On Earth Day, Four Ways We Can Stop Trashing the Planet

Many of us in the industrialized world have been recycling for decades. We separate our glass, plastic, paper, and textiles into the appropriate bins, then wipe our hands. But where does it all go, and are we doing enough?

What about those parts of the world that have become dumping grounds or where there simply are not any recycling systems in place? Despite recycling efforts, almost 9 million tons of plastic end up in the oceans every year as a result of the world’s current linear “take-make-waste” model of consumption.

Dumping trash in landfills doesn’t help matters either. We produce a colossal 1.3 billion tons of landfill waste annually, and this is projected to increase to 2.2 billion tons by 2025. The harm to humans, wildlife, and the environment is significant. But we can take steps to mitigate the damage.

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The Case of Clothing

Along with plastic and electronic waste, textiles, especially non-organic ones, constitute a large part of the problem. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Americans discard 13.1 million tons of textiles a year, of which only 15 percent is recycled. This means that more than 11 million tons of textiles are dumped into landfills every year, where they leach dyes and chemicals into the soil, contaminating ground water and harming the environment. Worst of all, as textiles decompose, they release methane, a harmful greenhouse gas and a significant contributor to global warming.

Clothing has the fourth largest environmental impact after housing, transport, and food. With the advent of online shopping, purchasing habits have changed dramatically. Consumers now order multiple sizes or colors to try on at home, and then return what they don’t want, creating new challenges for retailers. Sadly, many retailers end up throwing away more than 25 percent of returns, adding additional tons of brand-new goods to landfills.

As a result, the fast fashion industry is under great pressure to be smarter about production and merchandising to reduce environmental damage.

Four Actions: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

The environment is everyone’s responsibility. If governments, consumers, manufacturers, and retailers all do their share, it is possible to turn the tide. As citizens and consumers, we have a powerful role.

We can all refuse to purchase single-use plastic items, products wrapped in excessive packaging, or cheap garments that end up in landfills after being worn just once or twice.

We can reduce waste by not creating it in the first place; for example, by reducing the volume of goods purchased online and then returned. When it comes to reuse, this practice is booming. From thrift shops to second-hand stores and donations for charity, there are many opportunities to get more use out of textiles, furniture, and appliances rather than dumping them in landfills.

And lastly, recycling should be the ultimate goal. It not only reduces dependence on raw materials but creates jobs and diminishes the impact of our consumer society on the environment.

There is still a huge gap between what consumers aspire to do and what we actually do in our daily lives.

While research such as the Plastic Packaging Survey 2017, conducted by the Populus polling group in the UK, shows that consumers are strongly motivated to be more proactive in dealing with their consumption and disposal of plastic, there is considerable room for improvement. For example, there is often confusion about packaging labels and unclear communication from local communities about available recycling options.

One survey participant gave an excellent example of the complexity people are facing when trying to do the right thing. “I was researching about biodegradable nappies, which sound like a good idea,” she said. “But apparently they can only be recycled in a compost bin – if they get left in landfill they produce methane, which is really harmful to the environment.”

Plastics Challenge

When it comes to plastics, one way to address the pollution issue is to simply design them out of the supply chain.

Last year, the SAP Leonardo team in the UK launched a collaborative innovation project together with the WRAP UK Plastics Pact to find fresh solutions to the plastic pollution problem. The initiative began with an ethnographic survey to determine how citizens perceive the plastics challenge. Based on insights from the survey, five personas were developed to represent the attitudes and behaviors prevalent in UK society today, ranging from relaxed beginners to environmental evangelists.

Several themes emerged from the study: responsibility for reducing plastic consumption, confusion and myths about recycling, the need to learn and respond appropriately, and the need to raise awareness.

The second phase of the project involved a three-day hackathon and design thinking session with experts and innovators from SAP and leading global firms such as Unilever, HSBC, and Deliveroo. The teams were asked to design prototypes for products and services for the different personas addressing the five themes. The prototypes are being developed and tested during an incubation phase, and finally, the solutions for eliminating plastic will be showcased at the Design Frontiers group exhibition at the London Design Festival in September.

More Good News

Countries are at different stages in their efforts to manage industrial and household waste. Sweden is now importing trash because less than one percent of garbage originating in Sweden actually ends up in dumps. The rest is recycled or burned to generate heat for homes. The process is so efficient that Sweden ran out of trash and started importing waste from European neighbors to fuel the country’s waste-to-energy program.

Germany is another exemplar: Of the 45.9 million tons of household waste produced in 2017, only 0.5 million tons ended up in landfill, thanks to EU directives, stringent national waste management regulations, and state-of-the-art waste treatment facilities. The City of Heidelberg, for example, has added smart sensors to its waste containers and connected them to SAP Connected Goods software. The city now has real-time insight into waste conditions, resulting in fewer garbage trucks on the road and helping to eliminate unnecessary collections and overfilling. Noise, traffic, and pollution have all been reduced.

There is also some progress from the Global Fashion Agenda as well. By the middle of last year, the 2020 Circular Fashion System Commitment had been signed by 94 companies, representing 12.5 percent of the global fashion market. These companies have committed to collecting and reselling garments and footwear and increasing the share of garments and footwear made from recycled fibers. They are also committed to reporting on annual progress and, more importantly, to transforming their current linear business practices.

As more companies realize the benefits of going circular and more consumers vote with their wallets for more sustainable products and services, there is still a chance to turn the tide.

Follow me on Twitter: @magyarj


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