The plastic epidemic has reached a crisis point and there is growing acceptance that practices must change. These practices must be acknowledged from both a business and consumer level. Businesses need to minimise the plastic in production and we as consumers need to look for alternatives. However, it is often perceived as ‘too hard’ to change behaviours. The reality is, recycling should be seen as the last resort and with the focus on reducing and reusing as each recycling activity uses precious resources.
Many of us know what we should do but end up taking the path of least resistance or simply forget. ‘I forgot my reusable bag/coffee cup.’ ‘I had a long day at work and cannot be bothered cooking.’ ‘The garbage collection team will probably separate my rubbish, so I won’t waste my time now.’
Individual actions may seem small but the compound effect leads to large scale issues.
For example, the reality is our oceans are filling with plastic. It is estimated that over 10 million tonnes of plastic end up in our oceans each year. That plastic is not going anywhere either, other than being ingested into sea life. It takes almost half a millennium for a plastic bottle to biodegrade. We need to start thinking differently about our consumption because the impacts will span multiple generations.
Case Study: The Little Town With a Big Impact
There are so many small things we can do to change our practices. Whilst in Japan I had a few people tell me about Kamikatsu, a population of about 1600. They are the first town to issue a Zero Waste Declaration in Japan. Residents sort waste into 45 types under 13 categories (the town managed to recycle over 80% of its waste, and is aiming for 100% by 2020).
So let’s look at how a small population of about 1600 people can radically change their actions and have a big impact on the environment! First, we need to understand the drivers for change and then how we can act.
Driver for change 1: Political
It all began in 1997 when the central Government banned local Government from incinerating their waste, a then common method for getting rid of waste. The rationale was that because it was in a mountain valley, it was a health and safety risk because of the number of toxic dioxins it released and stayed in the local air.
The national policy was the first driver that kicked off the zero waste movement in Kamikatsu. It shows the importance of Government policy to create an environment for social change. By creating regulations and restrictions on actions, local Government had to think of new ways to deal with a growing problem.
Driver for change 2: Economic
Now faced with the need to get rid of local rubbish, the Kamikatsu local Government had to assess their options. These ranged from digging a new tip to transporting waste to the next closest incinerator. Transportation costs would be 6 times higher than recycling, so the most viable option seemed to be reducing, reusing and recycling.
Driver for change 3: Social
At the start, there were some residents who were apprehensive about the new plan. A critical part of the process for the local Government was to engage with their community and understand the barriers they perceived. They found that there was concern that it would be too hard so they introduced some information sessions and started showing how easy it is to recycle. This caused much excitement and a group of advocates formed. Gradually, they introduced more recycling segments and it became a community focus. With the elderly population the majority, the recycling and the upcycling store became an important social space for connection. When the initial hurdle was overcome by breaking down the solution into manageable chunks, the small group of dedicated advocates built enough momentum to drive mass change.
The community brings all their waste to the collection facility where they sort their waste into 45 types in 13 categories.
They also have an upcycling facility where locals make new objects like toys out of waste. But the most exciting part of the recycling transformation is the mindset shift. “Doing these very detailed categories of separation … actually makes people start to think about the beginning,” says Akira Sakano from Kamikatsu’s Zero Waste Academy when speaking to the ABC News. Ultimately the end game is to reduce and the act of creating friction in the waste management process has helped people see beyond recycling as the answer.
The Zero Waste Academy
The Zero Waste Academy was born out of the project and has been critical for driving new forms of waste management in the local area as well as advocating for zero waste on a global stage.
The Zero Waste Academy operates under four Ls – local, low cost, low impact, and low tech (source). These are the principles that guide decision making.
Now with over 80% of their waste recycled, Kamikatsu plans to be zero waste 2020. However, their impact spans beyond their local area. They have received so much media attention about their amazing work and it is inspiring a movement for local Governments across the world to create the catalyst for change.
How to Act Today
Hearing and reading all about the infamous zero waste town it is clear that the local Government is key. However, if your Government is yet to take the plunge, there are so many small things we can do today to make a massive difference.
Influencing the drivers for change can be done in a few steps!
1. Write a letter
There is nothing better than a strongly worded letter to an authority. The only thing better is the letter with a bunch of signatures. My home town of Euroa had a group of committed individuals who lobbied the local Government for green waste bins. Use your voice to have an impact
2. Write another letter
While you have the pen out, send a letter or post on social media to a company who could be reducing the plastic products they have. Ultimately, if businesses don’t produce it then you cannot waste it!
A great template by the team at Going Zero Waste is here.
3. Mindful wasting
Next time you purchase something, take 3 deep breaths. Think about whether you need it and whether you can find an alternative. By becoming more aware of what you’re purchasing, you may be more likely to reduce your end waste. You can also extend the 3 breaths to whenever you chuck something out. By stopping and taking some deep breaths, you are creating a small amount of friction that will help you make better purchasing decisions in the future.
4. Take stock with a ‘spot the plastic’ game
After you have done some mindful wasting, allocate 30 minutes of your week to look around the house at all the plastic and single-use items you have. If you have a family, you can make a game out of it. ‘Spot the plastic.’ 1. Get a piece of paper and get everyone in the household to run around the house looking for plastic and single-use items (including in the bin).
2. Write them down.
3. Get back together and look at the list.
4. Brainstorm which items you could change for next time.
5. Write a shopping list and approach for your next trip to the shops.
The Source Bulk Foods in Australia allow you to BYO jars and containers to fill. If you’re stuck for ideas, google it! So many people have amazing ideas. Here are a few to get you started from the Guardian readers.
5. Start categorising
If your local Government does not have a compost or green waste bin, it is really easy to set up a Bokashi or compost. I lived in an apartment block and had a compost, so if I can do it in a tiny place, anyone can!!
You can pick one up at Bunnings when you’re getting your weekly sausage.
Overall there are so many little things we can do today without waiting for Government. By just making one small change at home, it could make its way into the office or with your friends… The opportunity for impact is endless!