By Sarah Brugler

Australians think that when they place their recyclable household items in their yellow bins, it is being recycled and turned into new products. This used to happen primarily in China or other southeastern Asian nations. But these countries are increasingly refusing to accept our waste. While the contractors still collect our recycled waste, they are finding it difficult to export and we don’t yet have the recycling facilities in Australia to process it. So large amounts of our recycling is currently being piled up.

Not only does this mean that recycling is not occurring like we think it is, as the stockpiles of recyclable materials in Australia continue to grow, so too does the fire risk. In Melbourne last year, residents had to endure a toxic fire in a recycling facility for almost a week.
Consistent national action is needed urgently.

The Australian Government recently consulted on introducing new targets into the National Waste Policy. While some of the targets were ok, the policy proposals to achieve them were woefully inadequate and fail to address the leadership void that currently exists in Australia regarding waste management.

Here at EJA, we are particularly concerned about the environmental disaster that is plastic pollution. Of the 322 million tonnes of plastic produced globally, 12.7 million tonnes of this ends up in the world’s oceans each year. Much of the plastic we produce is designed to be thrown away after only being used once – such as shopping bags, food packaging and containers, bottles, straws, cups and cutlery. Australians also produce more waste per capita than other comparable OECD nation – except for the UK – and most plastic rubbish found on Aussie beaches, comes from Australian sources, with the most polluted areas near cities.

It’s time for the Commonwealth Government to accept responsibility for the problem and work with the States and Territories to introduced nationally consistent and effective measures. Here are the key points we made to the Government’s proposal to update the National Waste Policy:

Businesses cannot be expected to “self-regulate” when it comes to matters of plastic pollution and waste generation because most private businesses simply do not have the incentives to do so.
A national waste policy has potential to create a streamlined national approach, however targets must be mandatory for States and Territories and a national legislative framework is required to establish the right incentives, rules and regulations. Such a framework should include:

  • bans on problematic single-use plastic materials (where suitable alternatives exist);
  • Commonwealth product stewardship schemes that include extended producer responsibility to become mandatory;
  • a national container deposit scheme;
  • standardisation of landfill levies across Australia (with possible exemptions for accredited or audited recycling residuals);
  • national recycling content standards and specifications must be developed;
  • tax incentives for companies who use recycled materials and levies for use of virgin plastic products;
  • investment in the development of alternative biodegradable products;
  • and a ban on incineration of plastic in waste to energy projects (due to the health and environmental risks).

We believe that if the Government made a commitment to do the above, then we’d have much less plastic in the ocean, and a much better recycling system.

Environmental Justice Australia

The original article by Sarah Brugler can be found at Environmental Justice Australia.

One person’s trash is another person’s breakfast.

One person’s trash is another person’s breakfast.Sascha Kohlmann CC BY

Each year, Australian households throw out some A$8 billion worth of edible food, with those aged 18 to 24 reported as the biggest wasters.

However, this household figure is likely far outweighed by the value of food waste generated by commercial retailers. In truth, our youth are but one contributor to what could be deemed a massive market failure.

But some people are looking for different ways to approach food and waste. Over three months I interviewed 21 young environmentalists from Melbourne, exploring how and why they began “dumpster diving”: searching waste bins for food.

While there are many reasons why someone might choose – or be forced by economic circumstances – to investigate trash, the young people I spoke to cited a range of motivations: to reduce waste; to create a sense of community; and because they did not want to support unsustainable food markets.

Dumpster divers, like these young Montrealers, are all over the world.

Dumpster divers, like these Montrealers, are all over the world.Stéphanie Vé CC BY-NC-SA

Understanding dumpster diving

Food waste is estimated to cost the Australian economy A$20 billion a year (this includes commercial and industrial sector waste, as well as waste disposal charges).

The Australian government is developing legislation with the aim of halving food wastage by 50%. Effective solutions could result in tremendous savings and considerable environmental benefit.

While dumpster diving is obviously not a wholesale solution to the problem of food waste, young consumers’ changing attitudes are an important part of our national conversation.

My findings show that Melbourne’s young environmentalists regularly visit dumpsters at vegetable markets, supermarkets and bakeries.

My interviewees were motivated to dumpster dive by a range of factors besides the obvious gain of free food and goods. Framing the deed as economic necessity fails to capture a variety of incentives.

It’s worth noting that the limited demographic I studied means these results cannot be associated with those who dumpster-dive out of genuine need. Rather, those I interviewed wanted to reduce food waste and avoid supporting the “mainstream” food economy. One young environmentalist told me:

I never in my childhood and afterwards had a shortage of food in my life. I think the reason that I started [dumpster diving] and one of the main reasons that I continue it is because I think it’s environmentally a good thing to do […] I am not buying things. I am not contributing to unsustainable food production.

Several participants said they refused to buy from companies with unacceptable environmental credentials. For them, dumpster diving is not an occasional activity but a planned and ongoing way of life. They attempt to create an alternative “free” food economy based on minimising waste and sharing resources.

However, members of the group are aware of opposition to the practice. Several had experienced confrontations with retail staff, security guards and members of the public. One interviewee said:

I think they [supermarket authorities] worry about losing business [as] people get food from their bins, not from the supermarket; it’s a part of their worry as well. They ask me to leave. I ask, ‘Why?’ It’s ridiculous. Why can’t they let me have this food that will probably end up in landfill?

Feel-good and fun

Dumpster divers are also motivated by the emotional bonds they form as a group. They’re part of a broader subculture of “alternative” consumers, who commonly share food; they describe themselves as “a community of free food people”.

Several expressed a “feel good” and “fun” dimension to the activity. Acquiring unpredictable “finds” created a sense of novelty and surprise, and a feeling that the rewards were “worked for”. They mirror more traditional shopping habits like “treasure-hunting”, or the thrill of finding a bargain.

Retailers’ perspective

Businesses have a mixed attitude towards dumpster divers.

Businesses have a mixed attitude towards dumpster divers.Bruce Flingerhood CC BY

From a retailer’s perspective, dumpster diving presents a different face. Although one interviewee accused retailers of protecting their profits, there’s also the risk of a dumpster diver being injured, or getting sick from unsafe food.

While some companies actively support or are empathetic towards dumpster divers, others call for the prosecution of divers whom they believe to be stealing. Diving is illegal in many developed countries such as Germany and New Zealand (although prosecutions are rare).

Everybody involved in the food chain has a role to play in reducing food waste. Retailers can work to optimise their supply chain, reduce the amount of produce on display or accept less-than-perfect produce from farmers. Products approaching expiring should be heavily discounted, or donated to charities (although food banks aren’t a panacea).

We as consumers should also be willing to adjust our expectations of perfect produce, something explored in the ABC program War on Waste and campaigns like the United States’ Ugly Fruit and Veg.

More fundamentally, we need to change our attitude to food. Thinking about why and how we create waste and exploring different perspectives – like dumpster diving – are all part of this process.

The ConversationUltimately, the purpose of dumpster diving is to highlight and provide an alternative to the food waste embedded in everyday business models. At the end of the day, the way forward is for each of us to consider and reflect on our own habits of consumption.

This article was originally published at The Conversation.
By Chamila Perera, Lecturer, Swinburne University of Technology
Read the original article.