Just as we so often don’t make the connection between the meals we eat and where our food actually comes from, so too can it be very easy to forget what happens to our waste.
Every time we buy, use or consume something, we only see a very small and fleeting snapshot of a product’s lifespan.
So much happens before a product arrives in our home, after we throw something away in the bin, or flush it away down the plughole.
While researching the far-reaching impacts of chemical pollution for my book, Go Toxic Free: easy and sustainable ways to reduce chemical pollution (out January 2022), I came to realise that the most important thing we can all do is to zoom out and open our eyes to a much bigger picture.
Most consumables and single-use stuff are the result of complex and often mysterious global supply chains. There is no ‘away’. What goes around, comes around, as they say.
I firmly believe the solutions must be two-fold. Firstly, rather than replacing items with innovative eco-versions, it’s much better to opt for reusables wherever possible. That involves some serious behaviour change. And while changing habits is much more difficult than making a simple switch when shopping, perhaps that’s where our power lies?
I recently received a press release for the world’s first flushable sanitary pad. Yes, it might biodegrade in the sewers but that entirely misses the point. We shouldn’t be flushing anything except the three P’s (poo, pee and paper) down the toilet.
It’s time to reconsider what happens to the glittery makeup we wash off in the shower, the daily contact lenses that get chucked down the sink or the plastic food packaging we add to the recycling.
This month, the Unblocktober campaign aims to inspire a mindset shift – by making the crucial link between where stuff goes once we flush it away, rinse it down the plughole or chuck it in the bin, we can start making better decisions while we’re shopping.
But, that said, it definitely shouldn’t be just down to us. It’s also crucial that manufacturers head right back to the drawing board and redesign products that fit into a more circular economy where things are designed to be reused.
The ‘polluter pays’ principle is aiming to create this shift in responsibility. As it stands, the manufacturers pass the buck to us to dispose of things in the best way, but once the producer becomes legally bound to prevent pollution, whether that’s from single-use plastic or the use of liquid polymers (effectively plastic in liquid form that won’t biodegrade, commonly found in cleaning products), better products and systems will have to be made.
Deposit return schemes, where we pay a small charge for a returnable reusable container that is then washed and put back in the system, are one example of this, and elsewhere in Europe they already work very efficiently. We urgently need more of this joined up thinking.
And while our habits of throwing away, flushing and rinsing down a clean sink might be engrained for now, solutions do exist.
If only everyone, from chemists to factory managers to retailers, could genuinely reconnect with where our waste goes, we can work towards a brilliantly circular and sustainable society.