Life is busy and fraught with incident.  There are many calls on our time.  For those  of us trying to apply the notion of sustainability to our middleclass, Australian, sophisticated 21st Century lives the pressure increases further. We are told to recycle, compost, mulch, reuse our grey water and watch our rubbish – the list goes on and on.  Here is an opportunity to stop doing something and  contribute hugely to the health of our local environment and by example possibly nationally.  I am talking about landfill.  I am talking about stuff!  In the end I am talking about shopping.   What got me thinking about this was Christmas. I was  in Melbourne contemplating the shopping madness and  thinking about Christmas Day

…….   The extended family gathered around the tree and presents distributed.  As they are unwrapped, depackaged, examined and exclaimed over one of the first things that strikes – none of the presents had any immediate everyday use,  most of them were made primarily from plastic, most of them would be broken before six months were up, some would be in the opshop or on Ebay within the week, nearly all of them were made in China or nearby and not one of them would have added significantly to the quality of life of any of the recipients.   Selecting gifts is often difficult as people usually already have  what they actually need and you have to find something that might grab their attention or pique their amusement gene.  Anyway, most importantly nearly all of them are on a pretty straightforward journey to rapidly becoming landfill from the moment they leave the shop. There are whole shopping franchises dedicated to the fulfilment of this journey.   Then there was after – the clearing up – large rubbish bags are filled with plasticized paper, packing and plastic bubble packs that went straight into the wheelie bin.   From Christmas to landfill.   If you apply the above statistically to Mallacoota – that is at least 600 bags of gift wrapping paper and packaging to the tip on the first pick up after Christmas.  Then over the year there are the presents or the items that the presents replaced.  Say between another 500 and 600 bags.

No doubt in retribution for some heinous crime in a previous reincarnation I found myself in Chadstone Shopping Centre.  In a vain attempt to find my way out I passed shop after shop that were selling things that no one really needed, made out of materials that couldn’t be easily replaced, whose manufacturing processes damaged the environment and available at prices most people could only ‘afford’ on credit.  Not only that but the items themselves were all designed and manufactured deliberately to ”wear out” rapidly, usually by the failure of some deliberately weak component (say a weak buckle on a shoe or a plastic pivot used on a moving part where it should have been metal) and  neither the designer, the manufacturer or the sellers had in place any economic or safe way of disposing of them.  They would go to landfill where their irreplaceable construction materials would be lost to our civilization and in some case leak noxious chemicals or exude toxic gases that are inimical to it and the rest of life on our planet.   There is also a simply huge amount of landfill manufactured as spinoff products from media, promotional and sports events .  I received a plug for the  sink as a promotional item from East Gippsland Water that leaked so badly I gave it to the dog to dispose of.  Have you noticed how most of those promotional water bottles given out for one thing and another always leak all over everything after a few trips in the school bag and have to be chucked?

Ever thought about pencils?  They are perfect.  Consider – the pencil is made of natural materials, it is simple to adjust to your specifications,  it is multifunctional  – you can write a novel, mark up some carpentry or draw a picture, it needs no special care, it takes minimum special skills to operate it, it disappears as you use it, it is completely biodegradable, there are no hard to use, unwanted and expensive designer frills or special features – though it will work underwater and upside down or even in perfect vacuum on the Moon (it cost NASA a million dollars to try and develop a pen that would work in outer space until someone pointed out the functionality of the pencil), you can buy it without special packaging  and it is cheap.  It doesn’t need batteries.  It’s one downside is the point will break if physically abused   Aren’t pencils wonderful?   Consider them in comparison with its technological alternative tool – the ball point pen.  It is made almost entirely of plastic, you cannot adjust its performance in anyway, the plastic refill and tube are constructed in a complicated way to deliver a few grams of toxic ink to an applicator that a prone to failure – most pens stop working before they run out of ink, if stored or carried carelessly they leak and/or stop working.  They are relatively expensive. Even if you buy a packet of cheap pens made in China the ‘run time’ of the whole packet will be similar to the ‘run time’ of one more expensive higher quality product and 10 times more landfill.  So, why would you ever buy a pen – except to sign checks?   What about setting up a ‘Pencil Standard’ on the items you buy.  Apply the pencil test to potential purchases in relation to its construction materials, manufacturing methods, functionality,  packaging, reliability, cost and importantly disposability.   Think of some of the everyday things people buy-

Soft Drink – if everyone in Mallacoota  buys one bottle of soft drink a week that is a 1,000 multiplied by 52 (The population of Mallacoota was recorded at 972 at the 2006 census and must have gone up by at least 28 by now) equals  a staggering 52,000 plastic bottles a year.  Multiply that by region, state, nationally and internationally and the brain explodes.  Consider the ‘pencil’ alternatives: cordial – reduces the number of plastic bottles used by about 75% and the cost by 90%.  If you make your own cordial costs are reduced by about 85% with all the waste organic.

Deli – we buy our deli in disposable plastic tubs, if each house-hold took in a container to put their deli selections in there we would save the use of approx 600 plastic tubs a week (Census figures  ‘ Family households accounted for 61.9% of total households’) – 35,000 tubs a year.  Similarly  meat and vegetables bought loose rather than in plastic trays,  food cooked from fresh ingredients rather than processed/frozen all reduce the volume of our landfill.

Gifts – this is tricky.  While it is amusing to buy someone a plastic wine cask carrier in the shape of a cow and gives the person who receives it a bit of a laugh.  Quickly the novelty value wears out and it ends up on the way to landfill.  It is common for these items to be manufactured in the tens or hundreds of thousands – sometimes in the millions – all of which quickly ends up in the rubbish.  So when buying gifts, especially ‘novelty’ items the ‘pencil test’ is very important if you want to reduce our landfill.  These days it is possible to buy non corporeal gifts – rather than buying someone a DVD buy them a download coupon to a web DVD shop , same for music – purchase the music from the website of the performer (this is especially important  for independent Australian artists – the money goes direct to the artist).  You can purchase software the same way.  Rather than giving a magazine subscription get an e-subscription that delivers the magazine to your friends computer in a searchable form – no storage problems, cheaper, a few less dead trees and no landfill.  Talking Books from Áudible.Com are a great way to enjoy books while you are driving.   For the person who has everything you can buy on their behalf a goat for an impoverished refugee or an education for a third world child.

Buy Local. You could buy a gift voucher from one of our gift shops – this would mean the loved one could choose what they would like and no wrapping paper to landfill.  If you think you are sure you know what they would like buy local and (if you are wrong) they can easily exchange it and save the gift from landfill. Why not give subscriptions to your local radio station 3MGB or the Mallacoota Arts Council? Season tickets to local shows, boat trips  from local boat charters or locally made art works, crafts or photography. You can buy gift cards for Itunes from the Post Office. Then of course there is always fruit, flowers or chocolate!

Packaging – More controversially in some European countries it is the ultimate responsibility of the manufacturers to be responsible for the disposal of their packaging which caused a major revolution in retailing in those countries. This is not likely to happen in Australia in the foreseeable future. However there has been a 5 cent surcharge on beverage bottles in South Australia for over 25 years which has greatly  reduced roadside litter and landfill there, when compared to other states in Australia.

Shopping bags – I believe there is some debate on whether the use of the “Green Bags” for  shopping is an improvement on landfill volumes  because the bags themselves do  not last long and take up the equivalent of a lot of plastic bags space-wise and they are also generally not biodegradable while some of the plastic film shopping bags are.

I seem to  have travelled a long way from Christmas in my ruminations.  I don’t want you to get the idea that  I am setting myself as some sort of environmental paragon or a mighty thewed eco warrior, I am not.  I am also not saying at all that shopping is bad on principle just – shop locally- shop carefully.   If we are going to continue our life style in it’s important aspects of health, education and communication then we have to make choices and priorities in how we undertake economic activity.  The thing that got me was how the numbers started to stack up when you went from, ‘What can it matter If I just do it to everyone in Mallacoota saying that.   If we apply ‘the pencil test’ to what we buy, especially for those ‘discretionary’ items, then we can really reduce landfill.   Watch out though. I hear that Apple Corp is planning on making pencils oval in cross section, covering them in pink plastic, calling them Ipencils and selling them for $1,000 each.

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