Big part of the Modern Life: consumption and waste
Where does the trash we dispose of end up? what is recycling and can it be done sufficiently?
The most beneficial trends of the new age: 'minimalism' and 'zero waste' and why they are crucial for all of us to adopt?
We all eat, drink, buy, consume and throw. We throw away stuff even before we use or consume, because we are bored, or because we already have had more in the first place. Since almost all things are accessible in modern life, single-use is common in all areas, industries have stopped making long-lasting materials to profit more, our appearance determines our position in social life, we see purchasing as a way of satisfying our emotional needs which feels unfulfilled no matter what we do anyway, and as a conclusion, we have to dispose of waste.
So, what happens to this waste? You may think that it accumulated somewhere, perhaps it is buried and there is enough space in the world to do that. In this post, we shall see together why the issue is not so simply solvable.
In nature, there is no other living creature that disposes of waste and harms mother-earth besides humans. Living-being consumes out of need and goes back to water or soil at the end of their life cycle as organic waste. When it comes to us as human-being, it is way too different. Industrialised world, the invention of plastic and many others in excess, materialist marketing world which makes us believe that we definitely need more, and ourselves who feels numb and lost connection with our heart and soul... Now everywhere is full of garbage.
In order from left to right: Mountain Everest, Mediterranean coast, a sea turtle grow as trapped in plastic in an awkward
Even on high altitudes of Mountain Everest, the pollution due to climbers waste has become a serious issue. Oceans, seas and the true inhabitants of them are swimming in plastic. Most of it is due to humans, tourists in cruises and some of it is due to the fishing industry(like nets). Recently, there was a dead pregnant whale again on the Italian coast whose stomach was full of plastic, nearly 20kg, and experts were sure that was the reason for death(1). In another recent search(2) shows that microplastics can travel by wind in far distances, they can even be found on the top of mountains. Researchers took water samples from different places. Even though people can not see them at eyesight, they detected an average of 400 pieces of microplastics in meter square. Plastic is a material that degrades into small pieces over thousands of years. The next level of degradation will be from microplastics to nano plastics. when they become nano-plastics, it may be possible to diffuse into the animal and human body. there are no concluded researched about this yet as the first discovery of microplastics was made only a few years ago. It might be already too late when the future reaches are concluded. In a basic perspective, 225 metric tones of plastics produced every year and it takes up thousands of years for them to degrade. therefore, we keep accumulating more and more...
Hence, the issue is not about people throwing garbage on stress and lacking manners nor municipalities should do a better job at waste management. Let's explain further why. The most common endpoint of the journey of garbage is in the landfill. The first problem is the fact that there is simply not enough space for all this waste around the world. For instance, in the UK there is no area for landfill left. The UK used to send some of the garbage to China, but since China shut its doors for accepting garbage, they started to export garbage to developing countries(3). Turkey is also one of these countries accepting garbage for 2 years, although there is no capacity for recycling properly. The second problem is the garbage mix at the landfill itself. Unclassified, unprocessed garbage mix ends up in the landfill. For example, organic waste(like kitchen or garden waste) dumped together with plastics or textiles. Normally they would have composted naturally but since they are mixed that will not be possible. Let's say you are conscious and using biodegradable bags(like some starch based), most likely when they end up in the landfill with others, they will still not degrade since they need specific temperature and humidity. The third problem is the fact that landfills are one of the biggest reasons for greenhouse gas emission. The gas mixture is mostly half methane half carbon dioxide which causes global warming. Especially methane has the ability to trap more heat relative to carbon dioxide. Methane that is released from landfill, is the third biggest methane produced due to humans. It is possible to collect these gas over the landfill and convert to alternative energy(4) but most countries do not have the technology to do so.
Another option for the waste is cremation. It sounds so easy right, why don't we simply burn all the trash? Unfortunately, that is not the ultimate solution either. In order to burn the waste under control and in a proper way, incinerators with enough capacity and dimension is needed which takes a lot of time to built at high costs. By the time we have enough number of such incineration facilities, we would be surrounded by garbage mountains. Countries like Sweden do have those with extra capacity, they even import garbage from others. 9% of the city electricity is provided from burning trash by converting heat energy to others(5). Although this scenario seems quite ideal, there is still carbon dioxide released to the atmosphere by burning. Another issue is the fact that even in the most efficiently sorted garbage mix for cremation contains improper materials that need to be constantly monitored and burning conditions have to be adjusted accordingly(6). Since, most of the time these adjustments are not realistic to do so, for instance by burning a stereo cause leaving heavy metals behind or a teflon pan release very toxic substances.
Hence, is recycling the answer? Partly, it helps, it is a tool but it is not The solution. I will try to explain why not. For example, there are new inventions such as below to pull out the trash from the oceans(7).
The system has a target of cleaning %50 of the trash in the Pacific Ocean in 5 years in full scale. But the plastic pulled out will not able to be recycled because their chemical structure slightly affected and they absorbed iodine, meaning they will also end up in the landfill. Another fact with recycling is that not everything can be recycled. In the developed countries the first classification of the garbage is done by households by putting in the intended container as the first step of recycling. In developing countries, households just dump mixed garbage, but there are poor people who go through garbages and collect recyclable items to sell. We can shortly list recyclable materials as metal(like cans), plastics, tetra packs(cartons for milk, juices, etc.), paper and derivatives, glass, some of the electronic devices, some textile types... Every type has subclasses and has a unique process for recycling. For example, there are tens of types of plastic need to be sorted, similarly, for glass, different colors of glass need to be categorized separately before recycling. Therefore, recycling is not easy. I am attaching some short movies from one of the sorting centers I have visited(this one was accepting a mixture of plastic, metal, and tetra packs).
Basically, garbage mix is automatically sorted with different methods such as rotation, vibration, water sinking or infrared vision so that they can be categorized( since they have different weight, density or chemical structure). But in the process, some materials already contaminated(like ketchup bottle with some product in it) or very light weighted ones or due to difficult colors(black is a problem with infrared sorting) still cannot be sorted properly.
As a conclusion, recycling is not a very efficient process. The number and capacity of recycling sorting places are not enough either and for the recycling process itself, energy consumption needed. For example, only 9-10% of plastic is recycling around the world.
If we talk about textile waste a bit, the amount of textile waste ends up in the landfill yearly, only by the US is around 12 million tonnes. 95% of it could have been reused, meaning it was thrown away in good condition. The amount of textile waste increased from 7% to 30% in the last 5 years. We may guess the reason is not an increase in the need, but the fashion industry. In order to produce one t-shirt, 2600 liters of water needs to be used.
Another reason for the increasing amount of waste is the term planned obsolescence. The basis of this term started around the 1920s, meaning that producing limited lifecycle for products intentionally to keep selling. There is a nice Baris Ozcan video about it, giving examples of having agreements between companies to produce light bulbs with 1000 hours lifetime even though technological developments could have provided the lifecycle of hundreds of years. Another example is that in the 1940s, with the invention of nylon, there were lady tights would last life long, but since nobody needed a second pair, producers intentionally made the new version much more vulnerable. therefore, in order to make companies profit more, earth resources are consumed more and wast mountains grow higher.
So far we looked at why recycling or cremation of garbage would not be sufficient. It is time to talk about what is the solution: not buying in the first place, using as minimum as possible. If you have not heard of minimalism and zero waste, it is definitely recommended to check them out. Some inspirational people are mentioned in the reference section. Minimalism is defined as owning only enough items as needed so that one can focus on more important things in life. With this way, harm on the environment is minimized, also it is good for your budget, and you will have more time(spending less on purchasing or cleaning a house with less material is easier). It sounds very natural, isn't it? It is nice to consider why it is then so difficult in modern life? Some extreme minimalists are trying to own stuff limited by numbers(like 150 as an example). For some of us, it is the number of pairs of shoes or nail polish we have. In summary, we buy less, so we dispose of less as a consequence. When it comes to zero waste, you may have heard of this girl, who can fit her entire garbage accumulated in 3 years into one glass jar. It is about minimizing the waste one can dispose of by using your fabric reusable bags or glass jars while shopping, growing your own food if possible, staying away from buying anything packed, living as a minimalist, composting organic waste(can be done even in the balcony), using washable diapers for babies, using washable/reusable kitchen and toilet wipes, natural dishwashing sponges, metal straws, bamboo toothbrushes, making your own personal care or cleaning items any many more... and your health will improve due to staying away from harsh chemicals and you will not spend much money. The idea of leaving the world after your life in a worse state than where you started because of you, is quite a sad though, isn't it? Not long ago, perhaps only 60 years back, our grandparents used to live this way, they used to carry their own fabric napkin on their pocket, they used to sew their own clothes...Nowadays, we are not able to survive a picnic without single-use plastic cutlery, quite a drastic change in 60 years, right?
While you are trying minimizing your waste, one of the hardest things we came across is gift-giving. it is quite common to receive a present which you do not need or want, or consists of huge amounts of plastic, especially when you have kids. The only thing you can do is talking openly about it with your close friends and relatives and hope for the best. Applying the same rule when you are supposed to buy a present, and avoiding wrapping unless it is a reused material is what you could also do.
The second solution is reusing such as buying second hand, repairing items over and over before throwing away. This is so important that if everyone in the US bought one second-hand clothing instead of new in 2019, it would help world carbon emission with 3 million kilotonnes. I remember the tree wheel motorcycle my grandfather used to have. the tires were constantly blown out, and he used to repair and patching over and over until the time that is not possible anymore. That's how the old generation used to live.
Around the time we were expecting our son's arrival, we got what we need for him mostly second hand. Everybody around us was rolling their eyes on eyes and criticizing how we would do this and not go for 'the best' of everything for our very first born. In our culture and similarly in most of the other middle eastern cultures, showing off is a big deal, people live their lives to satisfy societies common understanding. I realized this more during my years in Europe, seeing that people from high management level coming to work by bike or bringing their launch from home, living in a humble way. In the country I live in, similar to other Islam countries, living standards tend to be lower but everybody prioritizes having the newest phone or car. If we realized the real values of Islam, this would have been different. Looking at what profit Muhammed left behind after his death, one can simply have a general understanding: only a few items for himself, one house that he lived in with his family, one mount, only one silver stamp as a valuable item, a few cardigans that are patched many times... A very different profile than leaders of today, he shared everything gained with people in need. If he really found meaning on anything materialistic, he had the power of having places full of servants and a big fortune...
To sum up, after all the reusing and repairing, for the garbage left we might start discussing recycling, and after that for the ones left, cremation or sending to landfill. Therefore, the last part which ends up in the landfill or cremation center will be minimized if we could apply the first steps mentioned at the beginning of the post.
The first step was knowing all these consequences so that we would want to take action to change habits. It will never be perfect, zero waste will not be possible, sometimes we will be in a rush, we will forget and be unprepared or we will not find any alternative, but doing our best will make a difference. when we are trying, we will set a good example also for our close friends and family. This will be what individuals could do. We might find a good balance that is mentioned in the Quran(8), perhaps by purchasing the best quality and using it for a lifetime or not purchasing and getting creative... Besides individual awareness we will have, leaders all around the world must take action, put legal restrictions. For instance, in the EU, single-use plastics are banned recently. Although this seems positive, these decisions are taken way too slow, still far from being enough to see the inevitable end.
Take a look at your child. You might be lucky to see horrible consequences by the end of your life, how about our children, how long do you think they will live a healthy life? There is an end of this beautiful planet, sooner since we only consume it madly. The creator warns y the words below about facing consequences in life itself for what we do so that there is a chance of learning and changing for us.
“Corruption doth appear on land and sea because of (the evil) which men's hands have done, that He may make them taste a part of that which they have done, in order that they may return” Rum 30/41
(8) “Eat and drink, but do not be extravagant; surely He does not love the extravagant.”A’raf, 7/31.
“and who, whenever they spend on others, are neither wasteful nor niggardly but [remember that] there is always a just mean between those [two extremes];” Furkan, 25/67
some inspirational folks: