Cheap comes at a cost so let’s learn from the lockdown’s lessons

a pile of waste

In our collective eagerness to get back to a post lockdown normal, it will be all too easy to slip back to our old consumeristic ways.  While it can be fun to shop ‘til you drop; the past few months have shown graphically the extent of the human and environmental costs associated with ever-increasing consumerism combined with ever-decreasing prices and quality.

We all noticed how much the natural environment improves during the lockdowns, with clearer air and less noise.  It is possible to keep hold of some of these improvements but only if we change our ways.

One solution is to buy less but buy better quality, locally made, goods. It is something that everyone can do to support the environment and the economy.

Being in the sustainable waste management business provides us with a first-hand insight into people’s buying habits, and the picture isn’t pretty.  An enormous amount of completely unnecessary waste is being sent to landfill – much of which was originally placed in recycling bins – and this trend looks set to continue.

In the rush to reboot the economy, let’s not get back to normal in this respect because – as the saying goes – doing more of the same will lead to more of the same.

Covid-related research suggests that risk factors include polluted air, poverty and over-crowding, all of which are very much in play when it comes to mass-produced, cheap goods that are designed to have a limited lifespan.

We have noticed the ongoing increase in the amount of cheap, poorly made plastic and other items that break after a few uses. At the same time, China’s ban on accepting some forms of plastic waste means more and more plastic sent for recycling is being stockpiled and eventually sent to landfill.

Although it’s good to see the growing awareness and support for recycling ironically, recycling is one of the biggest sustainable waste problems.

Putting something in the recycling feels good and people think they are doing the right thing.  But it is then a case of out of sight and out of mind and it’s easy to think ‘problem solved’.

In reality, much waste sent for recycling actually ends up in landfill. Sometimes that’s because households do the wrong thing – like putting soft plastics like bags into the recycling. But it is also because there are limits to recycling as a solution 

We encourage the Government and local bodies to do more to educate people that recycling is at the very beginning of the path to sustainable waste management, which is: 

  1. Do nothing
  2. Recycle
  3. Re-use or re-allocate
  4. Buy well and buy once (i.e. buy quality that doesn’t break)
  5. Don’t buy / use it at all

Everyone – consumers, businesses and local/central government can make a difference in reducing the amount of waste going to landfill but only by changing the way they think about and manage their waste.

Consumers and businesses can play their part by avoiding single-life items by choosing better-quality products that last longer and can be repaired if necessary. For example, a massive number of sofas, beds and office fittings go to landfill.

Buying quality ones that are not just chipboard clipped together with staples will enabled these items’ lives to be extended by re-covering and using them again.  And if you can’t use it then others might be able to. It may come as a surprise to learn that Trade Me has a better influence on sustainability than many recycling schemes.

The best approach, if indeed you need to buy it at all, is to think of the big picture costs associated with the item and to buy well and buy once.

It is also important to think about the item’s entire lifecycle and consider where it will eventually end up when you no longer need it. MDF is a classic example because it can quickly become unusable, especially if exposed to damp conditions, and cannot be recycled or re-used once damaged. Landfills are therefore always the end-of-life place for things made with MDF.

Local and central government need to balance their efforts to reboot the economy with stronger leadership around sustainable waste management.

Auckland Council’s 2040 zero waste vision in 2012 has reduced waste by 10 per cent in the past few years, which is a good start – but more needs to be done. For example, more building and infrastructure projects will mean more construction waste – and more MDF – is going to landfill.

The Ministry for the Environment’s explorations into ways to make landfill operators more accountable for the waste they take, and to increase dumping levies is a great start, but the key is to stop waste being created in the first place, such as developing regulations to prevent unnecessary packaging.

It breaks our hearts to see what the race to the bottom in terms of product pricing and quality is doing to our beautiful country, to the world and to each other. The tsunami of rubbish products coming our way is only going to get worse, yet it does not have to be this way.

Let’s build on the past few months’ reflections and learnings and put meaningful steps in place to reduce our wasteful habits. As the case with any transformative change, it won’t always be easy, and it won’t always be comfortable. But it is necessary for our collective future.