A plea for the environment: Let's build a circular economy

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Due to government and community neglect, much of our recycling is now ending up in landfill (Image by U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Franklin R Ramos via altus.af.mil)

Most of the pressing environmental problems could be quite easily solved if we just possessed the will, writes Dermot Daley.

I went to the local op shop with a bag of corks and was told that they don’t take them anymore. I looked online and it seems that there is no longer anyone in Australia recycling cork.

I later learned that the Chinese have decided that they will no longer process the recycling of Australian domestic plastics. And why should they?

I try to make my footprint as light as I can. I put out my 120L rubbish bin every four to six weeks (only because some products develop a pong), thinking that the collection truck will be more efficient if it does not have to stop at every house each time. The same with recycling. I cut and flatten cardboard, I wash and crush tin cans and plastic bottles, and I carefully read the recycling codes. I also keep a separate bag for soft plastic that I can scrunch in my fist and I dutifully take it to the collection bin at the supermarket believing that it will end up as street signage or park furniture or bollards. But I am now told that much of my conscientious recycling probably goes to landfill.

Why do we have so much waste and why can’t we Australians manage the efficient recycling of our own consumption? When LCD and LED screens replaced the cathode ray tubes in our computers and televisions people just threw their old stuff out in the street. Some councils organised e-waste collections (into containers for shipping to China), but most of it went to the tip. There was no initiative by the Federal Government at the time to address this.

How did we become like this? When did we decide it was silly to keep Australia beautiful?

Some months back, I was looking into options for suburban fencing. It is disturbing that we have this practice of cutting down trees and inefficiently milling the timber into fence posts, rails and palings that will need replacing in around 25 years.

I contacted several plastics recycling businesses to see if they had a product that might be adapted for domestic property fencing, but there was nothing suitable on offer.

I suggested to a couple of them that they might look into it. Surely there are industrial chemists who understand the properties of plastics well enough to say that certain materials can be reprocessed and recycled into practical flexible durable products.

Recycling plastics is surely an area of potential that is only limited by the imagination.

What other useful solutions can be found when a simple idea or innovation is matched with scientific and technical know-how? Politicians and other grey men in suits tell us that we need to be clever (yes, these are the same grey men who gave us our dodgy NBN), but they don’t have a clever thought in their heads. Their only creative streak seems their ability to invent new ways to distort the truth when they are seeking re-election.

When those two clowns in Parliament chuckled and smoked cigars as they wrote off Australia’s car industry I thought they might at least demand that the historic forge building on the old Geelong Road, and equivalent sites in other former manufacturing states, be donated to the Australian public as the ‘insert name here’ Innovation Centre, where anyone with a good idea could get access to a foundry and metal forming machinery to develop and assemble a prototype.

Poor fool me; this was way beyond the imagination of those drongos.

Television networks have played a part in this by dumbing down their program content, and by bombarding us with mindless and corrupting advertisements. The public broadcaster is complicit with shameless self-promotion and by culling inspirational local content like the New Inventors.

To our eternal shame, we surrendered Australian pioneering technology on photovoltaic cells because the developers could not obtain the financial backing to manufacture them in commercial quantities; and instead the big money was made offshore as we allowed our fossil fools to continue along the path to planetary ruin by persisting with coal fired electricity production.

And water. On the world’s driest continent we use potable water for irrigation of playing fields, and for car washing, and for cooling in manufacturing and for flushing toilets (except in some new housing construction where rainwater tanks are mandated).

In a number of cities in smarter countries stormwater is harvested into large underground tunnels (much like we might build for urban railway networks, if we had the imagination).

Evident since Roman times, the water in such cisterns cleans itself by sedimentation and is subsequently suitable for irrigation, manufacturing and other non potable uses.

With a few bespoke exceptions we have lost all creativity in our architecture. We work to a price rather than a design, and we allow the use of cheap and nasty materials that are later identified as health or fire hazards, or offer a very limited lifespan, and look ugly and shabby within five years.

We tear down solid and serviceable buildings without systematically recycling the materials.

We allow the full site to be cleared without insisting that healthy mature trees be protected and retained. We allow new "sub-standard" structures to cover the whole site without providing permeable surfaces to sustain the water table, at the same time allowing increased run-off to add to the risk of flash flooding in 100-year storms, that lately seem to occur every few years.

We have surrendered the practical guidelines and conscientious supervision that existed when local government was the first step authority for planning and building standards. The lie of self-regulation is almost as gross as the lie of privatisation.

These lies may have saved a few cents once, but have cost us unaccounted dollars ever since.

With suburban land clearing relentlessly servicing the plague of inappropriate development, the trees and shrubs that are cut down get chipped into mulch and left to rot. A tree is notionally a storehouse of carbon; when felled, the carbon is released into the atmosphere as the material breaks down. But what if smart chemists (like the ones who could be developing new materials by recycling the hydrocarbons in plastics) were encouraged to develop useful packaging products by using domestic mulch-wood chips and harvested rainwater. These may not become high quality printing paper, but at least they could replace the shopping bag plastics that end up in our waterways and oceans.

Why do we keep having these discussions? Why have we not moved on from this wistful thinking?

Some might claim that those nasty captains of capitalism have hijacked our democracy and destabilised our free enterprise, and so it’s not really our fault. But it is our fault folks; we have gone to sleep at the wheel and allowed others to make decisions for us we should be making ourselves.

Where Australia was once the lucky country, we dozed off and became the lazy country and now as we look slack jawed in dismay at what has become of us; we really have become a stupid country.

Wake up Australia! We can do better if we want to.

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