The Eloquent Language of Rubbish. What Waste and Recycling During COVID19 Says About Us.

Bear with me. 

During this global pandemic, Australians’ rubbish may be revealing something about the state of our society, psyches, and souls.

Namely, since COVID19-related social distancing practices have come into effect across Australia, there has been an observable and dramatic change in how we buy, use, dispose and recycle. And, that different pattern of consumption and post-consumption says things about who we are as a people and how we are responding to the impacts of isolation.

Archaeologists have long dug for and trawled through historical garbage to learn more about former societies and cultures. It’s as if our daily detritus – the random remnants of choices about what we value or don’t – is a more objective and representative measure of who we are than our greatest feats of art or science. If such archaeologists were to unearth our current bins hundreds of years after the coronavirus, they could glean some of the following.

“Flattening the curve” is filling up our bins. We are producing perhaps up to 20% more household rubbish as a result of more buying at the supermarket and more staying at home. There are even reports of neighbours squabbling about “bin territory”. It’s sad but true that – together with toilet paper – access to volumetric air space in hard plastic wheeled containers has become worth a fight for some.

Indeed, if an initial response of some Australians to perhaps their first ever prospect or perception of resource scarcity was to “panic buy”, some weeks later we are now seeing the other side of those somehow protective purchases in the form of more waste.

Similarly, we are also likely to be producing up to 20% more household recyclables too, such as paper, cardboard, glass and plastic containers, and metal cans. Some of this increase is from the marked increase in alcohol consumption as our TVrooms become our pubs and clubs. Some of it is from the additional paper and cardboard from the upward spike in home deliveries. 

Sadly for many readers, as people take the time to “get themselves organised”, some of the additional and emerging recyclate is from old books. They once ended up in charitable op-shops, but many no longer accept them. It seems there are far fewer used book buyers in a world of screens and attenuated attention spans. (Perhaps because of our emotional relationship with them, our old books seems have an inherent value that we want to pass on to someone else. And if we can’t, highly intelligent friends with recent clean-up experience reckon that, while it’s not good to put books in a recycling bin, it’s somehow much better than landfilling them. Maybe, we’re handing them on to a slightly improved planet.)

In my own experience, every morning and afternoon, there’s another new 2 metre high stack of packages in the foyer of my high-rise, western Sydney building. New doonas, dumbbells and distractions. The device that no one ever thought to buy before now becomes a “must have” for making the pasta from the flour that has somehow come to be in short supply.

Also in the foyer, I observe the seemingly ceaseless, polite procession of Uber-Eats and similar bike delivery riders. It feels somewhat temple-like. We seem to be very okay – perhaps under the convenient guise of closed cafes – with what is frankly and regretfully the expansion of an underclass of mostly migrants who pedal and provide packaged food sacrifices for the gods that are our wealthier stomachs.

At the same time that we are acquiring more stuff to salve us, we are also not behaving as well as we have when it comes to our recycling. To an unprecedented level, Australians are putting the wrong things in the recycling bin. This is called contamination and results in un-useable yields and system costs – as well as loss of environmental benefits. These non-recyclable items include flexible plastic packaging from pasta, bread, fruit and veggies, and the outers of paper products like toilet paper. Other soft plastic items also come from the currently hyper-driven gig economy such as delivery and postal bags and ready-to-eat meal packaging.

An interesting larger source of this increased contamination seems to be the demographic of 18 to 35 year old Australians. Perhaps, it’s the first time they’ve been “grounded” since living with their parents. Certainly, it has to do with the fact that millennials are the first fully digital generation of consumers and the tsunami of parcels that comes with it.

Recycling from the business sector of the economy is down by 20%, as they shut shop or cut down on expenses. Here, we move beyond our middle class privilege, including my own. Through rubbish, or rather its downturn from production facilities and workplaces, we see a lead indicator of the economic depression that is starting to push down on millions of our citizens, and the human depression that it can painfully contribute to. 

A Facebook website featuring videos of Australians in fancy dress taking out their wheelie bins has an astonishing and active following of more than 50,000 people. Superman, Ned Kelly, Priscilla Queen of the Desert – all filmed and broadcast in this regular ritual of our suburban streets. What are we seeking to offset in creating social media comedy on our iPhones? Boredom, loneliness, cabin fever? Or, are we using larrikin-like laughter to somehow distract from bad news, to connect with others, and to create those “silver linings” we keep hearing about?

It’s perhaps a perfect community demonstration of Western Sydney University academic Gay Hawkins’ point in her ‘The Ethics of Waste’ where she writes: “Waste constitutes the self in the habits and embodied practices through which we decide what is connected to us and what isn’t. Managing its biological and material reality is part of the way in which we organise our self and our environment, [and how we] keep chaos at bay.” 

Simply put, putting out the bins – in costume or otherwise – feels good. It shows us supporting and participating in areassuring social norm in an radically abnormal time. With our recycling bins especially, this is extended again as we anoint ourselves with recycling’s (legitimate) environmental virtue.

A somewhat unlikely source, an officer with the former Peruvian radical group, The Shining Path, once said: “Garbage speaks an eloquent language.” It’s perhaps not only eloquent, but uncompromising and clear. It doesn’t mask or apologise for or rationalise our values, choices and behaviours – be they greedy ones, be they worthy ones, or be they contradictory ones. In this new COVID19 reality, our rubbish and recycling reflect of all those attributes of we Australians.

One thought on “The Eloquent Language of Rubbish. What Waste and Recycling During COVID19 Says About Us.

  1. A favourite quote

    “Thrift is the really romantic thing; economy is more romantic than extravagance…thrift is poetic because it is creative; waste is unpoetic because it is waste…if a man could undertake to make use of all the things in his dustbin, he would be a broader genius than Shakespeare.”

    G. K. Chesterton


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