Is more recycling the answer?

We’ve learned that recycling is desirable. It’s the way to a more sustainable society. And in some ways it is. Compared to accumulating trash in landfills, then yes, recycling might be a good idea. Keeping materials in the loop means that we don’t have to produce new resource intensive materials, such as cotton, from scratch. However there are also issues with recycling.

First, toxic materials might result in toxic recycled products. In a recent case, artificial football turf, from recycled car tires, seems to be carcinogenic. Recycling is not desirable if football kids develop cancer as a result.

Second, although something can be recycled once, it does not necessarily mean that it can be recycled twice. So although we produce something by recycled materials, it may not be recyclable a second time. When it is worn out, it still ends up in the landfill or to be burned. Taking one more turn and having a second life is of course better than going directly to trash but it is not a final solution.

Third, recycling requires resources. Recycling processes require energy, the items to be recycled are moved around and transported, there might be environmentally unfriendly chemicals involved (for example in the case of textiles) and it requires money. These resources may be well spent money compared to things ending up in a landfill. However, if we instead reuse what we have and produce less waste, these resources can be saved and spent on other things.

Bea Johnson, of zero waste home, asks the thought provoking question: “What if our municipalities could shift the resources they spend on waste handling to other activities, such as schools and hospitals instead?” She has many relevant points.

Overall, the zero waste movement is doing a pretty good job in educating us on how to reduce our waste. It means fewer things going into our homes, particularly disposables, and fewer items being thrown out. Everyday. If we all did it, it would make a big difference.

Personally, I’m a bit of a late adopter in this area. I’m at this point trying to reduce everyday plastic disposables. I’m also pretty good at the DIY skincare and home cleaning supplies that Lauren Singer suggests. In terms of food packaging, although I’m recycling, I’ve got a long way to go in terms of reducing what comes into my home. On my wish list for this year is to start composting food waste. Many cities have composting schemes that you can subscribe to and in Bergen even certain houses/areas (as in my friend Turid’s case).

On the picture: buying milk directly from the farmer (Lovö Prästgård) using old Kockum milk jars. Buying directly from the farmer, also at farmers market, is a good way to reduce waste.

Are you making effort to reduce your waste? Please share your experiences.

Is owning less more sustainable?

A popular reaction to our overconsumption and environmental  challenges is  to own fewer things. For example the 100 thing challenge says that we should only own 100 personal items. There are  many similar initiatives telling us to declutter and streamline our homes and wardrobes. It is a way to opt out of consumerism they say. Some even claim owning less is good for society and the environment.

Is it true though? Is owning less more sustainable?

Let’s look at the sustainability side of it i.e. the impact on people, environment and future generations.

Items going into your home. From a sustainability aspect, you want to keep new items going into your home to a minimum. Producing new items is resource intensive. The majority of items sold in stores are not produced in an environmentally friendly way. On the people side, a lot of manufacturing exploits workers by not paying a living wage.

When you reduce the number of items you own, many throw out two items and then buy a new one to replace these two. In addition, when you own fewer things (because you threw out a lot) the items get worn a lot more and need to be replaced more frequently. As a result, more new things go into your homes than if you had simply kept what you had before the challenge.

Items you get rid of. Most of these initiatives start by getting rid of a lot of stuff. Now what happens to the things you throw out? A lot of the products we buy today cannot be recycled. In large parts of Europe, they end up in a landfill where they release CO2 and other substances trying to decompose. In Sweden, textile waste is burnt . Clearly, this is a waste of resources.

What about giving it to second hand so someone else can use it? The majority of items donated to second hand are shipped abroad, often to countries with worse waste handling than Scandinavia. So unless you give it to a friend that will cherish it for life, giving things away is not a solution.

To summarise, in terms of sustainability, we should acquire as few things a possible and use the items for as long as possible.  Patagonia estimates that keeping an item for nine more months in your wardrobe reduces related carbon, waste and water footprint an estimated 20 to 30 per cent. Keep it for 15 years and it is a lot more.

So if the 100 items challenge means mostly keeping what you’ve got and giving a few items to friends so they don’t have to buy new, then go ahead. On the other hand, if you, like most of us, own a lot more than 100 items that you would have to get rid of then, no, it is not very sustainable.