Time to throw away our rubbish mindset

Down the sink, in the bin or in the recycling – following the end destination of what we throw away could help shift our mindset away from disposable to reusable, writes Anna Turns.

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.

Food waste in landfill emits greenhouse gases, while reusables can help reduce the demand for new plastic products, made from oil. 

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.


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  1. So, we have the destruction of the biggest expanse of water in the lake District, because of septic tanks ( nasty chemicals either to clean the loo – citric acid works – or wash from our bodies), holiday destination sewage ( all that eating out and the beer, the beer and the wine) and land run-off ( bloody farmers).
    Probably we also have microplastics from washing clothes in our holiday accommodations bought in one of the many clothing shops in Ambleside.

    Probably, we have P2.5 particulation from vehicles caught in the many traffic jams between Kendal and Keswick as well as exhausts from motor boats.

    Why? Because we can!!!! Can what??? Well, we can go on holiday to the Lake District and maybe we can use a bus. Maybe we can think about the use of second homes and investment properties as holiday homes and the lack of viable wages and housing for those who clean them and work in the shops.
    Yup.. I’m as guilty as anybody else, having lived on the edge of the Lake District and whizzed many times with the kids up to Coniston for a picnic after school and cursed;
    all those from Manchester and Liverpool with the huge sound systems that you could hear halfway across the lake;
    the visible signs of pollution, including algal blooms that meant, even on the best weather days, there would be no swimming;
    the devastation that flooding from deforestation and sheep caused to peripheral settlements downstream;
    the paradox/contradiction that life deals when I say ‘But I’ve got to get out or I’ll go bonkers’;

    Another thought: now living in Hampshire and being in conversation on the doorstep with the prospective local L.D councillor. A conversation regarding plastic recycling and how it now gets incinerated because it can’t be shipped to other parts of the world. A very small sense of smugness as I gaze avidly at the compost heap to see how the Riverford plastic bags are composting…I could be there for ages, methinks!

  2. If I could condense my feelings on this I would make just two points;
    1. We, the public, have many different job titles – very few are plastic/polymer scientists. So why is it left to us to dispose of plastics responsibly? Especially when sometimes- ‘this item cannot yet be recycled ‘?
    2. We must all stop thinking there is such a place as ‘away’ – this crap ends up somewhere, Singapore, the ocean, your local beach. If packaging was more ‘circular’ and less single use plastic used, we could start to see it not as waste, but as a resource.
    BUT – those changes must come from the top, not the bottom of the consumer chain.

  3. The thing that especially angers me in supermarkets is the way organic produce is nearly always packed in plastic, whereas non-organic versions are available loose! Which is one reason for using Riverford of course, although to be honest organic produce is usually cheaper in the supermarket.

    1. It’s cheaper for a variety of reasons…depends which supermarket – Tesco pay their customer service assistants slightly more than Co-op, Waitrose has its ‘partners’ but generally wages are not good in any of them. See GSW’s article on minimum wage in the last WL. When I buy Riverford I know they ( and that’s all the folk who work there) are doing their best…it’s not just a massive chain leaving growers with what they see a substandard quality,

      I agree about the plastic and my favourite after Riverford is Booths – but you don’t get them down here!!!

  4. Referring to contact lens disposal, the opticians Horrocks and Boyd take back both the used lenses and the cases; at least they do in their Kingston Surrey branch.

  5. While agreeing with all the above comments, I would argue with Anna Turn’s remark that nothing but “poo, pee and paper” should go into the sewers. She excludes the third bodily waste : menstrual blood and tissue surely goes with the three Ps. It’s just that most of the commercial products that allow women to play their full part in society now usually contain a proportion of plastic. There are “alternative” products now available which allow women to dispose of such waste without contributing to plastic pollution. I read that the number of female engineers is increasing: maybe a few of them could turn their minds to this issue, if men are too squeamish? An earlier edition of Wicked Leeks covered the use of human waste (sewage) in agriculture, but I don’t recall any mention of this, previously unmentionable, waste product/resource.

  6. Are we ever going to get real action from those in power? From what can be seen in the past I think the answer is no!

    That’s why people have to protest and why the residents of Grenfell Tower still wait for some sort of justice. We need more people to take action in different ways.


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