August 2018

Let’s wage a ceaseless and relentless war

Who is winning the war? In our war-torn world you might well ask, “What war”?, says Sister Mary McDonald.

BY Mary McDonald SGS

I’m referring to the war on waste. And at the moment, waste is winning the war.

Urban garbage tips are at capacity, so landfill waste is being transported thousands of kilometres to a new dumping ground. While landfill is visible, dumped plastic often slips by unnoticed.

Each year millions of plastic bags end up in the ocean. A 2016 survey of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch – “the largest accumulation of ocean plastic in the world” – estimated that 78,400 tonnes of plastic waste have been dumped in our waterways and oceans.

But does that worry us?

It certainly worries Pope Francis who, in his landmark encyclical Laudato Si’, said “the earth is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth. Never have we so hurt and mistreated our common home as we have in the last 200 years”. (21)

Amidst great fanfare and posturing on the importance of banning plastic bags, Woolworths announced in July 2017 that it would phase out free single-use plastic bags from their checkouts “by at least” June 30, 2018.

“We are committed to listening to our customers and also doing the right thing for the environment, and we feel this is an issue we need to take a stand on,” said Woolworths Group CEO Brad Banducci.

“We currently give out more than 3.2 billion lightweight plastic bags a year and hence can play a significant role in reducing overall plastic bag usage. Today’s commitment shows we are committed to taking our environmental and community responsibilities seriously.”

Coles, not to be outdone by its rival, also made a similar announcement. However, when the deadline arrived last month to end free single-use plastic bags, our two major retailers weren’t as resolute in their commitments!

After Woolworths said it would cease giving out free plastic bags on June 20, it did a back-flip and decided to extend the deadline until July 8. Initially, Coles remained true to their commitment, but later caved in to pressure from some of their shoppers who found it far too inconvenient to bring their reusable shopping bags with them. Coles announced it would give out free plastic bags indefinitely.

The latest news in this confusing and disappointing saga seems to be that Woolworths is sticking to their commitment and is now charging 15 cents for heavier plastic bags, while Coles says they will stop giving away free heavier plastic bags on August 29.

The back-downs by Coles and Woolworths have annoyed environmental groups who warn that the heavier reusable plastic bags are worse for the environment if discarded into waterways and habitats. Because they take longer to break down than lighter reusable bags, they will cause as much – if not more – damage than single-use bags currently do.

Change, however does not always receive a ready embrace, as shown by the timeline of recycling across the Australian states. South Australia, 40 years ago, introduced a container deposit scheme that offered a recycling refund of 10 cents per bottle or can. It wasn’t until 2012 that the Northern Territory introduced a recycling program, followed by New South Wales and Western Australia. Queensland plans to implement one this year.

“Oh woe we might wail!” but glimmers of hope shine through. Last year’s award-winning ABC TV series waged a “War on Waste”. The series reached 4.3 million viewers and reports came in about all the action that was being taken. The many practical examples showed how to take steps to reduce waste in daily life.

While this year’s “War on Waste” series revisited some of last year’s themes, it challenged us about e-waste as a major problem. Old phones, laptops, printers, keyboards and toner cartridges are often being thrown out in the bin and ending up in landfill, where they are leaching toxins into the ground and sitting there forever. In an effort to turn this around, Planet Ark has set up a scheme called Recycling Near You, whereby each of us can drop off our e-waste to bins located at participating retailers.

While recycling is important, we need to shift our focus from recycle to refuse – for example, plastic straws, many of which end up in our waterways. According to Greenpeace, straws are one of the most common plastic items found in turtles, fish and other sea creatures. How to do away with throw-away coffee cups and coffee pods is another challenge for those who must have their before-work ‘fix’, especially as over 1 billion disposable coffee cups end up in landfill every year in Australia?

And what about our food waste? According to Foodwise, the average Australian household throws 1 tonne or $3500 worth of food every year!

So the war on waste is far from over.

A major battlefield is South Australia where three sites are being considered by the Federal Government for a nuclear waste facility that will permanently hold low-level nuclear waste and temporarily hold intermediate-level waste toxic for up to 10,000 years. Two sites are close to the international grain-farming area near Kimba and one near Hawker in the Flinders Ranges.

Sister Monica Cavanagh, President of Catholic Religious Australia, the peak body for religious congregations in Australia, said: “Our members question the sense, the expense and the risks of transporting long lived intermediate nuclear waste from where it is temporarily housed at Lucas Heights [in Sydney], 1700 kilometres across the country to be temporarily stored in a regional, yet to be built, facility”.

Imagine the devastation caused by a trail of nuclear waste across our land! If imagination fails, just take Japan’s experience as an example.

Besides the devastation caused by the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan is still dealing with the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that hit near Fukushima, killing almost 19,000 people, damaging a nuclear power station and forcing 160,000 people to flee their homes. The clean-ups of domestic dwellings began two years ago and Good Samaritan Sister Haruko Morikawa was amongst the first volunteers to go and live in the area. She says that progress is slow and many people are still too afraid to return to their homes.

We can all add our voices to decry the waste and the danger of such a venture by sending messages to our Prime Minister and Members of Parliament.

While the disposal of nuclear waste is of paramount importance, especially for future generations, the war on waste can be waged by each of us in daily life. The challenge for us individually, our households and places of work is: how can I make a difference? What can I do to wage a ceaseless and relentless war on waste?

Mary McDonald

Good Samaritan Sister Mary McDonald has had a long involvement in and commitment to education, the environment and social justice issues. She holds degrees in arts, education, environmental education and theology. Mary lives in Brisbane where among other things, she gardens, plays Mahjong the Chinese way and tutors at Lourdes Hill College.

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