THE NEW STATE OF AFFAIRS
Every day millions of products are sold in single-use packaging, usually a form of plastic or ‘mixed-material’: sandwich containers, plastic films, coffee cups, bubble wrap and the like. The resulting vast swathes of disposables discarded, along with many recyclable items, find their way to landfill sites, to clusters in the oceans* and to garbage incinerators. The consequent effect on the geosphere is both detrimental and escalating day by day.
Fundamental studies of geology teach us that the geologic timescale of Earth is divided into periods (perhaps the most famous being the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous), which are themselves divided into epochs. The current epoch is known as the Holocene epoch and it began roughly 11,700 years ago, following the end of the last ice age and the Pleistocene epoch. What an epoch refers to is the structure of the rock deposited during a certain length of time, perhaps providing us with knowledge concerning the type of creatures which existed then (through examining fossils), the constitution of the atmosphere or the relative sea levels. Until the Holocene, the defining characteristics of each epoch were all derived from natural processes. However there is now so much waste buried in the ground and the atmosphere has changed radically enough that some geologists believe it is time we declare a new geological epoch: the Anthropocene. This name was coined in 2000 by Paul Crutzen in the journal Nature.
The advent of the Anthropocene means mankind has had such an enormous effect on the constitution of the geosphere that humanity’s industrial byproducts are recognisable from examining rocks and also through proxies such as ice cores and tree rings, for example. As mentioned above, it is not just the ground beneath our feet which is changing. It is an almost universally accepted fact that the atmosphere which we breath has changed beyond recognition due to human influence, for example through an increase of around 100pm of carbon dioxide composition in the last 250 years. The consequent alterations comprise what we call (anthropogenic) climate change.
WHY SHOULD WE CARE?
As is mentioned in the excellent, inspiring review paper ‘The Anthropocene: From Global Change to Planetary Stewardship’, whose list of authors includes the pioneering Paul Crutzen, the Holocene is the only state of the Earth system wherein we can be certain that contemporary human civilisation can exist. This epoch is known to have been relatively stable, allowing mankind to develop to the highly intelligent state as in the present. The Anthropocene, on the other hand, is far less certain to be so gentle on us. In the vastly altered environment which we are increasingly finding ourselves, extreme weather events such as severe storms, floods, heatwaves and droughts will become only more frequent. This is threatening for the many people who live in delicate geographical circumstances, particularly in equatorial countries such as those surrounding Saharan Africa and low-lying coastal regions such as Bangladesh and the Netherlands.
Alongside the problems posed directly by climate change, there are numerous other serious, related issues, including a shortage of food resources and (fertile) land in many areas of the world, all with the ominous backdrop of an exponentially increasing population. In the paper mentioned above, the authors outline the necessity of a renewed approach to the way in which mankind views and is treating the world, both for its sake and our own. This movement is not completely new – James Lovelock in particular has long supported the notion of a vengeful ‘Mother Earth’ Gaia interpretation of nature, which is very much capable of evolving of its own accord in order to outlast the threat posed by humanity, and encouraged a much more co-operative approach to civilisation than is currently exhibited. In terms of problems posed directly by the waste issue, landfilling and over-production of packaging not only inflates land shortage, but can pollute nearby soils and rivers, damaging delicate ecosystems, and lead to an increased level of shipping.**
WHERE TO GO FROM HERE?
Some researchers refer to the status quo production methodology of the modern era as a ‘linear economy’, in that materials are mined, farmed or grown, then made into single-use products, which are thereby used by the consumer and disposed. In this paradigm, products are often cheaply made in order to maximise profit and therefore are not built to last. Above I have made the case that this is simply unsustainable and infeasible. An alternative approach is sometimes known as a ‘circular economy’, wherein there is a real focus on making the most durable products as possible, using the minimal quantity of resources, and always giving preference to regeneration and recycling of materials, rather than extracting anew.
There are multiple movements which fit within the remit of a circular economy, including the break free from plastic movement and the Zero Waste Europe movement, the latter of which is making waves across the continent, with many local councils and companies already pledging to move towards a zero waste-to-landfill regime. On a more personal note, as of 1st October 2016, I have committed to becoming a zero waste individual. All new products I have purchased since then either come in recyclable or compostable packaging, or indeed in no packaging at all! If absolutely necessary, I allow myself up to 500g of disposable waste per year, as other zero wasters suggest.*** I have found that in going waste free, it often naturally follows that one reduces one’s carbon footprint also – for instance, buying fresh in-season fruit and vegetables from local markets, collected in reusable bags. One thing that has really helped me on my way is the discovery that supermarkets across the country, including Sainsbury’s, have installed plastic bag recycling points in their stores to account for those awkward products such as toilet roll that you just can’t buy without a plastic film wrapper.
I have heard many people argue that the waste problem is not directly related to climate change – that recycling alone is not going to save the world. This is of course true, but through aiming to tackle the enormous waste problem that is now afoot in the world, the approach of a circular economy refocuses our influence not on endless (or so we think) extraction for maximal profit, but on making the most of what we have and ensuring there are enough resources remaining to sustain many, many generations to come. In making this change of purpose, one also takes a step towards a greener economy, and moves to provide a safer and more stable future for all. There are many pieces to the grandest of puzzles that is solving the problem of climate change, but surely committing to reduced waste is one clear step in the right direction.
*: My fellow MPE CDT colleagues, Ben Snowball and Birgit Sützl, are currently undergoing MRes projects centring around mathematical models for tracking plastic waste in the world’s oceans.
**: I was disgusted to find out from a friend who works in the shipping industry that the main physical export of the United Kingdom is… waste! There have also been numerous cases of illegal smuggling of waste out of the UK.
***: I still feel ‘zero waste’ is an accurate term even if one creates a small amount of it. After all, the average American produces over 500kg per year!