If you can manage to forget covid and its restrictions, you have to admit the past year has been a pretty amazing time to live through as a consumer.
Anything we've wanted - from fine dining dinners to a new chair for the home office - was happily brought to our doors by almost any local business or multi-national company needing or wanting a sale.
The way it arrived depended on how you purchased it and where on our beautiful, vast planet the item came from. Some things may have travelled as little as a kilometer (thank you UberEats) while others (here's to you UPS, Royal Mail and Australia Post) could have travelled thousands of kilometres through a complex series of air, sea and road networks.
When it finally arrived to you, it likely came packaged in a big box full of packaging, plastic bubble wrap and styrofoam.
As the pandemic tightened its grip on our health systems and modern lifestyles, Amazon and thousands of other businesses charged in like nights on white stallions promising our thirst for convenience and consumerism would still be met.
For many, these businesses were and continue to be a revelation. But scratch the surface ever so slightly and the not so hidden cost is evident; the convenience economy we've created generates way, way too much waste. So much so that during restrictions, Australian household waste increased by 20%.
Today, we humans produce 300 million tonnes of plastic waste every year. That's nearly equivalent to the weight of the entire human population.
Recycling isn’t enough — only 9% percent of all plastic waste ever made has been recycled. About 12% has been incinerated, while the rest - 79% - has accumulated in landfill or the natural environment.
Is this really the environmental cost that we are ready to/ willing to pay?
There's no silver bullet, but changing our habits and preventing waste from existing in the first place is the closest we might get to having one.
The environmental cost of convenience: is there a solution?
Is giving convenience the flick and shopping locally and package-free the answer?
More and more minimal-waste stores like Gram are opening to help customers prevent garbage ending up in landfills by removing packaging from the purchase process.
Minimal waste stores allow shoppers to bring their own containers and refill these from barrels of food, cleaning and personal care products. Some stores (like Gram) go even further by working with suppliers who supply their produce in returnable containers. As well as limiting imported products and instead, prioritising produce from local farmers and manufacturers. (In 2019, the transport sector contributed almost 20% to Australia's total carbon emissions. So reducing the distance items we consume have to travel makes sense.)
'It’s maybe no coincidence that interest in minimal-waste lifestyles is increasing at a similar rate as evidence that climate change will be the defining event of this century.'
So what can we do to have less environmental impact?
If you're lucky enough to remember shopping with your grandparents, then taking their way of doing things is a good guide.
Support your local small businesses in your neighbourhood. There are many benefits of shopping at your local shop.
They contribute to communities by creating identity. They get involved in local matters. And they invest in the community through donations to local schools and charities. Plus, they create jobs for locals too.
Buy what you need and no more. Why buy 1 kilo of flour for a recipe only to have 750 grams of it go to the bin 6 months later? Bulk food stores let you buy exactly the amount you need.
Two generations ago, the world economy didn't exist at a household level like it does today. Imported items back then were serious luxuries and most of what your grandparents bought and ate was local produce. Items that are locally sourced are often fresher and therefore tastier than imported options. They also travel less, so have less environmental impact.
So yes, buying Australian is a way to reduce waste and improve the environmental impact of our choices.
Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
It's all about plastic and packaging.
- Refusing to buy products that are packaged that don't need to be is the first step. Fruit wrapped in plastic is a good example. So just. Say. No.
- Next is reduce waste.
Seems simple, but how can I make a difference and reduce my waste? This means if the item needs to be packaged for you to get it home, pick the product with the least packaging. A box of pasta over a brand that's wrapped in plastic for example.
- Reuse means reusing packaging you already have so you don't have to bin it. Bring jars and containers you have into Gram or other bulk food stores to refill. At home, reuse containers to store items in. Use jars as lunch boxes instead of tupperware. Reuse also includes putting items on gumtree that are perfectly good but that you no longer use or need for someone else to use.
- And finally, if you do have to let a piece of packaging go, make sure you recycle it. This may not necessarily be the kerbside bin. Recycle your soft plastics at your local supermarket. Or take your e-waste and building waste (like paint) to your local council recycling plant so they can make the most of any valuable materials before disposing of what's useless.
In conclusion, the environmental cost of convenience led us to accumulate an enormous quantity of waste in landfill.
These are little steps that every one of us can do to improve our impact on the environment. Shopping local is mutually beneficial. Not only do we support small business, but local shops also contribute to our communities.
Long story short - For a happier planet, try to shop in person and not via a keyboard.