Nothing is really disposable

My ride to work route goes through several industrial estates, past a McDonalds, and alongside a university. Naturally the roads, footpaths, and bushes in the area are clogged with an inordinate amount of rubbish. Over the last four years it has amazed me how I can pass the same rubbish week in, week out, and it never moves until there is a big storm at which point it is magically whisked away, out of sight, out of mind, to be replaced a new crop of flotsam from somewhere upwind.

Last week I finally got around to buying myself a long “claw on a stick” device that means I can pick up rubbish without getting on and off my bike, having to bend down, or getting my hands grubby. I take a shopping bag with me, fill it up with rubbish, then empty it into a bin when I get to the end of my ride.

Today's haul included a balloon on ribbon, several lengths of polystyrene, juice boxes, plastic water bottles, plastic bags, coffee cups, and straws.
Today’s haul included a balloon on ribbon, several lengths of polystyrene, juice boxes, plastic water bottles, plastic bags, coffee cups, and straws.

Taking an extra 5 minutes to get to work gave me time to pack a standard plastic shopping bag with rubbish. On the way home I did that again, and this time also picked up a huge length of pink plastic bubble wrap that has been sitting in the bushes for weeks.

I like to think that this will make a difference – there are a lot of plastic cups, plastic bags, straws, and juice boxes that won’t wind up in Port Phillip Bay because of me. There was quite a lot of polystyrene (where does it all come from?) which breaks down into little white balls that look just like fish food in the water, and it’s now safely in bins because I took those 10 extra minutes out of my day.

But in practice I will still look at those spaces and be appalled by how much rubbish there is there. I can’t pick it all up, even over time, as it accumulates faster than I can pick it up. So I started pondering how we could stop it – maybe make McDonalds responsible for all of their rubbish? Make them pay to send cleaners out and pick up every item of branded trash within a 5km radius?

Make businesses responsible for the roadside rubbish outside their premises? What about the parkland? Who is responsible for that? Pay people for the rubbish they turn in? Container deposit schemes for plastic bottles? What about the lids on coffee cups?

Until it finally dawned on me that this was very much post-horse-bolting thinking. Picking up the rubbish is not the point. Stopping it being dropped is not even the point. The point is that we can’t afford to continue generating rubbish. We really can’t. We need to come to grips with the idea that there truly is nothing disposable. Rubbish persists, whether it’s in the streets, floating in the bay, or in landfill. It takes energy to create it, to transport it, and to trash it, and it still remains, a toxic blight on our landscape.

There are so many ways to avoid rubbish – keeping a water bottle with you for refilling, having a keep cup for your coffee, buying fresh, unpackaged food – yet most of them require effort. And goodness knows we’re all busy, exhausted, and stretched to our limits. But until we recognise that “disposable” is a myth, we’ll go on making the wrong choices every day, piling our earth high with rubbish that none of us wants in our garden.

These days everything is temporary. Hole in your jacket? Chuck it. Phone a couple of years old? Toss it, it’s obsolete. Ipad not the latest model? Upgrade! Microwave door broken? Get a new one! (microwave, not door)

We don’t repair things anymore. We are ashamed of things that are old, not the latest model. We have to have TODAY’s fashion in devices, clothes, and cars. But in the long term? This is just not going to work. We are going to be outnumbered, out-massed, and outlived by our own rubbish. What an epitaph.

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