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In last week’s sustainable living blog about easy at-home product swaps, I wrote about the 5 R’s of waste reduction:

  • Refuse
  • Reduce
  • Reuse
  • Recycle, and
  • Rot

And how we can consider each of our purchases in regards to these categories as the first step towards reducing our waste.

Over the next few weeks, I’m going to drive deep into each of these areas and how we can implement them in our daily lives.

The primary goal is to reduce our waste and as a result, our carbon emissions for a happier planet.

First things first, we need to fully understand the waste we create, where it goes, and what we can do about it.

Waste audits

Digging through a bag of rubbish might sound disgusting, but its a sure-fire way to get an accurate view of where we are creating the most waste and what we may be able to change for the good of the planet.

It’s not about guilt or blame – as you can see in my video below, I have not censored what is in my rubbish at all and I don’t feel ashamed. I feel empowered to change. I hope you do too!

Secretly I love doing these and its a real eye-opener.

So there you have it, my waste was mostly filled with plastic wrappers which is not surprising.

The plastic wrap around many foods means it lasts longer on the shelf and as a result, reduces food waste. Imagine if every product came straight from the supplier wrapped in paper – it wouldn’t last a week.

So while plastic wrap has its purpose, there is always something we can do to reduce it.

Household waste – what happens next?

Every single item that goes into our black bags meets 1 of 2 ends.

It’s either sent to a landfill or burnt via incineration. Once that black bag goes in the bin, that’s it – no further sorting occurs so its up to us to sort at source.

In 2018, UK households threw away 22.7 million tonnes of waste, including 6m tonnes of organic waste and 16.6m tonnes of non-organic waste. This equates to 4,226kg per person per year.

The organic waste includes food, paper and cardboard and wood.

Whereas the non-organic includes plastic packaging, furniture, clothing and textiles, glass, vehicles and vehicle parts, appliances and electronics.

In regards to disposal:

  • 1.1m tonnes of organic waste was incinerated (food & wood), along with 2.2m tonnes of non-organic waste (furniture and plastic packaging),
  • 11.7m tonnes of organic waste was recycled (mostly into soils), along with 7.2m tonnes of non-organic waste (glass, textiles & metals), and
  • 285,863 tonnes of organic waste was sent to landfill (wood and vegetable waste), along with 4.3m tonnes of non-organic waste (mostly plastic packaging, nappies and other black bag contents).

Most shockingly, UK households threw away over 4.5m tonnes of food. 10m tonnes if you include the food and beverage industries – 60% of which could have been avoided.

For simplicity, I have used the UK as an example, however, the EU, USA, and Australia are comparatively similar in the production and disposal of household wastes (more on this later!).

How landfills work

In a landfill, both organic and non-organic waste is dumped into a deep hole, lined with clay and synthetic plastic liners to isolate it from the surrounding environment and groundwater.

Every day, our bags of waste are compacted down and covered with soil. When the area is full, it is sealed with a 40mm polyethylene cap and covered with more soil and covered in grass to stop erosion.

As this happens, anaerobic digestion of the organic matter starts to occur in the absence of oxygen, resulting in the release of methane gas.

While the non-organic matter remains mostly the same.

The higher the percentage of organic matter within the landfill, the quicker it decomposes, and the higher the production of methane gas.

Methane gas (a primary output of the agricultural industry) is up to 20 times more potent in the atmosphere than CO2.

And if left to release naturally, 1 tonne of methane gas will convert to 1.38t of CO2 in the atmosphere.

For this reason, waste management and landfill sites are highly regulated to collect methane gas, which they use to power their operations.

However, the amount of waste we create far outweighs the capabilities of landfill sites and so much of this waste is burnt.

In addition, prior to the introduction of new regulations in the 1990s, many landfill sites did not collect methane and were insufficiently isolated from the surrounding groundwater systems.

As such they are still releasing methane directly into the atmosphere and are at risk of leaking toxic chemicals into waterways.

For more shocking facts about waste, check out this article by Ovo Energy.

How incineration works

In the process of incineration or waste-to-energy as it’s now called, all organic and non-organic waste is burnt at 1,000° Celsius converting to ash and gas.

The gases are heated again at a higher temperature to break their chemical bonds, creating water, carbon dioxide, and steam that is used to power electric turbines, while the ash (15-25% of the original mass) is chemically treated before being disposed of in landfills.

Both the ash and gas are composed of highly toxic chemicals including dioxin, furan and fine particular matter which unless filtered before release, is a huge risk to human health.

Since 1990, incineration plants must comply to very strict environmental rules in regards to the cleaning and release of ash and gas – so much so that they now produce less toxic outputs than backyard burning or wood-fired chimneys.

However, those built before this time can still be major CO2 producers, releasing 1 tonne of CO2 per tonne of municipal waste.

Incineration plants are highly efficient. They process much larger quantities of waste and require much less space than landfills while releasing significantly fewer pollutants than coal plants.

They also contribute to our heating and electricity requirements: 1t of municipal waste will produce 2/3 Megawatts per hour (MWh) of electricity and 2 MWh of heating – enough for an average home in the UK or France for a year.

However, they are much more expensive than landfills to run, and require a constant flow of waste to convert to energy to remain viable.

Sweden is currently the most progressive country in the use of waste to energy plants (WTE) and as a result are now importing waste from other countries to keep their incinerators working.

How incineration works

Landfill vs Incineration: what’s the solution?

In most developing countries, the use of landfills is slowly being phased out. Landfills take up a lot of space and are almost impossible to securely manage in the long term.

The waste dumped in landfills will take hundreds of thousands of years to decompose and in the meantime, produce large quantities of methane gas – more than can currently be captured and stored due to its highly combustable properties.

And while WTE plants are highly efficient and contribute energy to the national grid, they still produce large quantities of toxic gas and ash that has to be disposed of.

The very best solution, for the long term health of the planet is to improve our production and recycling capabilities from the top down and reduce our production of waste from the ground up.

Refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle, rot

The number 1 way we, as individuals, can create positive change, is to reduce the amount of waste we throw away.

Starting with your household bin, what items did you purchase that you could refuse for next time to reduce your plastic waste. Is there another brand with more sustainable packaging? Could you make the item at home instead?

What could have gone in your recycling instead?

How much food did you throw away? Do you have space for a compost pile, or access to roadside compost recycling? Perhaps you can donate it to another cause?

If you have space at home for a compost pile, place a sealed container next to your sink for collecting scraps. Line it with a use piece of paper to help keep it clean.

When cutting up vegetables, collect all your leaves, skins, and ends in a bag in your freezer, and once it’s full, boil it down to make stock before adding the remnants to the compost.

When heading to the supermarket:

  • Create a meal plan in advance and only buy what you need
  • Avoid 2-for-1 deals unless you need it and single-use packaging.
  • Choose loose fruits and vegetables and pack into your own reusable bags.

Here is a list of other ways you can help tackle food waste:

Need more inspiration?

Next week I’m diving deep on recycling, what and how our rubbish is recycled and what we can do better 🙂

Thanks for being here!

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  1. […] Waste management facilities do not sort our black bag rubbish and everything that goes into a general waste disposal bin meets only one of two ends – landfill or incineration. […]

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