It’s mid December which makes it just about the most consumerist moment of the year. We all rush out to buy people Christmas presents that they almost certainly don’t need, and in many cases probably don’t want either. Oh, we also buy a load of cheap plastic decorations even though most people already have boxes of them sitting in sheds, attics or cupboards somewhere.
In our more environmentally aware, getting just a little bit scared of climate change, world then the right thing to do is to buy people eco-presents and decorations, things that are made from renewable materials or that aren’t disposable and will last for longer, right?
Well, yes, of course that is better than buying a load of plastic crap BUT ONLY if they/we actually need them and we are not just going to throw away something that we already have that is working perfectly well to replace it with a ‘greener’ version. In which case it should be fairly obvious to anyone that buying the ‘more sustainable’ product is actually just creating more waste and resource usage.
There are two thing that I want to make clear before I go any further.
Firstly, there are people who will read the following, which includes things like plastic bags, and dismiss it as totally unimportant, believing that such small issues make no difference as long as governments, industry and society as a whole don’t make large sweeping environmental changes. I see that argument and while I do absolutely and strongly agree that big changes are needed I am not willing to dismiss the cumulative effects of small ones made by large numbers of people.
Secondly, if you are replacing something that uses fossil fuels or that creates some kind of harmful emissions, like an electric car, then you are not just replacing like for like and that’s a whole different issue. It’s still not a super simple issue, but it is a different one.
So, with those caveats out of the way, the simple reality is that we need to re-use, re-purpose and recycle as much as we can instead of just chucking things into the bin and replacing them, and that means not buying loads of stuff, whether it is for ourselves or as gifts for other people.
Have I at this point already started to sound a little bit like Ebeneezer Scrooge? Very possibly but I don’t really care and in any case my reasoning is a lot less selfish than his.
This applies to whatever items we might be talking about. Clothing, kitchen utensils, toys, ornaments, decorations, ‘gadgets’ that will be used for a day and then throw into a drawer somewhere. I’m going to focus for a moment on the shiny decorations you hang from your tree and the constantly talked about issue of disposable plastic bags, just because they are representative, but the same goes for everything.
We shouldn’t be manufacturing, buying or using lots of shiny new plastic baubles and garlands, there are far more sustainable alternatives. If you have a box of plastic decorations at home though, then you should use them (or if you really hate them for some reason then give them away to someone who will be happy to have them). Surely that is better than just leaving them sitting in a box somewhere or trashing them and moving on to the new wondrous ‘green’ alternative.
Also, sometimes less is more. We happen to have a wooden rhino head on our wall. Don’t ask, it came with the rented apartment. With the addition of one shiny bauble thingy he looks quite festive 🙂
It’s the same argument as with disposable plastic bags, which aren’t Christmassy but are a really obvious example. There are trillions, yes literally trillions, of them in existence, so we should wait until they are at the end of their usable lifespan then dispose of them ethically and replace them with something better. Of course, we shouldn’t be making new ones but we should use the existing ones until they become unusable and then recycle them, instead of just throwing them out to end up in the ocean somewhere. Some studies show that it takes 7,000 times more natural resources to make many common reusable bags than it does to make a disposable plastic one. Although that doesn’t take into account the waste problem at the end of their life, it’s still a big impact and we need to make sure that instead of just buying many of them and leaving them to sit in drawers we actually use them.
This is really the simplest of common sense. The production footprint of existing things is something that we can’t go back and change, but new things all use resources, whether they are more or less sustainable than the alternative new things on offer.
I’m not suggesting that we should never allow ourselves to have nice things and that we should use broken old crap forever (even if that would be the most strictly sustainable choice) but that we should replace things when they actually need to be replaced, and when we do then take the more sustainable option. I’m also not suggesting that you should never give a gift to the people you care about, you should, but maybe it doesn’t have to be a physical material thing or if it is then maybe it should be something they truly need or that replaces something that actually needs to be replaced.
Oh, and when it really is the time to replace something, think about what you do with the old unwanted version. If you can’t recycle, reuse or repurpose it any longer that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a use to someone somewhere.
We should also maybe not buy more of things than we need. You really don’t need multiple reusable coffee cups or drawers and cupboards full of resusable canvas bags, you just need to remember to take them with you when you go to the coffee place or food shopping.
Just how sustainable and environmentally sound some of the things that are marketed as being so actually are is a whole other huge question, but we’ll leave that one for another time. It’s safeish to say that most of them are much better than disposable plastics.