Knowledge is power as the saying goes, and for Laura Young, better known as Less Waste Laura, studying environmentalism has meant being able to get to the bottom of some of our most common eco-queries and myths.
Being an environmental student in the sustainability movement is an interesting place. Mostly because I am faced daily with environmental myths being thrown around like facts, which are either incorrect, wildly exaggerated, or littered with inaccuracies. I seem to spend a lot of time having to gently correct mistakes, while providing a platform to find scientific sources for where the facts actually are. If there’s one thing I am passionate about, it’s the transfer of knowledge. I studied Geography and Environmental Science at undergraduate level, and have a Masters in Environmental Protection and Management: what I want to do is share this knowledge with others. I understand how difficult it can be to research sustainability issues in your spare time, so to save you the work, I have rustled up what I have found to be the most common eco-myths and the actual truth behind them.
Myth Number One: Plastic can be recycled infinitely
Unfortunately this isn’t the case. Plastics aren’t recycled, but actually down-cycled. Bottles made from ‘recycled’ plastic, chemically and structurally, have to have some new ‘virgin’ plastic to make it rigid enough to make new products. This, of course, is better than continually using 100% virgin plastic, but it does mean that there is a finite amount of times we can recycle plastics and doesn’t remove the need for continued extraction from fossil fuels.
When plastic is down-cycled, say a plastic bottle for example, out will come something akin to plastic fibres of weaker strength and quality which would be used in fabrics. This means that we have to move away from plastic, to materials that can be recycled time and time again without being down-cycled. This is the same as paper; when ‘recycled’, it is actually being down-cycled to something like toilet paper or a paper napkin.
Myth Number Two: Tin foil can’t be recycled
Quite simply, it can! If rolled up into a ball about the size of your fist, tin foil can be recycled just like any other metal – like a drinks can or metal tin.
Myth Number Three: All glass can be recycled
Not all glass is created equal – with different chemical make-ups posing problems when they are mixed into ‘new’ glass. After spending some time in a recycling centre in Scotland, I learnt that kitchenware like a wine glass, drinking glass, or Pyrex materialcannot be recycled; instead, these should be wrapped in newspaper and disposed of in landfill. If these do end up in recycling, when it is melted down into ‘new’ glass, it contaminates the batch and renders it unusable. Just one wine glass can contaminate around one tonne of new recycled glass, causing it to shatter when heated.
Myth Number Four: Recycling is the same at every facility
This is perhaps one of the most frustrating things about recycling – what can be recycled in one area cannot be in another. While some councils offer the opportunity to recycle food waste and most hard plastics, others refuse anything other than the bare minimum. There are a few items that are hard to recycle in every recycling facility, such as black plastic, which requires extremely advanced technology to pick up the material and process it properly. Though we can often have the tendancy to ‘wish-cycle’, throwing something in and hoping for the best, this can result in contaminated loads and increase the risk of everything ending up in landfill. Instead, a quick search on your local council’s website should indicate what can and cannot be recycled in your area.
My Top Tip: Always opt for infinitely recyclable materials, such as metal and glass, where you can.
Myth Number Five: Biodegradable and compostable cups are a great alternative
Taking steps to move away from single-use plastics is always a great start, but unfortunately these too come with their own problems. Firstly, they are still single use, still using raw materials and still energy intensive to make – a combination which we should all be aiming to avoid where possible. Secondly, while these new plastics claim to compostable, they in fact require very specific conditions (length composting times at high temperatures) to break down, which our waste collection and composting facilities don’t yet have. As the materials aren’t yet recyclable, they can instead contaminate an otherwise recyclable load and in turn create more landfill. Disposing of these ‘compostable’ matierlas correctly requires a closed loop system of very specific conditions, meaning that many of these products cannot simply be thrown into our home compost or food waste collection, nor will they biodegrade in landfill. Due to the ‘on the go’ nature of many of these products, while the original vacinity may have the appropriate infastructure to deal with the materials, elsewhere may not and so instead, your drinks cup or plastic cutlery simply ends up in the trash.
My Top Tip: Always opt for a reusable cup, container and cutlery where possible.
Myth Number Six: Switching your diet is the best way to reduce carbon emissions from your food.
Well, this one is half true. While it has been highlighted that limiting meat, dairy and imported exotic foods can help to reduce our food’s carbon footprint, reducing our food waste is in fact the most substantial thing we can do. One third of all food globally is wasted, be that from farms, shops, cafes, restaurants, or our own fridges, and these wasteful practices are having serious impacts on our planet. According to the UN Environment Programme, if global food waste were to be represented as a country, it would be the third largest greenhouse gas emitter, behind China and the United States!
One way to combat this is to lower our ‘beauty’ standards for our food shops; ignoring the perfectly packaged plastic produce for the wonkiest carrot or single banana, that otherwise could end up in landfill. Additionally, purchasing the items marked as reduced, only buying perishables as and when we need them, opting for seasonal and local as much as possible, and getting creating with recipes can all help to reduce our food waste.
My Top Tip: Have a space in your fridge called the ‘must eat now shelf’ whereby you can clearly see which foods to prioritise for your next meals.