There’s more to recycling than steel cans and glass bottles.
AUTHOR and science journalist Tanya Ha often asks this question: What do you do in you own home to help the environment?
“Recycling is the first thing people say,” she says. “We’ve been doing it and we’re proud of it. To some degree, it’s second nature.”
National Recycling Week starts tomorrow, coordinated by Planet Ark. There’ll be challenges, swaps and workshops in schools and council areas around the country, and “file flings” in offices to encourage paper recycling.
A recent study released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics reported that 98 percent of households recycle or reuse items around home.
That’s something to celebrate, Ms Ha says, but not something to be satisfied with. (Take aluminium cans: we recycle two out of every three; the Germans, 96 out of 100.)
“We’ve gone into autopilot on day-to-day recycling. We could improve, especially away from home, but generally we do it pretty well. But the ground is shifting under us. There’s a lot more we can do,” she says.
To coincide with Recycling Week, Ms Ha and Planet Ark have released a report called Second Nature, which tracks the past and present and speculates on the future of recycling in Australia.
“The waste we produce says so much about our society: what things we buy, what things we value and what we don’t,” she says.
Normal practices are always changing. In the nineteenth century, rag and bone collectors sold household rags to paper mills, and kitchen bones to makers of buttons, soap, glue and gelatine. Until the 1960s, glass drink bottles were all refillable.
Ms Ha says our reasons for recycling have also changed, from concern about sanitation in the eighteenth century, and the need for thrift during the war eras, to worries about landfill capacity in the ’60s and ’70s, when consumption and single-use packaging boomed.
“Now the pressing need is climate change,” she explains, “and the other motivation will be resource security.”
They’re big concerns. Ms Ha says we need a shift in mindset, away from a linear, “cradle-to-grave” approach, and into cyclical, “cradle-to-cradle” thinking.
Organic waste is the perfect illustration. In 2006-07, material such as food scraps, paper, cardboard, wood and garden clippings comprised nearly two-thirds of everything that went into landfill (PDF).
“In landfill conditions, it produces methane, which is a powerful greenhouse gas. But biodegradable waste is such a useful resource; we need to capture it and put it back into the soil,” she says.
The other challenge is e-waste, such as computers, televisions and batteries. Around Australia, there are 22 million disused mobile phones and accessories languishing in the dark.
Inside are precious resources: 1 tonne of obsolete mobile phones (not including their batteries) can yield 300 grams of gold, over 3 kilograms of silver, about 140 kilograms of copper, among other things.
Until the end of the year, MobileMuster, the industry-funded recycling program, is promoting a “memory muster”. Post or drop-off your old mobile and they’ll send you prints of your six favourite, forgotten photos.
Remember, however, that avoiding consumption is better than recycling the results. Do you really need that new phone, TV or gadget?
With the race on to reduce carbon emissions, Ms Ha says, just worrying about recycling “is like a swimmer just focussing on the tumble turns, not on the laps”.