drinks. We are led to believe that all glass, like paper and cardboard can be recycled. The question is how much of it really is? I do wonder if anyone has figured out if we still need to produce any new paper, cardboard, and glass; or do we have enough in circulation to be able to just recycle it? In fact, is there any long-term strategy for shifting industries to more recycled, and less new materials? Which brings us to the big bad wolf of materials: plastic.
Once I started keeping track of our household waste, it became quickly apparent that the big problem is plastic. It affects almost every purchase. Plastic packaging is impossible to avoid if you shop in chain supermarkets, or buy brand names. Even cucumbers are shrink wrapped. I decided to stop buying plastic bottles of our favorite soft drink, and to buy cans instead. However, the packs of cans are tightly packaged in shrink wrap plastic. Buying individual cans is twice as expensive. What is worse: a plastic bottle or the shrink wrap packaging? I’ve managed to switch from buying pre-packaged cold cuts and cheese, by shopping in the local Polish shop and deli counters. Similarly, I’ve decided to replace my usual brands of washing up liquid and cleaning products with the kind that you can refill at the market.
Plastic is an amazing material. It can last for 100 years. We should be using plastic to make things that we want to last – like houses, or shelving, not things that we throw away after one use. Innovators around the world are coming up with cheap machines to recycle plastic into useful items on a community, or even household scale. Imagine if we never produced any new plastic, and had cheap access to local recycled plastic products. This would mean a complete change in current industrial strategies, which the powers-that-be don’t seem prepared to tackle in any significant way. However, we may have to face the question of what to do with our plastic packaging sooner than expected. Ireland ranks seventh in the EU for recycling, with 91 per cent of packaging waste being diligently recycled. However, little is actually recycled in Ireland. Over 90 per cent of our plastic was sent to China. But that handy destination for our unwanted waste is no longer an option. From this January, China will no longer accept plastic for recycling (along with paper and cardboard). It’s time to start thinking about what we’ll do in West Cork when it starts piling up.