A brave new world; how changing our throwaway culture will help the environment
Aldous Huxley famously wrote “ending is better than mending” in the twisted yet scarily accurate, A Brave New World. The 1932 novel predicted a society focused around consumerism and if we look around now, his words seem sharply prophetic. In the book, society is encouraged to spend rather than mend, discard and buy new. In the real world eighty-seven years later, a similar approach to consumerism has helped economies boom yet given rise to a ‘throwaway culture’ and disastrous impacts on the environment.
When exploring today’s throwaway culture, a few main offenders come to mind; fast fashion, plastic and food waste. While not the only contributors, these three in particular have snuck into western cultural habits and caused significant damage to the environment. Below I look briefly at each one to raise awareness about why and how attitudes towards throwing away need to change.
Historically, shopping for clothing was more of an event; something done a few times a year rather than during your daily lunch break. The malls of the 20th century turned shopping into a form of entertainment and later on, the internet made it a 24/7 industry. Following the demand for clothing choice, ‘fast fashion’ was born, with retailers speeding up the process of bringing catwalk trends to high street at cut down prices. Challenging conventional seasonal fashion, some retailers now launch new lines every week to keep up with trends. While this meets demand for trendy, budget-friendly apparel, it’s also encouraging the notion of ‘quantity over quality’. Consequently, we’re able to buy for the occasion rather than the season or year, commonly discarding clothes after only a few wears.
While retailers revel in booming revenues, the 2.5 trillion-dollar fast fashion industry is now considered a major player in damaging the environment. The apparel industry alone accounts for 10% of global carbon emissions and remains the second largest industrial polluter, second only to oil. One pair of jeans and a t-shirt requires 20,000 litres of water to produce, the same quantity of water one individual drinks in around 15 years. Not only that, workers creating garments overseas are considered some of the lowest paid people on the planet, without the same rights and protections as Western counterparts. The facts are harrowing to read, I’m sure you’ll agree.
So, what can we do about it; ‘less is more’ and ‘quality over quantity’ springs to mind. Carefully considering our purchases is essential. I remember watching TV stylist Gok Wan show people how to live with a capsule wardrobe of only 24-pieces, proving it possible to live with less; it has stuck with me ever since. But ultimately clothes wear out and we do occasionally need to buy. In this case, consider browsing a charity shop before hitting the larger brands, recycling second hand gems and giving to a good cause. Or try going anti-Huxley by mending before ending, altering clothes your bored with. Ultimately buying less but better-quality will last longer, especially if purchased from brands who place value on fair-pay, worker’s rights and sustainability.
Another big offender in our throwaway culture is the current topic of the moment; plastic. In the last two years, the world has gone to war with throwing away unnecessary plastic, after shocking images from BBC’s Blue Planet II stunned millions in 2017. Studies show that plastic production has increased from two million tons in the 1950’s to 380 million tons in 2015. Alarmingly, around 97% of all plastics ever made still exist, because it takes so long to decompose. Plastic popularity is a direct result of Huxley’s prophetic consumer society; the demand for more ‘stuff’ results in the development of a material that enables higher levels of consumption. Plastic is so versatile, it has permeated almost every aspect of human life, almost to the point where it seems unavoidable, and sadly much of it is thrown away after just a single use. When you consider that a plastic bag used for an average of 12 minutes can take up to a thousand years to decompose, you begin to see the problem.
But you know these facts already; after all, the issue is dominating both media and politics this year. And because of this, the throwaway culture around plastic is changing fast. In 2017, before Blue Planet even aired, Kenya introduced one of the toughest laws on plastic bags, imprisoning or fining those producing, selling or using plastic bags. Since then other countries, including China, the UK, France, Rwanda, and Italy have banned, partially banned, or taxed single-use plastic bags following public pressure. Other areas of plastic usage are being targeted too, including microbeads, plastic packaging, straws, bottles and takeaway cups.
Plastic is not all bad; it has advanced safety, medicine and transportation hugely. But, the attitude towards throwing away single-use plastics has and continues to change. The recycling culture is gaining momentum and awareness about plastic’s environmental impact is higher than ever. We can all do our bit, from large industry to the individual, reducing our wastage and finding sustainable alternatives. For tips on how to reduce your own plastic wastage, take a look at another one of my articles here.
Finally, we look at throwaway culture from the perspective of food wastage. When food doesn’t look right or is a few days past its best, the general consensus in western society is to throw it away. Most of our waste food ends up in landfill, and while unlike plastic, it decomposes naturally, it does so anaerobically. This produces large amounts of methane, a gas which traps twenty-five times more heat in our atmosphere than carbon dioxide.
Approximately one-third of all food produced is either lost or wasted. This means that one-third of the fossil-fuel dependent process required to create food is for nothing. According to UK Harvest, ‘eliminating global food waste would save 4.4 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year in production emissions, the equivalent of taking 1 in 4 cars off the road’. Not only does our food wastage cost our environment in terms of water and energy, it also takes up space. Intense farming is reducing soil quality and claiming valuable space which might otherwise be home to declining wildlife and trees. In 2007, it was reported that almost 1.4 billion hectares of land was used to produce food which was not consumed; a space larger than Canada and India combined. If that same wasted space was instead planted with a new forest, it might instead absorb approximately 8.4 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide annually.
With statistics like these, the argument for changing our throwaway attitude towards food is strong. While I don’t recommend eating off-food, we can once again take the approach of buying less but better-quality products. We tend to buy more than we need, either due to tempting money-saving deals or poor planning. With refrigeration and freezer technology now so efficient, fresh produce lasts far longer, so we can make less go further. By planning ahead, you can minimise waste, using everything in your kitchen before returning to the supermarket. Freeze leftovers for another day, make soup with limp vegetables, buy imperfect fruit and vegetables, and where possible, compost at home; not only do you reduce landfill input, you gain valuable compost for a patch of home-grown veggies as well.
The world is constantly evolving. Technology and innovation have enabled us to consume and discard more than ever but only recently have we begun to understand the negative environmental impact. We are currently a throwaway society, but one that is on the forefront of change. Huxley may have unknowingly predicted aspects of today, but let’s hope we can rewrite the story with a more sustainable future.