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The War on Waste Continues… The good, the bad and the ugly

This Photo by Unknown Author is licensed under CC BY-SA

I’ve been watching the latest and third series of Craig Reucastle’s War on Waste. I don’t know if overseas readers will be able to watch ABC iview outside Australia, but Australians should definitely check it out here. Here are just a few of the highlights and lowlights in case you can't. Although this is mainly about Australia, there are many ideas which could easily be applied elsewhere.


Episode I is about recycling. There are now apparently some of those automatic deposit dispensers for bottles and cans in large cities such as Sydney, but there is also ongoing disappointment over the fact that we can no longer recycle the ubiquitous soft plastics which supermarkets were taking back last time. On that front – not mentioned in the story, more products are coming in stronger Ziplock bags which keep food fresher and can be reused or even recycled, but we also seem to be getting more plastic, not less. Just to mention one example Australia’s favourite biscuits – Tim Tams, now seem to have twice the plastic to make up for the fact that there are now considerably fewer biscuits in a pack.

A new entrant mentioned in this category is the small but collectively large component of pharmaceutical blister packs because they are so widely in use and which, because of their composite nature, are currently unable to be recycled. Just being able to recover the aluminium used in them would save a great deal of water and energy needed to produce it. Reucastle and colleagues seek to make the big pharmaceutical companies responsible for their packaging, but have so far met with the great wall of silence.

Other small but tricky packaging types are also discussed such as bread bags and tags and the stickers which are put on fruit. I was told that they were made of organic material and could therefore be put into the green bin, but it turns out that because of glues, inks and coatings, they never break down in compost and may indeed add persistent toxic chemicals to the mix which makes it unsuitable for organic gardeners. At the end of this episode Reucastle gives design students at the University of NSW a challenge to come up with better ways of dealing with such problem packaging.

Food Waste

Episode 2 is mainly about continuing mountains of food waste on farms and in households. Although our two major supermarkets now have cheaper 'odd bunch' lots of non -standard fruit and veg or cheaper boxes of ‘child’ portions* for too small apples and the like, a high proportion still goes to landfill or to lesser uses such as cattle feed - a terrible tragedy when many people can no longer afford fresh fruit and vegetables and charity food banks can’t keep up with demand. 

*Great for older folk and single households too. They have catchy names like "Remarkable Mandarins" or "Lively Lemons" but do wish they wouldn't come in plastic nets that so often entangle wildlife and also have big printed plastic labels. Would be good to use Marrum Grass for the nets - now an introduced pest in Australia and thereby solving two problems at once.

At the other end of the food chain, things are just as bad. Of Australia’s 563 councils, only 142 have green waste and food waste recycling, so much of this episode is about household or even small community recycling facilities or worm farms which also remove a great deal from landfill. This is important because compaction in landfill means that organic matter hardly breaks down without oxygen and when it does, it produces methane which is a 20 -30 times more potent greenhouse gas than CO2  and is five times more harmful than aviation in terms of emissions. I know which I would rather have. The quickest way to reduce your personal waste is to make a weekly plan before you shop, so that you don’t buy more than you need, learn left -over makeovers and keep a box of “things which must be used first” in your fridge for that half-used cucumber or other odds and ends.

A spokesperson at a huge South Australian commercial composting facility talked about how crops using their end product need 30% less water and 30% less fertiliser. Nevertheless, it seems that “forever chemicals” – which don’t break down and accumulate in the food chain, are finding their way there too. You can learn more about that in the next post from “The Conversation,” or from any number of YouTube videos such as this introduction from DW

As bad luck would have it, some have come in via the new supposedly biodegradable takeaway containers such as those made from sugar cane waste and similar materials, but which are coated to prevent leakage. What a great pity it is that one of the ways we sought to solve the plastic problem has turned out to have problems of its own. Many countries including Scandinavia, Australia, the EU, Canada and the USA are now looking at banning PFAS containing products and forward - looking companies such as Ikea have already taken action to remove them from their product lines.

Fast Fashion on Steroids

The third Episode tells us that fast fashion and its attendant landfill problem has become worse not better since we last looked at it. Not only are we throwing away even more clothing – much of it never worn, but it’s become even cheaper and conditions for garment workers seem to have deteriorated even further.See Shein for example, though it's by no means the only one.

Australians buy an average of 15 Kg of clothing per year of which they throw away around !0 Kg. Two thirds of those garments contain synthetic fibres – i.e. plastic which never disappears but does shed microplastics all its life. That plastic in turn is derived from oil, which,  when thrown away according to the War on Waste, is the equivalent of pouring 18,000 litres of oil onto landfill every hour. Cotton accounts for about one quarter of our clothing and producing enough for just one cotton t- shirt and one pair of jeans uses around 10,000 litres of water. We won’t even talk about pollution, emissions or Carbon Footprints.

Charity shops and the like can use only around 15% of the clothing donated to them -only the better quality items, and the rest goes to rag merchants, poorer countries and landfills either here or overseas. However, there are few bright lights even in this dark chapter. Thanks to one woman’s initiative, unsold end -of -line stock is being warehoused and then distributed where necessary or in case of disasters like bushfires where people have little but the shirt on their back. One large company - Target, has a Hand - me Rounds scheme whereby they accept some clothing for passing on. Some communities including the street featured in this War on Waste segment, are having clothing swaps, or repair classes, such as those at Second Stitch in Melbourne. The best move of all according to Craig Reucastle is to simply wear clothes longer and asking yourself, "Will I wear it 30 times? " before buying. He's also a big fan of Visible Mending. 

Whereas traditional mending was all about making a garment look as if it had never been damaged, Visible Mending is about being creative, having fun personalising your clothes and showing your repairs off. Pick up a few tips below or for a longer version, click here.


This segment ends with the results of the student challenge and they have come up with some excellent ideas such as edible stamps for fruit and an edible sachet instead of those hard to recycle small plastic sauce containers. Do see the whole series if you can. Would be nice to see big pharmaceutical companies on 'Pill Hill' as it's called, jumping in and working out a better way of packaging those pills. They won't if we don't ask them. Check out your packets and labels and drop them a line.