1001 Water- and waste-wise ways: It's complicated

Saving the planet, saving water: can we do it solo?

Saving the planet, saving water: can we do it solo?

Time I sent up a signal from deep within the rabbit warren, where I’ve been researching waste, and effective ways of combating the problems it causes. It’s fascinating, but extremely tricky to boil down into blogs, much less tips, partly because of all the contradictions.

On the one hand, the middle classes are constantly being told what steps they can take as individuals to reduce not just waste, but their footprint on our groaning, battered planet (our ONLY viable home). But then there’s a whole bunch of research that says that individual efforts count for nothing, given that only about a hundred big corporations are responsible for 70% of carbon emissions. And that at this crucial tipping point we’ve reached, only drastic, immediate action by governments around the world can save us from ever-increasingly catastrophic climate change — and we can all see that happening, right? * sarcasm font * GLOOM.

There’s the earnest (and IMO, important) mantra Reduce, Re-use, Recycle, Repurpose. But then there are the voices who say this is rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. I LOVED this challenging article by Mark Boyle, who proposes “resist, revolt, rewild” instead: explaining why he has jumped off the grid, he writes: “I’m now more interested in keeping the best of the old ways alive, preserving a link from our ancient past – and its crafts, perspectives, stories – into our future, so that when the industrial apparatus collapses under the weight of its own junk, these long-serving ways can point us towards the back roads home.” Read the entire piece — it’s a riveting alternative (very alternative) perspective, plus it’s so NB I’ve linked it twice. And to cheer you up, here’s a delightful piece on rewilding in the UK by Patrick Barkham — and another controversial one by George Monbiot, which I like because it suggests a way through the bleakness. (Who can tell me about similar local projects?)

Then there’s the morality of cheerily suggesting all sorts of “mend and make do” tips, when the poor citizens of this country and indeed the globe already practice these through sheer necessity and find no pleasure or satisfaction in them.

This poster sums things up rather nicely. It appears the artist is  Max Temkin.  No copyright infringement intended.

This poster sums things up rather nicely. It appears the artist is Max Temkin. No copyright infringement intended.

Focusing on reducing plastic waste in particular is also a lot more complicated than it seems: all the alternatives need to be researched. So if we’re replacing plastic with paper, bamboo, glass, cloth — what are the environmental impacts of these substitutes? And close scrutiny of packaging (and Lordie, but almost everything is over-packaged) brings into focus that products are presented and packaged for the convenience of the vast chains that flog them to us. And, as many eco-warriors have insisted, the pressure needs to be put on manufacturers to stop this at source, rather than relying on us to recycle them at the end of the chain.

Everything is fraught: we need to eat less meat (and to stop consuming misery meat), sure: but while veganism may be the humane option, it’s not always the most environmentally friendly one in semi-arid and arid countries where humans rely on ruminants to process grass and tough vegetation into protein. (Plus, see Boyle’s interesting points above — let me link that crucial piece again.) And how can we possibly exhort poor people to eat more expensive food? Which takes us right back to the heart of the problem: the systems that produce our food, fuel our economies and organise our labour forces are unsustainable, alienating and inhumane in the first place. I keep reaching this point in my research, at which I just want to flop down and put my head between my knees.

So I’ve been doing what always helps when I’m stuck on a project: talking to people. As I wailed to a friend that using paper instead of plastic means thinking about how that paper was manufactured, how much water was used, how best to recycle it later, etc, she pointed out that a paper bag doesn’t end up in the ocean — and if it does, it’s unlikely to choke a turtle to death or pollute someone else’s shoreline.

Another friend and I thrashed through a series of guidelines for plastic replacements, and in fact for ALL the goods we buy: 1) Is it made from a renewable resource? 2) Is it biodegradable, or can it be easily and cheaply recycled? 3) Is it durable — a piece you’ll keep and use for years if not decades, perhaps even as an heirloom? (Note that nothing plastic passes Test #1.)

I think that’s a useful start, and we have to start somewhere. To return to my first conundrum, can individuals make a difference? My thinking is yes and no. We need corporations to stop their glassy-eyed, insane, headlong pursuit of profit at all costs; we need governments to rein them in, instead of allowing them to pillage and pollute; we need investment and infrastructure in decent, safe public transport (manic laughter) and energy from renewable and clean sources; in fact, we need brand-new economic models that involve income cycling through an industry rather than accumulating; and these projects are big and daunting, and it’s hard to see how, for instance, boycotting single-use plastics will have an impact.

But shrugging our shoulders and continuing on our merry wasteful ways isn’t an option. The air we breathe and the water we drink, the food we eat (which affects our health and our children’s health for generations to come) depend on us making strong efforts to change our consumptive (pun intended) ways. When I see a toddler scampering to the fridge in the deli and tugging out a Coke bottle while his yummy mummy smiles proudly, when I see able-bodied adults demanding plastic straws to drink water (but leaving their glasses half-drunk), I realise how much there is that individuals can do, and still need to do. And many are making strenuous efforts, with all sorts of positive spin-offs, not least job creation. Of which more in future blogs.

Capetonians learned the lesson of individual effort when we helped head off Day Zero and stopped our taps running dry in the nick of time. And given that the lush green of winter has already faded to yellow and grey, that we’re sweltering in a heatwave for the second week in a row, with fires breaking out everywhere, from townships to rural areas — and it’s not even November yet and we have FIVE MONTHS OF SUMMER AND FIRE SEASON AHEAD — we need to go on making a difference at a personal level. So to all of us who’ve been letting our water use creep up: time to get back to our water-wise ways. And by now we’re old hands.

Helen Moffett