Wednesday, June 13, 2007

South Africa Must Recycle

Recycling must be made compulsory by law, both in South Africa and the rest of the world. It should be every citizen’s mandatory minimum response to the increasing threat of global Climate Chaos.

Every Tuesday, the garbage collectors pick up a black refuse bag filled to capacity with mostly newspapers, but also soda cans, cereal packaging, milk cartons, orange peels and assorted plastics. That one bulging black bag represents one person’s waste: mine. It also represents one person’s ecological footprint on the environment: a weekly erosion of resources, paper, plastic, food and tin metal, which will be taken to a garbage dump where other human vultures, less well off, will halfheartedly extract what items of value they can find. This is nowhere near good enough.

Considering that one person can produce that much garbage in a single week, one wonders what sort of cumulative garbage mountain 47 million South Africans produce. Even if it is collectively (per capita of course) one third what I am throwing away, it is still a total of around 15 million black bags thrown away every week in South Africa alone. That’s 60 million a month, 720 million black bags a year, and in less than two years over a billion black garbage bags; and by 2010 we will have produced enough garbage to drown all our World Cup Stadia. Scary thought. Given that there is not only domestic (suburban) waste, but also office waste – which is often a lot more – this construct (of our stadia drowning in this nation’s garbage) must necessarily be a very conservative one. The point is, our future will be increasingly about making do with less, and we need to begin doing a lot more with the massive amounts of leftover waste we’re all turning out.

For a model on recycling, South Africans can refer to South Korea, or even the British. In South Korea for example, you are legally expected to buy white refuse bags (for tins, cardboard and plastics) and green refuse bags (for food waste). These plastic bags are fairly expensive (R10-R30 depending on size), but it is the cost of these bags that pays for collection and the appropriate care needed to distribute and organize garbage for effective recycling. If you are caught casually throwing away garbage, or worse, disposing of it in conventional shopping bags, you are liable for stiff fines and other punishment.

Although it is initially tricky to think twice before disposing of waste, once you have your plastic wrapped drums in place, it is just a matter of aiming for the right one.

This is just one example of something small we can do to change our otherwise wasteful and messy habits, and make a big difference. Imagine if we can recycle up to 99% of ‘waste’. Once that is possible the environmental impact becomes if not negligible, certainly manageable. And in a world where recycling is compulsory, there is no such thing as ‘waste’. Waste suddenly becomes a valuable resource, a basis for further investment (rather than the expendable basis for raping ever more the remaining natural resources). With this mindset in place, we change our current role as Cancer of the Planet, and become, to some extent, Custodians once more. So we need more than anything to alter our mindset towards pollution, including what we throw away. And we need to do a great deal now in South Africa. It is shocking that here we are, 2007AD, and this issue has not been brought up or legislated in this country, not even at regional level.

I have spoken to some South Africans regarding this topic. Some feel the same urgency; some have even contacted their local municipalities. Others complain that only some South Africans will abide by state sanctioned regulations, while others will flout the law. I’m not sure if this is a cogent argument. If a fraction of a population can get away with robbery or rape, ought we to allow the general population leniency in this regard? Obviously not, and here we are dealing with the rape of resources, resources that we ought to protect and conserve not for the privileged few, but for all.Even if a fraction of South Africans do abide by a common regulation, it is a start, and certainly a better situation than a continued state of mass entropy.

It is hard, I know, for human beings to break out of the habit of the individual putting his or her own individual’s needs, wants and demands over those of other individuals and communities. Most people have scant regard for those nameless non-human creatures (plants and animals) and environments that are disposed to feed all these individual appetites. Collectively we suffer from Addictive Consumption Disorder, and on a worrying scale, the scale many billions of human beings all wanting more. Recycling is one way in which we reintroduce consciousness into our destructive conventional lifestyles, and bring a little balance back into the raging Disequilibrium we’ve created.

We can of course wait for legislation before altering our lifestyles. I know several people who are already in the habit of separating food waste from other waste, and then adding it to compost heaps for use in their gardens.
What I suggest we do is form co-operative groups where Organized Garbage (OG) can be separated from common trash. Perhaps special zones can be created alongside conventional garbage dumps where higher quality waste can be sorted and effectively recycled. In time, we will see garbage dumps disappear and in their place, Recycling Plants, capable even of returning some fuel energy (in the form of ammonia) back into the system.

Whatever the future holds, delay matters. Delay is a choice and its consequences are important. There is no reason for us South Africans to continue our wasteful habits, starting in the way we dispose of what we feel we don’t need. You can start today by simply separating food waste from other waste. It’s a start. If your garbage is being recycled (somewhere in the end zone where it is dumped), this act alone will already make things easier. Effective recycling is the perfect way to demonstrate at least an initial response to Climate Change and the sooner we begin, the better.

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