The role of zero waste in the fight against climate change


We’ve spent years calling for greater public engagement on waste. But now it’s here, is it diverting attention away from the bigger issues?

Welcome to Zero Waste Week! Now into its twelfth year, and with a little help from David Attenborough, momentum is growing. Packaging-free shops are sprouting up across the UK and the interweb is awash with tips and tricks, from switching to bamboo toothbrushes to buying silicon sponges.

Keen to ride the wave, I have embraced the movement, encountering triumphs and tribulations along the way. Despite never being the clingfilm queen, I found that making beeswax wraps to cover food worked well; cleaning silver with vinegar and bicarb less so. The silicon sponge pitched me to an all-time low – billed as ‘the last sponge you’ll ever buy’, it did blaze a trail through my egg-encrusted morning fry-up pan, but turns out silicon isn’t so hot at sopping up soggy worktops.

Cucumber, with its plastic sleeve, is not the root of the problem, but a symptom of consumption patterns that need to change if we are to tackle the giant elephant in the room

Aspiring to a zero waste lifestyle is a great thing and, for waste management professionals, the level of public enthusiasm we are currently seeing is the stuff of dreams. We’ve spent years deriding householders for lack of engagement, but now we have people’s attention, why does it feel as though the focus on waste is distracting us from the bigger, more critical picture?

Firstly, when it comes to packaging, we have to consider the nuts and bolts of any waste-related initiative – lifecycle analysis. This methodology assesses the environmental impact of a product from conception through to disposal at the end of its life. It has been used time and again to show that the discarded electric toothbrush, or plastic packaging surrounding a cucumber, represent just a fraction of the waste generated during the manufacture of a product. So, although taking steps to put our own house in order undoubtedly makes a difference, we need to go much further to bring about demonstrable change.

Secondly – and I take a deep breath here – not all packaging is bad. That cucumber with its plastic sleeve is not the root of the problem, but a symptom of consumption patterns that need to change if we are to tackle the giant elephant in the room – climate change.

Waste represents a fraction of the impact of areas such as heating and transport. Photo: Joey Kyber, Unsplash

According to EU statistical body Eurostat, the food consumed in the UK is the cheapest in Western Europe. Meanwhile, the proportion of household income spent on food has more than halved over the past 60 years. This has all been achieved using mechanised farming methods and greater streamlining – including packaging – of food. Earlier this year, Zero Waste Scotland highlighted the fact that food waste has a greater impact on climate change than plastics. Plastic film and other food packaging is a highly visible waste stream which needs to be addressed, but it cannot be tackled in isolation, especially if it results in greater volumes of food waste, or food poverty among those least able to afford the alternatives.

This leads to the issue of wider lifestyle change. While society is becoming more aware of the volume of waste stacking up in bins and the scandal of UK household waste polluting landscapes far from home, the greater challenge goes largely unheeded. It’s tempting to say ‘quietly’, but the fact is, experts have been warning of the catastrophic results of climate change with ever-greater volume and regularity. Most recently, Professor Sir Ian Boyd – who held the role of chief environment scientist at Defra – called for a major reduction in consumption and travel. He said: “We talk about sustainability but we don’t really know what it means. We need to make major technological advances in the way we use and reuse materials but we (also) need to reduce demand overall – and that means we need to change our behaviours and change our lifestyles.”

Climate Change Committee figures show that, along with industry and power, the emissions from waste have fallen dramatically since 1990, while transport emissions continue to rise. Of the six areas covered, waste represents a fraction of the impact of other influences such as heating and transport.

Tackling waste is a core activity in improving the environment. It reduces our reliance on finite resources, prevents littering locally, and devastating impacts abroad. Ten years ago, this might have been enough. However, we are living in exceptional times and, while we make and mend, rediscovering lost skills like sewing and soldering, will the big fight – alleviating climate change and slashing emissions – be taking place, Fight Club-style, out of sight?





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