At present, we live in a deeply unequal world. Those of us who live in the more privileged west are consuming most of the earth’s natural resources. Our western lifestyle, in its present form, is extremely wasteful and completely unsustainable. If everybody on earth lived like people in “developed economies”, we would require several planets to support us all.
Our current system of production, consumption and disposal is predominantly a linear system. Materials are extracted from the ground, made into products and ultimately disposed of somewhere else, in either the ground or air. A small percentage is recycled and sometimes reused. This simply cannot continue on a finite planet.
The true costs of goods are disguised. So much is not factored into the financial cost of a product when bought (the environmental costs, exploitative labour practices and poor working conditions in the developing world where most of our stuff is made, costs of disposal of the product at the end of its useful life, etc.). This makes it difficult to appreciate the real environmental and ethical consequences of our purchasing decisions.
For too long, much of the focus has been on getting individuals to change to help create a sustainable society, whereas businesses and producers bear a large responsibility for many of the problems. Very large and powerful companies continue to put products on the market that don’t last long; that are made with toxic materials; and that are difficult to repair, upgrade or recycle. Some corporations even deliberately create products, which do not last so that they will be able to sell new products to replace the old ones (planned obsolescence). Much of the packaging on products is unnecessary and is for marketing purposes. Much of the packaging isn’t even suitable for recycling.
Ironically, for all of the ecological damage this addiction to excessive consumption causes, levels of unhappiness and discontent are high in the west. For too many, the satisfaction promised in the advertisements does not last very long and, often, all they are left with is clutter. To compound matters, there are also high levels of debt amongst many who feel socially compelled to borrow in order to acquire certain products or goods.
Not only can excessive consumerism be bad for our emotional health, many of the products that we buy can also be detrimental to our physical health. Many of these products contain dozens, if not hundreds (and sometimes thousands) of different materials, some of which have serious health concerns for humans.
So many of the things we buy in huge quantities today were considered unnecessary even just a few years ago. Bottled water is probably the best example of this. Across the world, we buy billions of bottles of water every single week. Bottled water has become one of the largest industries in the world but it is an industry that has a severe environmental impact. Yet, we have drinking water in our taps.
People want to live greener lives but doing the right thing is often made difficult due to not enough bring banks or inconvenient opening hours for the recycling centres. If a household in Galway reduces the amount of waste they put in their bins, they are not rewarded with cheaper bin costs that a pay-by-weight system would give. The flat-rate charge system that is currently in place provides no incentive to reduce waste.
Incineration is seen by some as a way of addressing the waste problem in Galway. However, burning our waste doesn’t allow us reuse the valuable resources that recycling would. An incinerator needs to be continuously fed a certain amount of waste to burn in order to be financially viable. Incineration can, therefore, be a disincentive for recycling. Burning our waste in an incinerator also results in toxic air pollution and highly toxic fly ash that has to be dealt with.
Our landfills are filling up. We simply can’t continue burying our rubbish in the ground. Landfills are a method of waste disposal that we need to move away from as they cause many environmental problems such as contamination of the local groundwater and soil as well as methane production, which causes climate change.
The cryptosporidium outbreak in the Galway water supply in 2007 meant that tap water was unsafe to drink after being polluted by human and animal waste. Not only was this a serious health issue, but was also inconvenience and financial burden on householders and businesses, as well as seriously damaging Galway’s reputation. Thankfully, this has since been rectified, but the recent sewage pollution at Ballyloughane beach in Renmore shows that we cannot be complacent. Many villages and towns across the county still have inadequate sewage treatment infrastructure.
We still have unacceptable levels of litter in the city, especially at night from fast food outlets and during street festivals. Litter not only pollutes our city but also can do significant damage to Galway’s image, especially in our tourism and food sectors.
While many of the challenges around waste need to be addressed at a national, European Union and, indeed, global level, there are many things we can do at a local level which would make a big difference. Galway City has an impressive history of taking the lead nationally when it comes to waste. We were the first city in Ireland to have segregated waste collection. Galway City has also one of the highest rates of recycling in the entire country. This chapter contains ideas on how that reputation might be enhanced.