You’d have to be living under a rock not to be aware of the tons of plastic floating in our oceans, the mountains of refuse filling up our landfill sites and the waste clogging up our rivers and streams, let alone our highways and byways. We’ve gone way beyond the solution that recycling offers. While it’s a valid industry for the employment it offers and the waste it deals with, it’s no longer enough. Nowhere near enough.
Thankfully the mantra of ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ has evolved, and we’ve moved on first to rethink … then refuse (reduce is no longer enough either), reuse and repurpose. And only as a last resort recycle.
This is actually easier than you think, provided a little forethought goes into your daily activities. Fill a glass water bottle before you leave home, and you won’t be tempted to buy a plastic bottle of water; invest in an eco-cup for all your caffeine needs – or take a few extra minutes and sit down to have that much needed cappuccino – and take a packed lunch so that you won’t need to purchase a plastic- or polystyrene-infested takeaway version. And if you desperately need to purchase food on the go, keep a lightweight container handy to use instead.
When it comes to grocery shopping we have a lot more options now, with more and more packaging-free stores opening, such as The Refillery in Cape Town and Johannesburg, the Good Source in Durban, and numerous others. Just google ‘zero waste shopping’ and you’ll be surprised at the options. But realistically, unless we have one of these stores just down the road, it’s more likely that we’ll pop into our local supermarket for our groceries.
Thankfully, many retailers are realising that they need to change to keep their market share. Pick n Pay is trialling a ‘nude’ fruit and vegetable wall in some of their stores where you can select your mushrooms, baby brinjals, cocktail tomatoes, etc. and just pop them into the paper bags provided or, even better, purchase a few of their reusable netted produce bags. Checkers has introduced compostable containers instead of polystyrene on some of their produce (just a pity about the plastic wrap that covers it), and Woolworths and Spar have committed to reducing plastic shopping bags – something that’s easy to avoid anyway by bringing your own cloth bags.
The other statement we shoppers can make is to write to the manufacturers of over-packaged products – like that tiny tube of face cream that’s in a huge box and then held secure in formed plastic or polystyrene. ‘Dear Manufacturer, I would love to use your product but …’ If enough of us did this, perhaps wasteful packaging would end.
The easiest to reuse is glass jars – the bigger the better. What’s nicer than a kitchen shelf full of glass bottles containing oats, beans, rice, sugar, coffee … close at hand, costs you nothing and looks great.
They’re also great for making salads for taking to the office – layer the wet items at the bottom to the greens at the top and, when you need lunch, just mix it up and you’re good to go. The great thing about this is that, depending on the contents, you can make them a couple of days in advance.
And paper – office paper can become grocery shopping notes, wrapping paper can be reused for the next gift you need to wrap. It may seem cheap, but it’s also fun. Two people I know reused the same wrapping paper for three consecutive Christmases and five birthdays between them, with the whole thing becoming a good-natured competition, until there was only about a few square centimetres of it left. Seriously, the same goes for ribbons and bows. Boxes are wonderful, the pretty little ones can be used when gifting, and bigger ones for storage – just wrap them in paper and you’ve got a pretty box for your office shelf in which to keep all those old tax returns that need to be kept almost forever. Got too many boxes? No problem. A friend or two will likely be moving to a new house sooner or later and will appreciate them. A great idea for housing estates would be to collect the clean good quality boxes from people who move in, store them, and make them available to the next family that moves in or out. This would save a heap of boxes either being thrown out or recycled.
So, we’ve refused and reused where possible, but what to do with that pesky chocolate wrapper and the packaging from your favourite coffee beans? Or the plastic-wrapped steak you bought for dinner? Make eco-bricks. You’ll need a plastic two-litre beverage bottle – some eco-brick drop-off points also offer empty bottles for people who successfully refuse to buy drinks in plastic bottles. Keep the bottle handy on the kitchen counter, stuff in any bits of plastic, and compact it till it’s – well – brick-hard.
What about clothing? The textile industry is a trillion-dollar market globally, with most of us buying clothes seasonally, if not more often. So, what happens to the rest? In the UK approximately 1.2 million tonnes of clothing and textile waste land up in landfills every year. Or you can donate lightly worn clothing to initiatives like The Clothing Bank that encourages entrepreneurship for unemployed women, or to thrift shops like the SPCA or Hospice where proceeds go to a good cause. What about the well-used ‘they must be ditched’ items? H&M has collection bins that shoppers can use to deposit clothing that will be recycled as carpet underlay, insulation material and toy stuffing among other products. There’s even a good use for badly stained clothes – save them for painting, or put a baggy shirt and pair of pants in the boot of your car to slip over your clothes if you ever have to change a tyre.
This is the fun part. Upcycling is hot. You’ll find lots of inspiration on Google, but there’s also a wealth of tradition. How do you think patchwork evolved? You can turn a worn pair of jeans into a wall-mounted organiser – pop pens, scissors, etc., into the pockets, and hook keys off the belt loops. Got an old ladder that’s a tad wonky, but it’s spattered with paint from every house you’ve ever lived in so you can’t bear to part with it? Turn it into a shelf unit – either utilitarian or decorative. Get the kids involved in turning nine six-bottle wine boxes into a shelf unit for toys. With some colourful fabric (perhaps all the sunflower scarves you’ve bought over the years) and some wood glue, it can be pretty as well as functional. Or get them painting glass jars with translucent paint, pop some tea lights in them, hang them from the trees, and – voilà – you have transformed your garden into a fairyland – great for parties. Bicycle-wheel chandeliers, a coffee table from an old suitcase, milk-bottle peace doves, wine-bottle drinking glasses, vertical planters made from almost anything – the only limitation is your imagination. It does take some rethinking of our core values, but once you get into the groove it is so creative, so much fun and so clever, you’ll be hooked. You’ll start looking at everything not for what it is, or what it was, but what it could be.