As a society we place a lot of focus on recycling our waste. I have always been proud of the amount of paper and plastic that I recycle; my family would probably say that I am quite obsessive about it and my children have been made to “bin dive” on more than one occasion. A while back I had a revelation which really gave me pause for thought. Of the set of “Four R’s” relating to waste, recycling is last on the list not first. The order goes reduce, re-use, repair, recycle. I had been focussing in the wrong place. I was also surprised to find that many things which I had been putting out for recycling, such as textiles are really difficult to recycle so a lot of it ends up being incinerated. Even when things are recycled quite effectively, things like aluminium cans, there are material losses which mean that the number of times they can be practically recycled (in the case of aluminium cans about 14) is limited. The Ellen McArthur Foundation has produced a great video which explains this.
Currently we (Humanity) are stripping our planet of its resources on a drastic scale. It is estimated that, on average we use 1.6 planets worth of resources annually (3.1 if you live in the UK). It is this high consumption lifestyle which is in turn driving much of our greenhouse gas emissions and impacting on biodiversity loss. We urgently need to find a way to live sustainably and adopt the approach of One Planet Living to ensure that our planet and its ecosystem thrives well into the future.
The best way for any species – including our own – to ensure its longevity is to fully adapt to and preserve the ecosystem in which it is embedded… Put simply: if we want to survive and thrive for thousands of generations, don’t foul the nest.The Good Ancestor, Roman Krznaric
This may seem like a Herculean challenge, surely it would mean redefining our whole economy, what can we as individuals do? The four R’s are useful point of reference when we consider practical ways in which we can live sustainably. If we look to reduce the frequency with which we buy new things and focus more on the quality of what we buy. If we consider re-using things (buying second hand), and repairing things rather than buying replacements as a first option that will be a start. Of course it will also help if these things become easier for us to do; at the moment the default of going on-line and one-click checkout is far too easy an alternative.
I am no follower of fashion; I typically shop for clothes once or twice a year. Even so I have several items in my wardrobe which I have only worn once and perhaps one or two I have never worn at all. In the past, when I have cleared out my cupboard I would have sent these items for recycling; now I give them to second hand shops. My children often buy from second hand “thrift stores” rather than new; the younger generations are leading the way on this and fashion swaps are becoming much more common. When I was a student with limited means I hired outfits for special occasions; sadly as an adult (with more money in my wallet) I got out of the habit . This is something which is slowly changing with many more retailers starting to hire out clothes as well as sell them; again the younger generations are tending to lead the way. The next time I need something “new” for a special occasion I will hire instead of buy.
It’s not just clothes that we should consider, what about white goods and tech items such as phones and computers? Many of us will upgrade these items on a regular basis even if there is nothing wrong with them; we are typically encouraged to do so. What do we do with the old items? Sadly, much of it ends up in landfill and only a small proportion is recycled. Again we are starting to do better especially with tech items; sending old models to be refurbished and sold on or replacing damaged ones with second hand. We need to do so much more and it will only be made easier by changes in manufacturing processes so that goods are designed to be more easily repaired or upgraded in order to dramatically extend their lifetime (adopting a Circular Economy approach). Again it comes down to quality and resisting the temptation to buy that bargain item which will probably break in two or three years. I have a microwave oven which is thirty years old, it was a relatively expensive model given to me as a gift by my parents; the lamp is broken but it still heats food reliably. I have bought three dishwashers in the space of fifteen years, each one a replacement for a broken one. It was cheaper to buy new than to get them repaired. That is something which needs to change; manufacturers need to have a vested interest in repair rather than replacement.
Of the resources we consume perhaps the most invisible, and hence taken for granted, is water. Maybe because it is not an end product but a transient part of our processes; flowing through our bodies, our hose pipes, our sewage systems, our manufacturing plants. That seemingly infinite supply of fresh water that we (in the global North at least) have ready access to and are prone to squander on a daily basis. But it is not infinite; once the ice caps have melted our major rivers will be reduced to trickles and our supply of fresh water will be dramatically reduced. Learning to value our fresh water and use it sustainably is becoming more and more critical. Indeed water is the topic of UN Sustainability goal number six. Capturing more of our rain water and putting it to use; reducing our consumption of potable water (which takes energy to purify and pump and hence has a carbon footprint) and replacing it where possible with grey water or rain water will be key to doing this. As individuals we can make a start by installing water butts for garden use and installing low flow and low flush sanitary systems. We can also pay attention to how much water has been used in the supply and manufacture of our food and clothes. Judicious choice of these can have a big impact on our individual water “flipper print” (sorry, calling it a footprint just seems wrong).
When I consider my Climate Journey and look beyond my current path towards the Kaleidoscope landscape in the distance I am forced to pause and reflect on how sustainable my lifestyle really is. I need to do more than consider my carbon footprint and my direct relationship with land and nature; that will only get me so far. I have gone from an ecological footprint of 5.9 earths and reduced this to 1.6 earths in 2020. Now it is time for me to consider water and consumption of material resources and pay more attention to the blue and red paths as well.
Imagine, for a moment, what that Kaleidoscope landscape might be like. One where we emulate nature and produce very little which is genuine waste. One in which we have adapted our lifestyle such that we can live well within the resources of our planet. It may be a journey, many years in the taking, with some difficult terrain to navigate along the way but what a reward we will have to share with each other and our future generations when we get there.