Nature does not know waste. When plastic became mass produced from the mid 20th century, it’s longevity was touted as one of its assets – few people (except some visionaries) imagined that consumer plastics and the use and throw culture would create mountains of trash and garbage patches the size of France a few decades later. Yet we are only seeing the tip of the iceberg, with plastic production due to quadruple by 2050. Little is known of the long term consequences of this amount of plastics in the environment, its breakdown and ingestion by animals along the food chain. What is certain is that alien visitors or our descendants would be able to characterise our age as the age of plastic, when it integrated the planet’s geological cycle.
There are however encouraging signs of change. Last week the European Parliament took an important step towards a circular economy, where little would be wasted. It not only sets targets for municipal recycling for all member states, but also sets specific targets for packaging recycling and has a global landfill reduction target. Producers are not spared as they will be made responsible for the waste management of their products. Scientists have recently accidentally boosted the capacity of an enzyme to break down plastic. Researchers and ocean conservationists have developed boats to collect plastic from the ocean.
This is however not enough. With more than 8 million tons of plastic thrown in the ocean each year these measures are likely to make only a small dent in this figure. We have shifted from a society that wasted little to one where we take our coffees to take away in plastic cups and it is a miracle if a toaster goes past its guarantee. According to Eurostat, the situation in Europe has not changed much in the past 20 years. A quick look on a garbage collection day in Brussels will tell you this.
While the onus of action should be on governments and producers, regular citizens can also contribute to reaching a circular economy:
Reduce: something you do not buy is something that does not end in your trash or recycling bin. Prefer products with little or no packaging. While a little more effort, a moka espresso machine will produce nearly no waste compared to the monstrous Nespresso. You are voting with your wallet. You can find a list of supermarkets and shops which sell food in bulk here.
Reuse: this tenet basically means not to buy something new if you can help it. One of the most common issues today are broken electronics. The good news is that there are many Repair Cafes in Brussels where experienced people will open and if possible fix your machines. Alternatively, you can donate them to the Petits Riens, which will themselves fix and sell it.