Counting the Cost of Convenience

It’s almost inconceivable that in 2021 anyone could be unaware of the negative impacts of plastic and other pollution, yet globally the response seems to be token at best. News articles and discussions on plastic pollution are usually accompanied with images of waste strewn beaches and piles of plastic bottles clogging up rivers and the public outcry is always the same. “How could this happen?” People ask, “What’s going to be done about it? This can’t go on, let’s create a petition!” And that about sums up what people in general deem an appropriate response.

Few stop to think about the can of coke they’re buying for lunch or the single wrap snacks they pick up from the grocery store. Packaging is discarded in the bin without a second thought, because that is modern life – everything is about convenience and it’ll get recycled anyway. There’s little consideration given to what this very comfortable level of convenience is costing us, and more specifically the planet, because let’s be honest, nobody wants to give it up.

The Inconvenient Truth

Al Gore’s movie by the same name painted a scary image of what life could look like if people didn’t start to get serious about looking after planet earth. But on a personal level, people don’t really seem to make the connection about how inconvenient daily life could get when the climate crisis hits in earnest and the world is so polluted that we no longer have clean air to breathe or clean water to use. It won’t get to that, they think.

What happens when things start to run out? Ask the residents of a city that was voted the top destination in the world to on more than one occasion. A city that is modern and sophisticated and surrounded by incredible natural beauty. By January 2018, Cape Town was on a countdown to day zero – the day when you’d open the tap and nothing would come out. The area had been in a severe drought for several years and the low winter rainfall combined with soaring summer temperatures were depleting what little water resources were left. In some poorer communities taps had already run dry and residents were faced with carrying drums to central water points and then queueing for hours to get a meagre supply of 25 litres which had to last a few days.  

In all suburbs severe water restrictions were implemented. Swimming pools were not allowed to be topped up, no watering of gardens or washing cars, hotels took bath plugs out of rooms and asked visitors to limit showers to 2 minutes. Residents were rationed to 45 litres per person per day. And that had to do for showering, washing dishes, washing clothes, cleaning, cooking and drinking.  In case you’re wondering a short clothes washing cycle uses an average of 50 litres of water. Life was not convenient and having a clean vehicle was taboo.

Tourism numbers dropped, people got sick because of poor water quality and there was a mad scramble to build desalination plants. But it was too little too late. They would take years to build and there was no funding for it in any event. Thankfully nature intervened with record high rainfall in 2018, and by mid 2019 dam levels returned to 100%. But what if the rain hadn’t come?

Measuring the social cost of pollution

The Covid-19 pandemic was another inconvenience, accompanied by lockdown and a huge amount of stress. We’re now realising the economic and social cost of the past 18 months as life returns to normal. But there’s a huge recognition that maybe it’s not a normal we should return to. Will we start to measure the social cost of pollution and the environmental cost of our very convenient daily modern lifestyle?

In a recent report [i]commissioned by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), it’s estimated that the social cost of plastic pollution will amount to $1.7 Trillion by 2040.  The report goes on to say that this equates to the 2018 global spend on healthcare. There is simply too much virgin plastic still being produced and not nearly enough of it is being recycled. The report is blatant about the fact that the current approaches to dealing with plastic pollution have failed and it’s only going to get worse. The estimated the social and environmental cost is ten times the cost of making virgin plastic. There are recommendations for a global plastics treaty and this would be a good thing. But we all know that regulations have very little impact, it is behavioral changes that need to happen, in industry and on an individual level.

There are many passionate people in the waste management industry that are innovating better ways to collect and recycle plastics. There are industry bodies working hard to increase awareness around creating circular economies in manufacturing, packaging and retail. But the harsh reality is that we need to do much more and faster. We need to get more people and more companies to understand the urgency to change now. The challenges may seem huge, but what a privilege it is to be in an industry can influence that change and make a real and positive impact on society and the environment.