Currently our society is driven by a linear economy in which the natural world is exploited, natural resources are converted into products, we use the product, then dispose of it.
What does that mean?
In the past thirty years we have consumed one third of the worlds non-renewable natural resources. These are gone and can’t be replaced. Meanwhile New Zealand sends 2.5 million tons of waste to landfill every year. What we have on our hands is an unsustainable system in crisis. Natural resources are continually depleted whilst waste production rises exponentially.
As much as we need a prosperous economy, we also need a prosperity of kindness and decency.
Take – The process of taking our planets’ natural resources- felling trees, drilling for oil, draining rivers dry and in the process exploiting people and eradicating wildlife.
Make – The process of mixing natural resources with toxins to get toxic products.
For example, plastics are derived from natural organic resources like crude oil, cellulose and natural gas. However, dangerous chemicals including heavy metals, Bisphenols and Phthalates are added during the production process to give plastics their various different qualites and functions. There are at least 148 chemicals used in plastic production that are ranked as “most hazardous” to human health and/or the environment.
Consume – The goal here is to keep prices down and keep people buying. Chain stores can do this by externalising the costs involved in making a product. ‘Externalising” the costs means the environment and the workers involved, or implicated by the extraction and production processes, “pay” for our item for us. They “pay” by working well below minimum age and wage in substandard conditions. When we go to a store and buy simple a T-shirt for $10 we aren’t paying for the cottonseed or the sewing or harvesting of the cotton or the wages of any people at any point in the production line. If this were the case, the true cost of our T-shirts would be much higher than $10. This is why fair trade and locally produced items often cost a little more because we are actually paying for the true value of the good and everything that went into producing it.
Media and marketing drives our consumerist culture by hiding all the steps in the linear economy; except for the shopping bit which gets A LOT of coverage. We are bombarded with advertising on a daily basis that tells us to shop, shop, shop. Two very effective marketing strategies that keep us consuming are planned obsolescence and perceived obsolescence.
Planned obsolescence occurs when products or parts of products, are designed to break or wear out and are not repairable. Perceived obsolescence is when we throw away perfectly good and functional things because they are no longer fashionable or on trend.
Disposal – In North America 99% of everything that passes through the materials economy is thrown away within six months. Since toxins are added to many of our mass produced products toxins are invariably released when those products are disposed of. Whether incinerated or buried in landfill, both forms of disposal pollute the land, air and water. In the case of some materials incineration actually creates super toxins like dioxin – the most toxic substance known to science. Yikes.
So recycling is the answer to all our problems right? Hmmmm – not quite. Recycling does reduce the amount that goes to landfill and it eases the pressure to harvest and mine which is great. However, recycling on its own will never be enough to solve the problem for several reasons:
- Much of what we dispose of can’t be recycled or can only be recycled a limited number of times.
- In New Zealand the vast majority of our new plastic resin is imported and most of our post-consumer plastic waste is shipped offshore for recycling. There a significant environmental cost to shipping these materials backwards and forwards and we have no mandate over how materials are processed or disposed of once they leave our shores.
- For every bag of rubbish our household produces roughly 70 bags worth of rubbish were disposed of just to produce what is in that one household rubbish bag. Therefore, even if every household recycled 100% of the waste they produced this doesn’t get to the root of the problem.
Circular economy- Ōhanga āmiomio
- In contrast to the linear economy a circular economy is based on three main principles:
- Design waste and pollution out of the system: Products are designed to have longevity rather than designed to break.
- Keep products and materials in use: products and manufacturing processes are designed in such a way that everything can be “unmade” Manufacturers can extract precious minerals from end of life products and reuse them.
- Regenerating natural systems: organic materials are composted, thus replenishing and nurturing the natural resources we reply on.
There are many great examples of grassroots circular economy based initiatives present in New Zealand. One of them is the compost collective (create link to their page)which allows people without a home compost to find neighbours who can take their food scraps and compost them.
Other awesome initiatives are in the pipeline as well. For example The Kiwi Bottle Drive (link to their page) are campaigning to bring back the bottle deposit scheme in New Zealand.
A large-scale example in New Zealand is Flight Plastics processing plant- New Zealand’s first PET plastic recycling facility. Not only does this reduce the need for us to send our plastics offshore for recycling it also reduces the amount of new PET we import. Furthermore, having this plant in New Zealand creates new jobs and employment opportunities here. Win-Win.