Five ways to limit the impact of rubbish on the environment

Environment and climate change

We all produce rubbish. Usually we don’t think about it. We just throw it away. But 2 billion people don’t have their waste collected and the world is running out of room to store all the rubbish that is piling up. If left lying around, rubbish becomes a health hazard and looks ugly.

The problem with plastic rubbish is that it can turn into poisonous products.

Burning rubbish pollutes the air, and the ashes are often toxic. In fact, toxic fumes from backyard burning are linked to 270,000 deaths each year. Sometimes rubbish is dumped into rivers and lakes and pollutes the water. Blocked drains and rotting rubbish cause flooding and diarrhoea. Often rubbish is buried in the ground. Buried rubbish may contain toxic substances that leak into the soil and pollute the water supply.  

Take plastic, for example, which is making the headlines this year – and not for positive reasons. According to the WasteAid UK website, up to 70 per cent of plastics in the ocean come from normal household waste in low-income countries. 

There are nearly 50 kinds of plastics commonly used to make everything from juice containers and rubbish bags to windows and doors. Many plastics are strong and durable. They won’t rot, decay or dissolve. However, making plastic uses a lot of energy. Many plastic products cannot be used again, so we throw them out.  

The problem with plastic rubbish is that it can turn into poisonous products. For example, vinyl, which is used to make bottles, car parts and pens, pollutes the soil if it is buried and releases poisonous substances into the air if it is burned. Another big issue is plastics that are thrown into waterways, blocking drains and spreading waterborne diseases.

Photo: Ralph Hodgson/Tearfund
A woman and baby in front of burning rubbish at a flood resettlement community in Mozambique. Photo: Ralph Hodgson

We should try to reduce the amount of plastics that we use. There are five things we can do to limit the impact of rubbish on the environment: refuse, reduce, reuse, repurpose and recycle. 

The order of the Rs is important. The closer to the start of the list, the better the option. 

Refuse and reduce 

This first one is simple: say ‘no’ and refuse things people offer us that we don’t need. 

Try to reduce the rubbish we make in the first place. For example, we should only buy products that do not have much packaging and that we really need. Could we use less? 

Think carefully about what kinds of materials are used in the things we buy. Once they become rubbish, they might take a long time to decay [see the chart above]. 

Reuse and repurpose

People are often very imaginative in reusing items, rather than throwing them away, or repurposing them for another practical use. For example, we can flatten empty aluminium cans and use them as sheet metal. We can make furniture out of scrap wood and use well-washed glass jars to store foods, carpentry materials and office supplies. 

Recycle 

If items such as glass bottles, metal and tin cans, newspapers and plastics cannot be reused, it may be possible for them to be recycled. For example, glass is washed in special factories, broken into pieces and then melted down into ‘new’ glass ready to be made into something else. Some countries have factories that will recycle these materials. However, some plastics can be recycled to make household objects such as hair combs, floor tile, bags, mats and polyester clothing. 

This is an updated version of an article from Footsteps 59, which was adapted from Farm Radio InternationalPackage 43, Script 4 and Package 50, Script 10. 

For more information on how to recycle plastic, WasteAid UK’s website has a range of guides to making waste work: https://wasteaid.org.uk/toolkit/downloads/ 

You may also be interested in these blogs: Six top tips to protect livelihoods from disaster and Five survival strategies for drought-affected livestock herders in East Africa

Chris Szuskiewicz was a freelance writer working for Farm Radio International when she wrote this article. Farm Radio International is a Canadian-based, not-for-profit organisation working in direct partnership with more than 650 radio partners in 40 African countries to reach tens of millions of small-scale farmers.

Chris Szuskiewicz