Through various stages of lockdown and isolation, for many of us a lot of days in 2020 have felt much the same. But 22 August is different. Because if humanity was given an annual budget for the Earth’s natural resources, 22 August marks the day we blew it.
This is the sobering calculation behind Earth Overshoot Day, the point each year at which our consumption of resources exceeds our planet’s capacity to regenerate them. In other words, after August 22, we’ve drained our environmental savings and we’re putting everything on the credit card.
Even with the reduced vehicle and industrial emissions caused by COVID-19, Earth Overshoot Day falling in August means we are effectively consuming — and wasting — the resources of 1.6 planets a year.
Of course, in many respects this is just another way of framing the defining challenge of this century: how do we support every individual’s right to a decent standard of living without degrading the planet we all share? How do we feed and clothe and house and care for a growing global population without doing irreparable damage to our environment?
Earth Overshoot Day signals the bad news: the problems of consumption, waste and limited capacity aren’t going away — in fact, they’re getting worse, faster. Fortunately, there is still plenty we can do, at a government, community and household level, that will make a big difference.
The fastest way to turn around our world’s waste problem is to embrace the shift from a ‘throwaway society’ to a ‘circular economy’. In Australia, as in so many other countries around the world, plastic bottles are a massive part of the throwaway society problem. In the next few years, local container deposit schemes (CDS) will be a hugely important part of the circular economy solution.
A CDS is far and away the most effective and convenient way to boost recycling rates, reduce litter and guarantee a clean stream of material for true circular economy re-use.
Programs that turn discarded plastic bottles into sunglasses or playground equipment or railway sleepers are undoubtedly better than leaving them to rot in landfills or pollute our waterways, but they still rely on the old linear thinking of a throwaway process. The bottle may have been repurposed but its journey has still ended and manufacturing the next batch of plastic bottles will require all-new resources and materials.
Even traditional recycling doesn’t always pass the test of a circular economy. While standard recycling methods strive to reuse as much as possible, materials often become contaminated or degraded as the process wears on, with many components only recyclable once, and usually as a lower value product with a single lifespan; for example, a plastic bottle is turned into clothing fibre. For the sake of clarity, it’s better to think of this as downcycling.
By contrast, upcycling is when materials are recycled many times at the same quality and value, or sometimes, as with glass, infinitely. This is where Container Deposit Schemes make such a vital contribution.
In New South Wales, for example, a consumer can return their empty cans and bottles to a convenient location, most commonly a reverse vending machine at their local supermarket or shopping centre. The consumer collects the refund and the old containers are used to make new containers, which are filled and sent to stores to be bought and returned once more. The whole system works by creating a sustainable, closed loop, where everything that’s produced gets recycled and then reused again and again, dramatically reducing CO2 emissions and resources for production, while also preventing waste from ending up in our streets, waterways and landfills.
A CDS creates an incentive for consumers to do the right thing and return their empty containers and for charities and community groups to enhance their fundraising. The CDS in New South Wales has also proved that a modern, convenient, retail-based scheme design makes it easy for more people to take part, boosting overall return rates. Above all, a CDS provides a guarantee that what gets returned will be reused.
For decades, environmental campaigners and sustainability advocates have warned us that ‘there is no Planet B’. Container Deposit Schemes are a practical, convenient and meaningful way that all of us can make better use — and re-use — of the resources here on Planet A.