Environmentalism or just Virtue Signalling

· Government policy
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Does filling your recycling bin make you an environmentalist or is it just virtue signalling? Do you like people to think you are concerned about saving the environment or is it because you honestly believe you should be doing it? What makes an effective environmentalist? This post will explore a few areas.

Recycling

Although it seems obvious that recycling is positive, it is not a simple question. Many experts in the field doubt the value of filling bins with waste China will no longer take. Some councils just dump the waste anyway.

In Australia, we had a supposed recycling company that was found to be storing thousands of tons of waste in warehouses. One at Coolaroo in Victoria burnt down and took days to get the fire under control.

Fire at Coolaroo Warehouse

The company went into liquidation leaving authorities with warehouses around Victoria full of waste. The owners of those warehouses are not only owed rent. They also have to clear them before they can be rented again. One is owed $3.3m.

In applying to have the company wound up it was pointed out the 30 councils would have to send their recycling to landfill if the company closed.

Recycling was financially viable when we could export the waste. Make it our problem and it suddenly costs money and requires facilities to process. Recycling facilities in Australia are minimal.

Many involved in recycling see it as little effort by the individual that creates a major headache for councils and government. People only take a short time to sort and fill their bins and feel good about it. In reality, it is a major logistical exercise for councils, and may not be cost-effective. In environmental terms, the cost and impact of collecting and processing waste may negate the impact of not doing it.

It all costs money. To sort waste manually in a western country is prohibitively expensive. You need low-cost labour. Setting up a plant to do the sorting is complex and may not generate a profit.

There are more exotic solutions. For example, although high-temperature furnaces are expensive, they can generate electricity and have minimal impact on the environment if recyclables are burnt.

There is a new technology called pyrolysis, in which plastics are shredded and melted in the presence of low levels of oxygen. The heat breaks plastic polymers down into smaller hydrocarbons, which can be refined to diesel fuel and even into other petrochemical products—including new plastics. Pollution is very low. The technology is in early stages with a few small scale plants in operation. It all costs money, so where is it going to come from?

Imagine if people were told you can opt into a recycling program with your council but it will cost you $5 or $10 per bin. Those who truly believe in helping the environment may opt-in but we would get rid of most of those virtue signalling. Do you want to guess the participation rate? I would guess under 50%.

Water wastage

Then we get to the request to wash our recycled food containers before putting them in the bin. Has anyone calculated the impact of the water used and energy consumed to heat up the water versus the value of the recycled material? I can easily see a litre or two of water to wash a takeaway food container.

In the middle of an Australian drought, how many megalitres a day are used to wash our recycling? I have no idea, but nobody seems to be asking the question of the experts. Does not asking the question make us good environmentalists or just virtue signallers.

In Britain, people generally don’t rinse after washing up. In America the reverse is true. In Australia, I expect it is normal to rinse our dishes after washing up. The scientific evidence tells us not rinsing does not cause any medical issues. Maybe it is time to question the wastage of water on rinsing.

Another way we could save water is by limiting washing machine uses until we have a full load.

Disposable nappies

Another environmental action we can take is not to use disposable nappies …. or is it? Disposable nappies are one of the blights of landfill. They take ages to break down and are bad for the environment we are told.

Maybe the science does exist, but I have never seen the statistics that tell me the impact on the environment of growing the cotton, manufacturing cloth nappies, soaking and washing them multiple times, then disposing of them is more or less than the impact of disposable nappies. A serious environmentalist would be able to quote the numbers but most parents seem content with letting convenience win out.

Electric Cars

In Australia, they might be called coal cars as they run on electricity largely produced by coal. All sorts of people are forecasting that electric cars will be the major types of cars in the future.

The marketing is all directed about how cool that electric cars are, and how we can really feel good about ourselves if we drive an electric car.

Now batteries come from mining. When their life is over, they need to be disposed of. Batteries need electricity to recharge which largely comes from coal-fired power stations.

Electric cars cost more. They disadvantage the poor. If you have little money to buy a car, an electric car is not on the agenda. If you live in dense housing development, there are unlikely to be recharging facilities. So are electric cars target market the upper-class virtue signalling population?

Uber et al

So if electric cars are a moral dilemma for the environmentalist, why not give up cars altogether? Rely on the Ubers of this world for transport.

Nice theory. So you want to go from A to B. You dial-up an Uber. The Uber travels from C to A to pick you up, then from B to D to find the next fare. By not having a car and driving yourself, you are adding two additional legs to the journey.

Would it not be more environmentally sound to just use your own car, or use public transport? I may be forced to kill the next person who tells me they use Uber for environmental reasons.

Clothing

I look in my wardrobe and could probably wear a new shirt every day of the month and never have to reuse one. In the western world, we all have too many clothes. It even has a name – “Trashion”.

In one year, we burn or bury 45 million tonnes of clothing. In Australia, we dispose of 6,000 kilograms of clothing every 10 minutes. This is not just clothes that have worn out. It is the clothing we no longer consider fashionable or don’t fit us any more.

In many third world countries, they avoid the problem of not knowing what to wear in the morning. They only have one set of clothes. Can we call ourselves environmentalists and still have wardrobes full of clothing? I think not.

TMS – (Too much shit)

Consumerism and environmentalism are 180 degrees apart. Economic management relies on consumers buying more and more goods. Environmentalism is about using less. A truly environmental company would be saying “Buy less of what we produce.” See the problem?

For those of us to have had the unhappy experience of clearing out the belongings of a deceased relative, we have seen so much useless rubbish it is frightening. Some goes to trash and some to charities. A small percentage goes to relatives and friend. What will happen when our children clear out our possessions?

A great quote I once heard was from a woman archeologist. She said that in the 1700s the average person had 50 possessions. These included clothes, cooking and eating utensils and nicknacks. She said she had that many possessions in one kitchen drawer. Hands up those who have TMS?

If you are environmentally conscious, you will limit what you buy. Balance the environmental impact of an eBook over a hard copy. Weigh up the impact of a single-use plastic container versus a glass jar. Do you do this, or are you not a real an environmentalist?

Bottled Water

Seriously, do I have to explain this?

In the 1980’s I worked for Nestle. A delegation from our Swiss owner visited and told us we should move into bottled water. I clearly remember the Marketing Director telling them that Australians were not stupid enough to buy bottles of water. How wrong was he? We are that stupid. As an environmentalist do you shun bottled water?

Repairability

I grew up in the ’50s. My Dad was a real handyman. It came with being born in the aftermath of WW1 . He could fix anything from the toaster to the gutter. Now? Not only do most people not have the skills. The things we buy are designed to be unrepairable. Glue and strange screws stop us from getting inside. Parts are not available.

Maybe we should have a course in school to fix basic things. Which glue to use. The different types of screw heads. What tools to have. All this leading to a “Degree of the Allen Key”. I am sure most students – male and female – would love the course.

Less would be thrown away, and manufacturers might see the value in making things repairable. All good for the environment. So all you environmentalists, when was the last time you told a manufacturer that you would not buy their product unless it was made repairable?

Summary

Filling your recycling bins does not make you an environmentalist. Getting angry at a news broadcast does not save the world. Progress will happen when we seek out the science and act on the facts. When we stop trying to look like environmentalists and make some hard choices.

Consumerism is a dance between companies trying to convince us we need a product, and us just wanting a product. We need to think more about what we want and what the implications of that purchase or that action may be.

Environmentalism is not about following the latest green trend. It is not a signal to the world how virtuous we are. It is about questioning and seeking the facts. Weighing up the options and cutting through the hype. Talking to people and seeking other opinions. A bit like life I guess.

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