If you’ve been paying attention to my social media posts lately, you will have seen that I have been watching the ABC series War On Waste with great interest. It’s deepened my interest in and enthusiasm for reducing my own waste production in my daily life and has been the catalyst for introducing some new habits into my life that I had previously been thinking about or had been doing not as effectively as I could.
The series was incredibly impactful so I thought I would summarise some of the key stats for you along with my main takeaways from the series. I really hope that the episodes and the information included encourage you to take steps for your own waste reduction and thinking a little more deeply about your consumption habits. I know that it’s been something on my mind for quite a while and I’m hoping that I can start to increase my efforts in this area.
War On Waste introduced us to some very scary statistics. In Australia our production of waste is growing at twice the rate of our population. Some of the stats were worse than I even thought:
- Over 10 million plastic bags are used every day
- Over 1 billion disposable coffee cups end up in landfill every year
- The average Australian family throws out 1 tonne or $3500 worth of food every year
- On average, 1 in 5 shopping bags from every food shop end up being thrown out
- Australia produces enough food each year to feed 60 million people (2.5 times our actual population!)
- One third of the rubbish in our bins (that goes to landfill) is food waste
- When food rots in landfill (i.e. not in compost with other organic material) it produces methane gas that is 25 times more potent that carbon dioxide produced by cars
I’ve divided up my notes by focus area to make it easier to summarise and for you to read more about the points you’re interested in.
What we throw into our bins at home is only part of the problem of food waste. The supermarket specifications for the food they will accept are so strict that a large proportion doesn’t even make it off the farm because the farmers can’t sell it.
In looking at banana farms in particular, up to 40% of the bananas are thrown away because they don’t meet cosmetic specifications such as size, length and shape (too curvy or too straight). This is completely crazy and it was a little heartbreaking watching all that perfectly good produce being thrown away.
Over the course of the three episodes, Craig Reucassel was able to speak with representatives of Harris Farm, Woolworths and Coles about a range of issues and particularly the issue of the produce that wasn’t able to be sold to the supermarkets due to the cosmetic standards imposed.
The CEO of Harris Farm highlighted that they do the ‘imperfect picks’ range as a way of selling some of the produce that’s not ‘suitable’ according to supermarket specifications. This is admirable but there is still a huge way to go. I think Woolworths do something similar with ‘imperfect’ produce. I thought Coles were pretty unsatisfactory with their responses about why the standards are so tight and basically blamed the reasoning for the high standards on the customers and their expectations.
One thing that stood out to me here was that the ‘imperfect picks’ range in Harris Farm was packaged in plastic bags. These items are prepackaged into plastic bags – why not just have them loose? I hate seeing food packaged in plastic bags now, I wish all fruit and vegetables came loose and have people use reusable bags to carry their produce rather than single-use plastic bags.
The issue of supermarket standards and food waste was a good reminder for me of why it’s so valuable to shop at local Farmers Markets. That way you’re ensuring you support local producers and the produce isn’t bound by ridiculous supermarket guidelines. Plus you’ll also be eating more seasonably and reducing the ‘food miles’ of your fruit and vegetables.
One of the biggest components of our rubbish bins is soft plastic. Australians use 5 billion plastic bags a year and 300,000 tonnes of soft plastic ends up in landfill. Although there is a plastic bag ban in the ACT, NT, SA and TAS there are significant loopholes in the legislation which means that these ‘bans’ aren’t actually doing much to reduce the amount of plastic bags being used.
One very interesting thing to learn was that the ‘degradable’ plastic bags are actually worse than regular plastic bags as they break down into smaller pieces and can be ingested by animals.
There are soft plastic recycling bins in Woolworths and Coles now where you can return your plastic shopping bags and soft plastics. It wasn’t clear where the Woolworths bins end up going (there was a lot of double talk from Woolworths and Visy) but the Coles REDcycle bins send the plastics to Replas, a company in Victoria who manufacture outdoor furniture and equipment out of the recycled plastics. So if you’re going to choose a soft plastic recycling option I’d go with Coles.
Plastic bags become particularly dangerous when they end up in the waterways. 8 million tonnes of plastic waste leak into the ocean every year killing marine life around the world, most of this is soft plastics which fish and other marine life ingest.
It is estimated that by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in our oceans which is a disturbing thought. Half of all turtles and two-thirds of some species of Australian sea birds already have swallowed potentially deadly plastic. Even fish end up eating micro-plastics in the ocean thinking they are food. These are the fish that we end up eating so this plastic is then entering our food chain as well!
It was a great reminder of the importance of always having a reusable bag with me as I’ve been guilty in the past of forgetting and ending up with plastic bags but I have been super vigilant about it lately.
Another issue looked into was recycling and it was clear that because there is no standardised recycling guidelines (each council has different rules about what can go into the kerbside recycling bin) there is a lot of confusion about what can actually be recycled. For instance, I didn’t know that empty aerosol cans can go in the recycling bin!
Our recycling is sorted at the recycling centres (rather than us having different types of recycling bins like some countries like Japan have) where about 8% of it goes to landfill. The glass, aluminium, paper and plastic are useful commodities that can be reused either here or overseas, which was a really good reminder to me of the value of recycling and not letting these resources end up in landfill where they are just wasted.
A smaller point covered in the series but a very important one was learning to repair products rather than throwing them away. Obsolescence is built into many appliances these days and it can often be more expensive to repair them rather than buying a replacement. But this is creating unnecessary waste of resources and is contributing to a loss of repair skills. If we can arm ourselves with some basic repair skills we might be able to stop some of these appliances ending up in landfill when they only require a simple repair.
Disposable coffee cups are a huge problem. More than 1 billion coffee cups end up in landfill every year in Australia. That is enough cups to circumnavigate the earth 2.5 times if you laid those coffee cups out end to end!
A lot of coffee cups end up in recycling bins but can’t actually be recycled. Well, technically they can be recycled but require a separate recycling process due to the plastic lining and we don’t have a separate recycling process for coffee cups so they all just end up in landfill.
To fix this problem, we need to start using reusables instead of disposables for our takeaway coffees. Further to this, we should be supporting cafes who support reusable cups. A lot of cafes offer a discount (usually $0.50) for bringing a reusable cup and we should try to support these cafes who are encouraging consumers to do the right thing. You can find out which cafes offer a discount in your area at Responsible Cafes.
Fashion is one of the fastest growing waste problems in Australia. We spend over 5 billion dollars on fashion a year. More than 1/2 million tonnes of textiles are ending up in landfill every year, just in Australia, and 6000kg of clothing is thrown out in just 10 minutes!
The average Australian spends over $2000 on clothing and footwear ever year and nearly 60% of all clothing produced globally ends up in landfills or is incinerated within a year of being made.
Fast fashion is defined as high volume, low margin clothing and most stores have new stock arriving in weekly which results in a high turnover and increased pressure on consumers to shop more often.
When we throw away clothes it’s not just the item of clothing that is thrown out. It is the resources and materials it took to make that item of clothing. A huge amount of resources go into the textile industry, it can take 2700 litres of water to make just 1 cotton t-shirt.
Craig visited a Smith Family facility where clothes from clothing bins are sorted and it was revealed that through that facility they process 13 million kilograms of clothing every year. Of that, only 3-4% of the clothing goes into their charity stores to be sold. 60% of the clothing is exported overseas, 5-10% is sold as industrial rags and 30% is sent to landfill.
Because it costs money to send rubbish to landfill, it costs the Smith Family around $1 million a year to send these donations to landfill. It is costing money for a charity to dispose of poor quality donations, that is just crazy to me.
We really need to slow down our fashion, see the versatility in our wardrobes, experiment and style our clothes differently so we can get more life out of them and reduce the impulse to purchase more new clothing.
There will be another episode of War On Waste later this year to follow up on some of the issues and to see how we have responded to the issues that were raised. So what can we do now?
- Petition governments to ban plastic bags, and use a reusable bag yourself to minimise plastic waste
- Tell supermarkets that the size of their produce doesn’t matter, to reduce food waste on the farms
- BYO coffee cup when you get a takeaway coffee and support cafes who encourage BYO cups
- Say no to plastic wherever possible
- Recycle what can be recycled instead of throwing everything in the bin
- Use the Coles soft plastic recycling bins
- Reduce the impact of fast fashion by being a more conscious consumer and thinking about the resources that went into the creation of an item of clothing, not just what it costs you to buy
- Reuse, repair or recycle instead of sending things to landfill
I have a post coming up soon about the small swaps I’ve made in my daily life to reduce my waste further so keep an eye out for that. Craig Reuscassel also has a new ‘War On Waste’ podcast with Wendy Harmer that you should check out if you enjoyed learning how to reduce your waste in the tv series.
Did you watch War On Waste? What made the biggest impact on you? Will you be making any changes?