Why Recycling is no longer enough and how to live plastic free

Sustainable shopping (Maria Fiala, McDaniel Messenger)

Sustainable shopping (Maria Fiala, McDaniel Messenger)

By Maria Fiala

We all create waste – it is absolutely natural even though it goes against nature in every single way. For most of us, the involvement with our trash ends at the very moment we close the lid of a large plastic container. That’s it – we can now wash our hands just as well as Pontius Pilate did. The waste we produce is no longer our worry. Some of us recycle as we were taught that that is the right thing to do to be environmentally friendly. However, that belief is far from truth. I am not suggesting that sending everything to the landfill is a better option, yet if something has to be done to reduce the garbage pile and resolve the global waste crisis, recycling is simply no longer enough.

So, what’s so wrong with plastic? As long as we recycle it, it must be reused and thus the number of tons of plastic produced should eventually drop. That is the idea, however, as with many other great ideas the realization ends up being full of holes. The issue with plastic is that we produce too much of it. Each year, there are almost 360 million metric tons of plastic produced (this specific number is from the year 2018). With only 9% actually being recycled, which leaves about a whopping 330 million tons of plastic entering our environment each year. In truth this number could be even higher as it may contain plastics produced from previous years.

What happens to the plastic that is not being recycled? The rest is either landfilled, left to decompose over the next couple of centuries, or burned – releasing CO2 and polluting our air. Around 8 million tons of plastic end up in the ocean each year. Plastic pollutes our air, land and water – simply said: plastic is not so fantastic.

First of all, the reason why so little plastic is being recycled is because recycling is much more expensive than just creating new packaging (recycling includes collecting, sorting and processing the plastic). Secondly, there are so many different types of plastic – each with a specific combination of polymers, which sometimes contains hazardous chemicals as well, posing technical challenges. However, plastic is not the only incubus. If you were to take your garbage can and scatter the waste onto your kitchen floor – you would most likely find large quantities of packaging materials and food waste. In reality, most of the plastic, paper and glass sent to landfills and incinerators is packaging material. With the rest, namely food waste, one might think that there’s no harm in sending it to the landfill. “It is food waste and therefore it will decompose!” A rather logical deduction, however, (I hate being the bearer of bad news) is that sending food waste to landfills does not benefit the soil whatsoever as it does not break down due to landfills not being aerated properly. Also, it brings danger to some bird species as they fly to the landfills to find whatever they can – resulting in their feet being entangled in strands of metal or plastic.

So, what can you do as an individual?

First educate yourself on the matter of the waste crisis in order to give yourself motivation to change your wasteful habits. This can be achieved by either reading a book from Robin Murray called Zero Waste or watching any David Attenborough documentary on Netflix. The next easiest step is to go plastic free. This might sound terrifying to you but trust me, for once, this is actually much easier than it sounds. You are already most likely using a reusable water bottle and a durable bag for your groceries. However, it is your groceries that bring the clear see-through monster to your home.

When you buy fruit and vegetables, try using some old plastic bags for as long as you can and once they have so many holes in them that you can no longer use them, switch to bags made out of fabric. No supermarket should have a problem with those. Now, how do you buy the rest of the items on your shopping list? Yogurt, milk, meat, nuts, flour, sugar, different types of grains etc?

In more and more cities, there are new zero waste shops opening for environmentally friendly folks, such as yourself. From spices and oils to cosmetic and cleaning products, one can find almost anything in these shops. However, there is a smart way of shopping in one. When you decide to go zero-waste, do not throw away everything you find in your household and immediately replace them with fancy reusable products. That is just extra unnecessary waste. Look at everything and think about how you can reuse it. Empty shampoo bottle? – Just take it to a zero-waste shop and refill it. Empty jar from pickles? Take off the label, wash the jar and voila: you have yourself a new container. Take it to the shop and fill it up with peanut butter! Use what you have around your house rather than investing in new elegant glass jars.

Budapest is a wonderful place when it comes to buying local produce and ingredients. When you have to buy meat and dairy products that are usually hard to find in zero-waste shops, just visit your closest market. If you give them a container to put whatever it is that you are buying, they should have no issues with it. This way you are not only reducing waste, but you are supporting local farmers as well.

The last step to take is concerning the issue of food waste. Unfortunately, there are no biological waste containers in this city, thus it is solely up to you to take care of it. There are many parts of vegetables and fruits that you are currently throwing away, unaware of the fact that you can actually use them. You can use potato peels in soups or make them into crisps (potato chips), you can even cook meals out of banana peels. There are always new recipes surfacing on the internet using food waste. For the rest of the waste, build a small compost heap in your apartment. If you have don’t have a backyard to build a compost heap, there is a way to make one out of a large container. All you need is some newspaper, eggshells and worms to eat your food waste. This way, you are not just being environmentally friendly – you get some pets as well.

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