Plastic bags are slowly being phased out around Aotearoa (a little too slowly, if you ask me, but we'll be grateful for small wins). This comes as we realise what an environmental hazard they are and it dawns on us just how far behind the rest of the world we are on the issue of reducing disposable plastics.
And, as these initiatives roll out, I've noticed more than a few panicked cries of "but, how will I line my rubbish bin?!" and "what am I supposed to do with dog poo?!"
Before we get to that, though...let's talk landfills.
For most of us, landfills don't enter our consciousness very frequently, if at all. But, I reckon we should probably start thinking about it. Because this place that we call "away" is a growing environmental problem.
So, first of all - what is a landfill and how does it work?
Essentially, a landfill is a giant hole in the ground that is lined with a thick plastic sheet. It's where all our rubbish ends up (if it hasn't already escaped into our environment).
Rubbish trucks dump their loads in the working area of the landfill and the waste is then heavily compacted and covered over with soil each day. More and more mountains of rubbish and soil are piled on in layers until it is full. Once full, the landfill is sealed with clay and soil.
And when I say "mountains of rubbish", I'm not kidding. This is the amount of waste that we send to landfill each week in Auckland alone.
Any liquid in the rubbish (or rain that seeps through the top layer) trickles down through the waste. This liquid mixes with all the chemicals, heavy metals and organic materials found in our rubbish and creates a toxic soup, called leachate, which pools at the bottom of the landfill. The leachate is collected by a series of pipes that run through the landfill and is taken away to be treated, but, sometimes, the pipes can be weakened by the leachate or earthquakes and the leachate can then leak outside of the walls of the landfill and put our groundwater at risk. So that's problem number one.
Problem number two is of a gassy nature. As well as leachate pipes, there are also a separate collection of pipes that collect methane. For those of you who aren't already familiar, methane is a dangerous greenhouse gas that is 25 times more damaging to our climate than carbon dioxide. It is also highly explosive, which is why it needs to be removed from the landfill, otherwise things could get a little messy!
And what causes the build up of methane? Organic waste i.e. food, paper, cardboard, garden waste, wood, bio bags and compostable packaging.
In a normal compost heap, with the presence of oxygen, organic waste breaks down quickly and easily and only emits a very small amount of methane, if any at all (and compost also makes a very useful end product). However, in landfill, there is little to no oxygen and stuff breaks down extraordinarily slowly. In fact, so slowly that researchers have discovered heads of lettuce in landfill that were 25 years old, hot dogs that were 40 years old...and still perfectly preserved!
And, due to the lack of oxygen in landfill, as organic waste breaks down, it emits large amounts of methane.
In some larger landfills, the methane is captured and used to generate electricity, but the methane pipes are only installed once a landfill has been closed, so much of the methane has already escaped into the atmosphere. Also, methane-produced electricity is usually limited to nearby housing/industry and there don't tend to be many houses next to landfills, so a lot of the methane is flared off.
So, how much organic waste are we sending to landfill? Well, these are the contents of a typical Auckland rubbish bin:
You'll notice that food and green waste amounts to a whopping 50% of our household waste.
So, if we're not sending our food and green waste in landfill, what should we be doing with it?
And, trust me, you do not need green fingers to compost. It is ridiculously easy. There are a few different systems, whether you have a backyard and a vege garden or you're living in an apartment...there is a composting system that will fit your lifestyle. For those in Auckland-town (apologies to the rest of the country for the slightly Auckland-centric nature of this post), I highly recommend that you get in touch with the good people at The Compost Collective, an awesome organisation that runs free composting workshops around Tāmaki Makaurau. ShareWaste is another great option - it's a free online service that connects people who have food scraps with composters in their local community.
So...to (finally) answer one of the questions we started with..."how do I line my rubbish bin?" Well, once you eliminate food waste from your bin, there's really not much need for a liner. However, if you're feeling a bit unsure and not quite ready for your bin to go full monty...you can always use a newspaper liner or bio bag...as long as (and this is the important part), after you've tipped your rubbish into your curbside bin...you compost the liner.
And, what about the darling canine in your life?
Again, the stuff that comes out of Fido does not belong in landfill. For this one though, it helps if you have a backyard (or an accommodating neighbour with one)...so you can create your very own pet waste composter!
Collect your dog's waste with some newspaper, a reusable scoop, a lidded container or a bio bag and pop it in the pet waste composter - easy peasy.
As you can see, they're ridiculously simple to make, but if you're looking to purchase a pre-made version, there's this one by EnsoPet, although it is on the smaller side.
So, there you have it...now we've solved the age-old problem of how to live without disposable plastic bags...and I guess that means there are no more excuses.
Sayonara plastic bags - here's to a cleaner, healthier, plastic-free Aotearoa.
[For info on how to reduce your household waste beyond plastic bags, feel free to check out our Zero Waste Room by Room Guide]