Since the introduction of plastic, litter has been hijacked and turned into something unsustainable. I want to restore litter to its rightful place in the ecological cycle. I say lets reclaim litter from packaging businesses and get it back in the compost bins.
The New Litter
Imagine a world where litter if dropped would in a few weeks at most, have transformed itself into healthy compost to feed the next generation of plants. Rubbish you could safely burn on the bonfire and then spread the ashes round your gooseberries. Trash you didn’t have to carefully sort before paying a great deal to have it removed and specially dealt with.
Thats how rubbish used to be before we started using plastic for wrapping and packaging just about everything. Most plastic does not biodegrade so it cannot be composted, it is not easily burnt and it cannot be fed to the pigs. Instead this plastic rubbish lasts for decades, centuries possibly for ever. If it escapes out into the environment it is out there for ever.
using plastic, a product that lasts for generations for disposable throw away products we use for moments before discarding has completely changed our relationship with rubbish and littering generally.
What No Bin?
While this might not be so noticeable in some places. it bcomes horrible apparent elsewhere.
A while ago I went to visit the nomads who live out in the Persian deserts. We sat in a circle drinking tea and eating sunflower seeds. As we muched we scattered the discarded seed husks around our feet. Then one of my companions brought out some shop bought sweets. All the kids went crazy for this big city treat excitedly ripping off the shiny plastic wrappers. Then as they did with the seed husks, they dropped the glittering plastic skins onto on the ground. Because that’s what they do with litter. And until now it hasn’t been a problem. The seed husks of course biodegrade back into the soil but the plastic sweet wrappers are there for ever.
So what to do with them? Plastic can only be disposed of in a few very specialized, costly and labour intensive ways. It has to be collected up, transported and buried in landfill, burnt in a high specification incinerators or recycled. But these are nomads. They don’t have a rubbish collection service. Indeed they are a donkey ride away from the nearest road. There is an open dump some distance away where household waste is thrown. It used to be self managing. The goats scavenged through it for food and what was left would eventually biodegrade. Now of course it is and evergrowing morass of plastic bottles, tangled with plastic bags and shiny wrappers. Looking closer and you could see that the sandy scrub land all around us was scattered with plastic trash. The nomads sometimes try to burn their plastic trash but it doesn’t burn well on open fires. All around the camp were warped and blackened half-melted misshapes. Burning plastic at best smells dreadful and adds to global warming, at worst it can release dangerous fumes. Not something you want to be trying at home – or outside your tent.This simple world once self sustaining is becoming increasingly polluted.
This is long it takes for natural products to biodegrade, when scattered about as litter:
Paper ~ 2-5 months
Cotton rags ~ 1-5 month
Natural fiber rope ~ 3-14 months
Orange peel ~6 months
Wool socks ~1 to 5 years
Leather shoes ~25 to 40 years
Tin cans ~ 50 to 100 years
Plastic lasts for ever.
Cheap enough to trash but not disposable….
So now when the nomads move on they leave a heap of everlasting trash that the hot, dry wind scatters across the plain. But what is the answer? Should the nomads be banned from using plastic they can’t dispose of, not allowed access to fizzy drinks, processed food, aspirin or anything packaged in disposable plastic packaging?
Though plastic packaging and one-use products are described as disposable they aren’t. Not really. What disposable means in this context is that these items are cheap enough to be used once and then discarded.
Because plastic lasts for ever, every bit of plastic trash has to be collected and specially treated. So along with the landfill site,incinerator or recycling plant to actually treat plastic waste, you need roads, refuse trucks, a workforce and the money to pay for it all. Consequently it’s not just nomads who have plastic trash problem. You can find appalling examples of plastic pollution in
Countries with weak or corrupt governments,
Remote places with a limited infrastructure including many beaches
Communities with little money
Societies upset by war, natural disasters and other calamities.
There are many reasons why a community may not be able to dispose of its plastic trash but the results are always disastrous. There are swathes of plastic trash spoiling the beaches, choking streams and littering verges. It is mixed in with the house hold waste on open rubbish dumps and every year hundreds of wild and domestic animals die or are permanently maimed as a result of accidentally ingesting plastic. Plastic pollution is impacting on the tourist trade, polluting washing water and damaging the livelihood of the poorest, those who depend on rivers for water, whose animals graze on common land.
Real Litter And The Natural Process
Littering, feral cows and open rubbish dumps as methods of waste disposal are not without their problems but it is worth noting that isolated villages and islanders have managed their rubbish for this way for hundreds of years and maintained clean, working landscape. Because rather than doing long term damage, real litter is an essential part of a natural process. Many fruits rely on littering to spread their seed. Think apples – the fruit is eaten the core discarded elsewhere it rots and the seeds hopefully get to germinate.
Dumping biological litter releases essential nutrients back into the soil. Compost and partially rotted matters helps improve soil structure and feed the millions a tiny creatures essential for healthy eco system.
Natural waste is an essential part of the biological cycle. Traditional methods of waste disposal work with the ecosystem and help return nutrients as part of the natural cycle.This is an intact nutrient cycle.
As societies become distanced from this cycle they see waste products not essentials elements in a circular system but a useless end product of a linear system that have to be specially disposed of.
This is called a broken system and is ecologically unhealthy.Yet this is the system that plastic manufacturers like to promote. Reason being of course that plastic does not belong in the circular biological system. Plastic litter is an unnatural end product that has to be specially disposed of.
Great images were Found on vergepermaculture.ca
Litter once used to describe natural shedding of material as in leaf litter is now also refers unnatural and environmentally damaging human detritus escaping into the ecosystem.
Why should you care
If you are reading this in a country that has a workable infrastructure, regular rubbish collections and street cleaners you might feel that that unnatural litter is not your problem. It can be collected and disposed of for you and as for returning nutrients to soil, who needs compost when we have chemists to make fertilizer?
But consider this then this system only works for as long as there is stability, money and manpower. Its rather like saying who needs stairs if you have a lift. Fine when the lift is working but if it breaks down, goes on strike or you don’t have the money to maintain it…. well you can see where I am going with this.
Or this; current methods of waste disposal in richer countries are extremely expensive. You are paying a great deal of money to clean up this trash.
More importantly all these clean up methods come with their own serious side effects. Put plastic in landfill and it just sits there. Consequently the landfill sites are nearly full and news ones are in increasingly short supply. Burning plastic is controversial with many groups claiming it releases toxins into the atmosphere. It certainly adds to global warming.
Recycling has a role to play but it is not cost effective to recycle all plastics so only percentage are. All of these methods require a lot of resources. None resolve the problem of plastic litter that has escaped into the environment.
And of course even the best waste collection system are only partially effective. Certainly there are large parts of the U.K. that are badly plastic damaged. Litter louts the cry goes up. And as someone who picks up other peoples plastic trash I hate them too. But when it comes to litter, tossers are only part of the problem. Even if we caught all litterers and locked them up, we would still have a litter problem because a lot of littering is accidental. Think sweets dropped unnoticed, picnic ware left behind and plasters peeling off. More is down to natural causes, mostly wind blown. Plastic trash is often gusted back out of bins. Anyone who lives near a rubbish treatment site will know that a lot of plastic escapes back out into the environment.
Any one who lives in the countryside knows that black and green plastic used on farms gets everywhere. Much of the plastic on the roadside is packaging blown off lorries. Animals scrabbling in bins also do a lot of damage.
Then there is littering thats not considered littering. Because these products are labelled disposable there is the assumption that they are safe to throw them away. Because they often mimic products which are genuinely biodegradable it is easy to understand why people get confused. What could be more biodegradable than a teabag. Paper and leaves. But the paper contains plastic that will live for ever in your compost heap.
The plastic exfoliating beads in your face scrub that get washed down the sink and into the sea are micro plastic pollutants that many countries are now banning.
A tampon that looks like it is made of cotton wool is neither cotton or wool but plastic. And thousands of them get flushed down the toilet and have to be dealt with at the other end. By hand. Urghhhh! You can find a list of sneaky plastics here
Whatever the reasons anyone who uses plastic disposables, (which is everyone), is deliberately, accidentally or through ignorance guilty of improperly discarding them at some point. Consequently huge amounts of plastic disposables escape out into the environment on a daily basis. And not just onto the streets and into the trees. Scientists are findings increasing amounts of plastic in the sea and soil and animals they support. Our discarded plastic is changing the environment in fundamental and irreversible ways.
Who Is Responsible
The plastics industry say end users should behave more responsibly, stop littering and start recycling more. Well of course they would as this shifts the focus from the huge amounts of trash being created by their industry. To dispose of plastic properly the end user needs to be able finance an expensive system of specialized plastic treatment plants and organize regular rubbish collections. Then they need to know the difference between what is compostable and what looks as though it is. To research and find the plastic in the most unlikely places (teabags, toothpaste and glitter soap) and then dispose of it “properly”. Though how anyone is going to dispose of plastic micro beads in facewash properly is beyond me.
Their arguments are a smoke screen. It is futile to say that people should stop littering. Some won’t and others don’t know they are doing it. It completely ignores littering as a result of natural cause and disasters. It disregards littering as a result of poverty by those who have no access to waste disposal systems. It seems expect that impoverished countries to find the money to implement effective waste control measures.
Basically it is an attempt to divert blame from where it really lies – with the product. Something that is made to be discarded has to be properly disposable not properly disposed of. Any disposable, throwaway product has to be designed bearing the following points in mind
- Litter does not always end up in the bin
- End of life disposal methods
- The cost and practicality of effective waste disposal
- Allow for the consumer manage waste at the point of creation
- To present no danger to the natural ecosystem
- To must have a lifespan of months maximum
Waste in short has to be natural, compostable, safe for animals to eat and carbon neutral to burn. Plastic fails on just about every count.
We have to go back to traditional litter, real litter that meets all of the above criteria. Returning to real litter does not mean littering is to be endorsed. Yes you can dispose of a banana peel by throwing it in the bushes where it will naturally compost but if everyone did so there would be heaps of festering food and rats the size of rabbits.
The natural environment can only cope with a fixed amount of waste at any time. Too much and it becomes overwhelmed. In larger communities littering would still need to controlled but it would be via municipal composting schemes… more of this later. In the meantime, if the banana peel did end up in the bushes, it would do no harm.
At worst real rubbish would look untidy and only for the time it took to rot away. It certainly wouldn’t have dreadful consequences that plastic littering has. Making throwaway items out of a material that damages the environment, is a danger to animals and impacts adversely on the poorer members of the community is, to put it very kindly, irresponsible.
Using those products is endorsing and encouraging this irresponsibility. We have to stop using plastic to make disposable products. But rather than wait (probably a very long time), for governments to, (possibly), legislate, I would suggest we take individual responsibility now. I urge you to join me in the campaigning for real rubbish ( working title CAMFORR) by boycotting plastic, so-called disposables and demanding biodegradable alternatives.
CAMFORR Refusing to use to keep it clean.
You can find are loads of compostable plastic free and plastic less products here
Want to shop plastic free – try this reusable and compostable packaging
Other campaigns – ask Diary Crest to keep glass refillable milk bottles – sign the petition Any designers out there? We need logo!