Action 257: “There is no such thing as away”, challenge yourself to this thought exercise


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Date: 14 September
Action: 257
Cost of taking action: £/$/€ NIL


“There is no such thing as away”
Annie Leonard
The Story of Stuff

Today we would like you to commit to setting a little bit of time aside to undertake what is called a “thought exercise”.

A thought exercise is just what it sounds – you spend time thinking through a process, problem, scenario, set of consequences or hypothesis with a view to improving your understanding of a situation, or helping you to make better decisions.

Our suggested thought exercise is inspired by the words of Annie Leonard, who said:

“There is no such thing as ‘away’. When we throw anything away it must go somewhere”

We can all learn from thinking about this.

What to do

Firstly, make a list of 6 things that you can remember disposing of into our non-recyclable waste system. The last time you saw these items would be when you put them in the bin, or the trash lorry collected it, or you throw it away at your local tip.

Try to include in this list:

  • two things that you dispose of regularly; this might be some form of food packaging for example
  • two things that you threw away that you dispose of less often, for example you might have discarded a broken toy, an item of clothing, or a gadget
  • two large items, for example you might have replaced an old piece of furniture, or an appliance

However, it’s not critical if this mix is not exact.

The important thing here is that you acknowledge that you disposed of items into the non-recyclable system. It is very likely that for routine items you would not even have given a thought to using the bin, and it is likely that for larger items, you would not have thought what was going to happen to them beyond getting them into the system … out of sight, out of mind, as they say!

We tend to think of our waste disposal systems as black holes, accepting any input and representing the end of life of any item or materials.

What next?

Firstly, be honest with yourself – was it a case of ‘out of sight, out of mind’? Did you think at all about what happens to your waste?

Now, for each item, spend a few minutes thinking about what might be happening to it. Try and think through to the ultimate end point – if there is one. It might be simple, perhaps you know that your local council run incinerators for example. Even that’s not the real end of the material, think about the output of the incinerator, whether good (like power) or bad (like particulates).

Here’s an example of the thinking you should try to follow.

  • last week I threw away a broken plastic children’s chair
  • I put it in the non-recyclable bin because I didn’t know what plastic it is made of
  • the bin men took it away
  • I didn’t think any more about it
  • it was mixed in with general waste from my neighbourhood
  • the bin lorry took it to the local landfill
  • the plastic will not biodegrade
  • the metal legs will rust
  • the chair will probably be broken up into smaller pieces by machinery before being buried
  • after a few years or decades, the legs will rust away
  • the iron oxide will remain though, it doesn’t really go away
  • the plastic might be broken into smaller and smaller pieces by earth movement
  • eventually the local landfill site will be covered over and built on
  • the plastic will remain underground for many years
  • perhaps even decades
  • perhaps even centuries
  • it doesn’t go away
  • it might break up into smaller and smaller pieces
  • but it doesn’t really biodegrade properly
  • its going to end up as microscopic plastic pieces
  • microplastics, or even nanoplastics
  • these may be consumed by bugs, or leached into the water table
  • this might be nanoplastics, or might be chemicals
  • these might enter the food chain
  • they might be washed out in our watercourses, to sea
  • this might take centuries
  • so the chemicals and nanoplastics might enter the food chain via the marine environment
  • it will poison marine life
  • it may end up in the human food chain
  • it will be processed by animal’s bodies and excreted
  • or re-enter the environment when they die and decay
  • this means it might be re-consumed
  • who knows how long this cycle will last?

… you get the idea.

You may or may not reach an end point. Try and follow things as far as you can.

Why is this important?

We need to reset our ‘out of sight, out of mind’ throwaway culture. The only way to do this properly is if we understand the consequences of discarding the massive amounts of materials that we do. The vast majority of our rubbish, worldwide, ends up in:

  • landfill sites, or
  • rubbish heaps, or
  • incinerators!

Only a small percentage of our total waste – from plastic bottles to massive ships – gets recycled.

This thought exercise is a way of educating yourself, and perhaps others too if you get the opportunity to discuss your scenarios.

It may also prompt you to do some research and learn even more:

  • find out what things are actually made of
  • find out what your local council do with waste (burn, export, or bury)
  • find out what you might have been able to recycle – like my plastic chair for example

Take action

Set aside some time to create your list and complete the thought exercise. Reflect on where your waste items are likely to actually end up, and use this to change how you dispose of things.

This links into thinking about the waste hierarchy that Barbara wrote about earlier in the year.