published on 4 June 2008 in energy

Recycling and reuse

A consumer and garbage producing society
Modern day society is constantly increasing its garbage output into the environment not only because there has been an increase in goods consumption, but also because of irresponsible habits and unsustainable lifestyles. In just a short time going from the Industrial Revolution Age to the present day man has gone from living a frugal semi-agricultural life to an industrial and consumer one, that has made all things disposable a way of life and has created new materials that take a very very long time to break down. Things in general are no longer repaired or reused because it is just as easy and convenient to replace them. As a result we have an outrageous production of garbage that very often is not disposed of correctly thus becoming the negative symbol of our rich and comfortable life. If we look at natural ecosystems we will see that in nature there is no such thing as garbage which means that this is strictly a byproduct of human activities. In fact, in natural biological cycles, what is discarded by one organism becomes a resource for other living beings so everything is reused and nothing is wasted. Dead organisms, animal body waste, and plant remains are decomposed by other organisms, known as decomposers which turn other living beings’ waste products into valuable resources which become part of a natural cycle. This is possible because the speed at which they are produced never exceeds the time it takes to dispose of them (biodegradation), thus avoiding accumulation. On the contrary, human activities follow a system where each time raw materials and energy are taken from the environment to produce consumer goods, subsequently waste will be produced which is then thrown back into the environment.

The situation in Italy
Solid urban waste is proof of the habits and lifestyle of the person who has produced it. In fact society, lifestyles, families and the way that we eat are constantly changing as time goes by and, consequently, so do the garbage bag contents. If we look at the contents of the average Italian garbage bag we discover that a large part, about 43%, of the garbage produced is made up by organic waste (specially food and plant waste). The other main component, about 40%, are packaging materials which can be subdivided according to the prime material they are made of, into paper and carton (22%), glass (7%), plastics (7%) and metal (4%). Just forty years ago things were very different: in fact organic matter accounted for most of the garbage produced (72%) and packaging materials didn’t fill garbage cans as they do today! Even the garbage produced per person conveys useful information: the graph shows the increase in garbage production per person in Italy between 2002 and 2006 (Source: APAT, Rapporto Rifiuti 2007). The increase in garbage production is linked not only to the demographic increase but also to a country’s economic development and the overall increase in consumption.

Towards sustainable waste management
As we can see it certainly is not a pretty situation. Therefore we must try to understand which is the best way to go about managing waste in a sustainable way.
First of all we must start from the Italian waste management law, which was passed by the Ronchi decree, and according to which proper and sustainable waste management must function as follows:

  • We must reduce our garbage production (prevention)
  • Products must be reused (for instance refillable containers)
  • Saving materials by recycling them
  • Energy saving (waste thermal plants)
  • Final disposal in landfills

The main feature of this decree, which has brought about a change in rules and regulations on waste management, is that it is based on the belief that one of the solutions against waste caused pollution is to reduce the overall waste output instead of simply dumping it all in a landfill. We must remember that any kind of processing will only lead to a transformation of waste itself from one physical state to another but never to its destruction (mass conservation law). Therefore the most eco-friendly attitude where waste is concerned is to produce as little of it as possible by trying to reuse things over and over again (as was done in the past). To succeed at this it is vitally important to educate both citizens and producers. In those cases where it is impossible to reduce or reuse, it is important to separate non-recyclable from recyclable waste. We must not forget that separating our garbage is a good way to save on resources and energy, in addition to contributing to diminish considerably the amount of waste to be disposed of.

Waste reduction mission
Each one of us can contribute to decrease packaging materials. Just think: when we come home with our grocery purchases, how many things end up going straight from the grocery bag to the garbage bag? The toothpaste box, the carton that holds the three-pack of canned tomatoes together, the plastic trays that hold fruit and vegetables, cheese wraps and so on. The list can be very long! We are talking about thousands of tons of useless garbage that is a real waste of resources in addition to being a major problem for the environment. Consumer choices, meaning our choices, can play a big role in putting a stop to this trend. Here is how we can do it!
Let’s use less disposable items

Whenever possible, we should choose packaging that can be returned for reuse so that it can be used more than once and then recycled. For instance glass mineral water bottles which are delivered and taken away directly from one’s door step. We can purchase rechargeable batteries, reuse plastic grocery bags, replace disposable baby diapers with washable and reusable ones, repair broken objects instead of just going straight out to buy new ones.
Draught products
Following the example of some northern European countries and Germany, also large retail networks in Italy are starting to reduce their packaging. There are more and more stores where beer is not the only thing that one can purchase on draught. In some supermarkets, several items are sold loose and can be placed in containers that the customer brings along from home. Thus one pays only for the product itself, and saves on labeling and packaging which can amount to as much as 40% of the overall price. Many products can be sold on draught such as milk, detergents, cereals, pasta. All one needs to do is bring along a container from home.
Concentrated products and family size packs
The advantage of purchasing concentrated detergents is having less and smaller packaging. Thus they will be less bulky to transport and will cut the amount of waste produced.
Purchase fresh produce
Buying loose vegetables and fruits enables us to reduce waste, because only one packaging will be used to take this produce from the place where it is grown to the shop where it will be sold.
Drink tap water
Whenever possible, choose to drink tap water: Italy ranks first worldwide for its bottled water consumption and in 2006 alone, we have used 350,000 tons of PET (plastic used to manufacture bottles), thus consuming 665,000 tons of oil and producing greenhouse effect gasses from about 910,000 tons of CO2 which is what is needed to produce and bottle about 12 billion liters of mineral water and only one third of these will be recycled (Source: Dossier Legambiente). This huge waste of resources could be avoided simply by drinking tap water instead of bottled water!
But this is not all. The list of actions that involve our personal choices is endless: try to think of what you can do at home to cut your amount of waste.

And once you have cut, recycle!
The purpose of recycling is to recover waste materials thus reducing the amount that ends up in the landfills and allowing waste materials to be reused to make new products. Recycling is a very convenient waste managing system because, in addition to cutting the amount of waste to be disposed of, it also allows some big savings in raw materials and energy. For instance, to produce a ton of virgin cellulose paper, we need 15 trees, 450,000 liters of water and 7500 kWh of energy, whereas to produce the same amount of recycled paper, we will have enough with 1,800 liters of water, 2,700 kWh of energy and obviously not a single tree will be cut down. A huge savings in energy and raw materials, which applies to any kind of material! So what are you waiting for to begin separating your waste? Begin right now, it is an easy task and yet so useful for the environment and for all of us.

written by Benedetta Palazzo

With the sponsorship of the Italian Ministry of Education, Universities and Research
Eni S.p.A. - P.IVA 00905811006