Susan Carland: Hi, I'm Susan Carland, and this is 'What Happens Next?' This is something of a sliding doors podcast. For each topic - waste, right wing extremism or modern day slavery we'll devote an entire episode to a different possible future. What will our future look like if we don't change? What could our future look like if we do? And what can we the average person do to try to create a future we all want?
Today in our first episode on waste, we talk trash with researchers and behaviour change experts Kim Borg and Mark Boulet.
Speech clip - Prime Minister Scott Morrison: Now Australia is also taking real action on climate change, and we're getting results. Australia is doing our bit on climate change, and we reject any suggestion to the contrary.
Mark Boulet: My name's Mark Boulet. I'm a research fellow at BehaviourWorks Australia, which is behaviour change research enterprise at Monash University. I work primarily in the environment of sustainability field, applying behavioural thinking, behavioural research methods, to sustainability challenges.
Kim Borg: My name is Kim Borg. I am a researcher at Behaviour Works, but I'm also a full time doctoral researcher. My PhD subject is looking at behaviour change and single use plastics, particularly the role of media in fostering this new social norm that we're seeing about Hey, plastic is actually pretty bad.
Susan: Now, we are all ringside at an environmental catastrophe. How bad, Mark, I'm gonna ask you first. How bad is the current food waste problem?
Mark: It's bad.
If anything, you could add to the list of crisis that we seem to be developing, you could, you could say that the food system globally is in a waste crisis. We produce about three to four billion tonnes of food per year, and over one third of that is wasted. So I always use the analogy that imagine you go shopping and buy three bags of groceries at the supermarket and on the way out you throw one of those in the bin. That's essentially what we're doing with regards to food. So over one third of what we produce never actually gets eaten, which is a moral outrage within itself. But it comes with an environmental and social baggage, which just adds to the problem.
Susan: We could be familiar with what you're saying, how many bags of spinach have we all chucked out. We all buy it every week, the massive one, with full intention to use and in smoothies and salads. And it turns to slush before we even use it.
Mark: And food waste looks different across the world. So in the more industrialised wealthier nations, it tends to be at the consumption stage. So us and our bags of spinach. But in the developing nations, it's more at the agricultural end, so it's more of the production and the growing phase where you see a lot more wastage and t's much less in the consumption phase.
Susan: So waste in terms of this potato's a bit ugly, we're not going to send it to market?
Mark: Yeah, so lost food, food that doesn't meet particular standards, but also food that doesn't get to markets or transport in time, rots on the vine because of a climate issue or, ah, social upheaval.
Susan: Which is this shocking realisation when we consider rates of malnutrition around the world as well. What a horrible dichotomy.
Mark: I think that the latest figures is about 11% of the global population has inadequate nutrition. And so we're unable to feed adequately already a global population at this size, that global population is predicted to increase, you know, close to nine if not over nine billion in 20 years. And if we already have such inefficiencies in the system now
those are probably going to get worse if we don't make changes. And we are gonna probably see a greater proportion of people unable to be fed adequately.
Susan: Kim, going back to my bag of spinach. We just talked about the way the actual spinach is wasted, but of course it comes in a plastic bag. You specialise in plastic waste, in plastic bag waste. How bad is the plastic waste problem at the moment?
Kim: Current estimates are about eight million tons of plastic waste is entering our oceans every year, and that equates to about a garbage truck full of plastic every day, which is pretty terrifying, considering how much plastic there is in everything. And even though plastic itself is really wonderful, it's so wonderful that now everyone is using it in everything, including unnecessary items, things like straws or cutlery or plates that back in the 1950s, when plastic was not necessarily being used in everything, it was sold to people as 'you know what, you could throw away your dinner plate. Why would you do the washing up when you could just use it once and chuck it out', which sounded great at the time.
Susan: It still sounds great. I mean, apart from the environmental problem. Who doesn't want to just never think about the dishes?
Kim: Exactly. So we've cultivated a convenience culture, this throwaway culture which sounded great at the time and, you know, we're all about 'we've got busy lives let's make it as easy as possible'. But you know what, it is 60, 70 years later, when we're now really starting to see the repercussions of finding plastic everywhere. Because when you use a durable, versatile material in everything that doesn't actually breakdown for hundreds of you, then where does it go?
Susan: There is no such place as away.
Susan: I'm gonna ask you to put on your dystopian goggles now and gaze into the future. If we continue on the trajectory that we're currently on in terms of food, waste and plastic waste, what will things look like?
Kim: So I think estimate at the moment say, if we don't change our behaviour if we don't change our practices, if we don't change our management styles for plastic, by the year 2050 there's going to be more plastic in the ocean than fish. Which is kind of terrifying, considering that fish is a source of food that billions of people around the world live on. And if they're trying to find fish to actually eat, they're either going to be coming up with bucketfuls of plastic or they're gonna have fish that has eaten plastic already.
Susan: What about you Mark?
Mark: Food waste emissions account for about one quarter of Agriculture's emissions overall. So if you think dystopian future, it is contributing to something that we well know is going to make life a lot harder for humans on the planet, which is climate change. But food waste also is an inefficient system, which means that our use of land and soil and fertilisers is also in itself unsustainable. The land that we have available to actually grow food becomes itself threatened. And then that means we have to put more fertilisers into it and we have more inputs, like water and energy and all the rest. So it's a symptom of a system which is one of over-consumption and means pretty much that, unfortunately, the human race is gonna be running out of some of the fundamentals that we need to live. Food waste also drives up things like food prices. So we waste more food, food becomes a more in-demand commodity and prices will go up. Which again affects a large part of the population that are already potentially struggling financially. And they will then have greater trouble to actually have the diets that they need in order to survive and be healthy.
Susan: How much do you think this is a problem of the values that we have in society of ease and consumption that, you know you spoke about - Let's just throw away the plates or I can't be bothered remembering my plastic bags or this is easier or but I wanna have raspberries all year round, how do we convince people to actually get over the idea of consumption and ease for the benefit of the climate?
Mark: I think ease, again and convenience again, they are probably symptoms of an underlying issue, which is we don't necessarily value products for their real cost. And I think this constant need for us to have products at the lowest possible prices means we don't value them properly, and as a result we tend to deal with them in a way that is disposable.
Kim: I would say convenience is also very much a generational thing. So a lot of research that's been done around waste looks at the different generations and their attitudes and behaviours around this, and it's really interesting that across a lot of environmental behaviours, young people are the ones kind of leading the charge publicly and stating, you know, we have to, we need to stop climate change. We have all these wonderful positive feelings we need to protect the environment.
Kim: Exactly. But when you look at behaviour, they're not following through and that's because they've been raised in the convenience culture. Older generations who have grown up in times of scarcity, know how to... It's not necessarily about the value or their attitude. So regardless of whether they think climate change is bad or waste is bad, they have lived in a time where that was normal.
So what we need to do or what is possible, because we've done it once - we made convenience the norm, is make re-use and repair normal again.
Mark: Actually, there is a bias to the status quo. We do like things to be the way that they always are, which means that oh well we can't possibly change because it means it won't be easy or we will then undermine this idea of convenience. But I don't think it's a simple is that
Kim: Yeah, and convenience is about, you know, easy accessibility. It's about cost. It's about time. But a lot of those come down to perception as opposed to reality. So the perceived costs that we have associated with I have to bring my own bag, that means I'm gonna have to buy a bag. If I forget one, I'll have to buy a new one. But as Mark said, we know from research that when you get people engaging in a particular behavior that they think is going to be hard and time consuming and costly, you can kind of bust some of those myths by just getting people to do it. And then they very quickly often learn that it's not as hard as they thought. And so once they've experienced it, they're more likely to do it again and again. And we can actually end up fostering a new behavioural norm.
Susan: Now what's more important, government intervention or industry, which is, in the case of the plastic bag ban, the big supermarkets here said ‘no more plastic bags’ on the back of big push from individuals. What has a bigger effect? What's going to work? Is it the individuals forcing a government or industry? Or is it industry saying, ‘too bad If you think plastic bags of difficult, we promise you do it for a couple of weeks and you'll forget that you ever didn't have to bring a canvas bags’. What does the research show you guys about the best way to create change?
Kim: I have so much to say about this
Susan: Well settle in!
Kim: So I mean, the short answer is everyone's got a role to play. I think a lot of people, when they see government intervening with a statewide plastic bag ban, they kind of are, you know, ‘it's not the government's place to do this’
Susan: Nanny state.
Kim: Whereas other people are like ‘the government should be banning more plastic’ and everyone kind of puts blame on to other people and other institutions. But everyone's got a role to play. And from what I've seen in previous research and even what I’ve seen happen in Victoria, you kind of you, you almost need to start with a bit of a culture of desire. So if you can start with a bit of an individual or community level push for, ‘actually we do want to do more’ and you know, you get some individuals who are doing their own things. But when you want to go with a slightly larger scale, that's when you probably need different players to start having different things. I mean, it's all well and good for an individual to want to bring their own reusable container to get takeaway food. If the shop is not willing to take that, then that behavior is not gonna be entrenched. Then you know this reuse culture that we're trying to cultivate can't exist, so we need the businesses to be on board in that respect. And at the end of the day, sometimes you do need a government intervention. If you want 100% compliance.
Mark: You could have the best of intentions as an individual to reduce your food waste. But when you go to the supermarket and you are only able to buy a packet of food at a particular size or you have the endless amounts of a buy one, get one free and other promotions that they have, food waste almost imposed on you in a sense from the supermarket. In addition to that, you then have date labels, which is another layer of regulation, of a framework that we have around outside of the retailer, which also then imposes on you food waste because it says by this particular date, it's probably best that you don't eat the food, and a lot of people don't actually even understand how to interpret date labels because there's a variety of different types, and they automatically think that when that date is hit, I need to throw it out when, in actual fact, for some food, that's not the case. If we don't have the opportunities, whether it's when we go to the supermarket, with regards to how much you know, the kind of packaging size that we get food in and so forth. If you don't have the opportunities to, I suppose, engage in some of the other behaviors because regulation prevents us from doing it or industry doesn't offer us that particular alternative, then there's only so much that the individual can do. So, yeah, it kind of is unfair. Maybe it's because it's easier to point the finger at the individual, rather point the finger at industry and other groups.
Susan: Kim, what is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch?
Kim: Okay, so for those who don't know, our oceans are actually made up of a series of basically giant vortexes of water, which are called gyres. And in the northern Pacific between Hawaii and California, there is the biggest gyre that is full of human rubbish, and a lot of that is made up of plastic.
Susan: How big is it?
Kim: So the weight of all of the masses of rubbish that's in there is about 80,000 tonnes, which equates to about 800 blue whales.
Mark: Kim measures everything in blue whales.
Susan: You mean you don’t? That’s actually quite weird Mark (laughing)
Kim: So it's twice the size of New South Wales but the truth is...
Susan: So there is this pontoon of rubbish just floating in the ocean?
Kim: No. And this is a common misconception, that people expect if they go to the Pacific gyre, they will see an island of plastic that they could walk across. But the truth is because, as I said previously, plastic doesn't break down, but it breaks apart. So, um, when it's exposed to sunlight and oxygen, it breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces. But it never goes away. It never goes into an organic component cause it's not organic. So what we end up with in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is really a Great Pacific Garbage Soup. So if you were to trawl that area, which they've done, and stick a little net in there, run around for a couple of kilometres and pick it up, you will have a massive amount of plastic, but most of it will be as small as a pinhead.
Susan: Right and so much of it is actually underwater, so it’s like an iceberg?
Kim: Um, I like soup. Any bigger pieces you will see floating on the top, but there is not a mound of plastic at all. It is literally a massive um, area, as I said twice the size of New South Wales, where most of it is floating beneath the surface.
Susan: Like an iceberg.
Susan: Okay, so this is all due to plastics that no one's tried to recycle or just that it's swept out to sea?
Kim: Eighty per cent of plastic either goes to a landfill, or ends up in the environment, and when it ends up in the environment, it pretty much ends up in the waterway because it is light and it floats and it's waterproof. So it's this wonderful, durable, flexible material, but it ends up in the ocean, it breaks apart into smaller pieces, and some of the items that they found in there have actually been dated from the seventies. They've even done tests on plastic bags that were said to be biodegradable or compostable, and they put them in the ocean. And after three years they were still strong enough to hold something inside the plastic bag. So, plastic basically doesn't go away.
Susan: This all sounds very negative. Have you, do you both have hope for the future?
Kim: Personally, I do, because ever since I've started looking at this subject, I've noticed that that has been a massive shift in our, a massive social shift away from single use plastics where people are really starting to become aware of the negative impacts on the environment. We’re also starting to try and find innovative solutions to avoiding single use plastic items, and it’s actually, it can be really easy. You know, we talked about convenience before and how many will go ‘I want to do whatever's easiest’. It can actually be really easy to bring your own bag. If you just remember to have a bag in your back pocket or your handbag or your car. And the more people are doing these behaviours the easier that they're finding it, and the more social licence the government has to do more initiatives as well. We'll probably see a lot more happening there, so I'm quite hopeful with this particular issue. There are other issues I'm less hopeful for, but I'll leave tha tone.
Susan: I think plastic straws a really good example, because it that's a pretty fast change, I think that’s much faster than, say, plastic bags, really rapid. I think, you know, a couple of iconic horrible videos on instagram of turtles with straws in their nose, and now, in a relatively short period of time, I'm shocked if I go somewhere and see plastic straws, it’s quite jarring, So there is hope that things can change quite fast, with the right messaging, and also I think maybe one of the things straws had to their advantage was it wasn't a hard thing to give up. So you don't have to, like, if you forget to bring your metal straw you still can drink from your mouth, you know, unless you happen to be someone who has a disability that needs it, for the vast majority of people, this wasn't a big loss, and that probably worked in its favour too.
Kim: And I love the fact that you brought up social media because that's another thing that I think is contributing to this rapid change that's happening around plastics, is that it's really easy to get the message out to millions of people around the world, So that I know the video you're talking about with the turtle who was having a straw extracted from its nostril. I don't think I've spoken to anyone who doesn't know that video.
Mark: Like you, said, change is possible and humans have shown that we can change very rapidly. I think the problem is is that a lot of our change tends to be reactive, so something has to be bad first, before we realise Oh God, we’ve got to make some change. We're less good changing proactively and that's the climate change issue writ large. I mean, we've known about it for over 50 years now, and yet we don't seem to be able to find the will to change until literally the fire’s at our doorstep. So I have hope, with regards to that we can change and we will change. I suppose what fills me with a bit of fear and uncertainty is what has to hit the fan in a rather major, catastrophic way and who's going to suffer as a result - humans, animals, ecosystems what have you, before the change comes, because, unfortunately, we don't have a great track record of going ‘OK, that's coming, so let's change now rather than ooh it’s here, god we better change’.
Susan: Extinction, rebellion, climate strikes. Great of Thornburg. There was an article just recently in the Guardian saying the world is basically going to hell in a handbasket environmentally and on the other hand, we can't get people to care. Is it because the change seems so gradual? I go outside now, life still seems pretty fine. I mean, maybe it's a little bit hotter in summer, maybe a little bit colder in winter. But nothing else has really changed, and until maybe sulphur is raining on our heads - is that, is that the issue? How do we get people to care?
Mark: What we probably to remove from our thinking is this assumption that in order to create change, people have to care.
Kim: Oh, you took the words out of my mouth.
Mark: We tend to think that the only way that we can create change is if everybody cares, yeah? But if we waited for everyone to care in many cases, it might be too late, and this is where the role of government comes in. And this is where the role of strong regulation comes in as well, where it doesn't necessarily wait for there to be a popular uprising that everyone's across social media, we have to do something, there’s people on the streets, because care is exhausting for people, and we can only alarm them so much before they switch off.
Susan: Climate grief.
Mark: Some people just won't care, because this particular issue is not in their world. Um, so I think sometimes we need to realise that change, behavior change in particular, doesn't necessarily always come from the same place that everyone assumes - that which is the thinking part of your brain, which is involved with some kind of also fear or concern for the future. And once that's activated, “I will create change”. You know, you think about your behaviour over your life and what has led to change. I can guarantee you only a proportion of that will be driven by the active part of your brain, in other cases it will be brought on by new laws that have come in or by an infrastructure change that has occurred in your neighborhood, which means you drive this way instead of that way. Or by what your peers have done, so you just follow along with what your peers are doing. Um, we tend to think that the only way that we can create change is through this shift of attitude - everyone becomes aware, everyone cares, and then we're all in it together. But the reality is we don't change like that, we change a whole bunch of other ways as well and I think as changemakers we need to be more comfortable with pushing those.
Kim: It could be finding out what it is that they value and what their attitudes are and how can we curate the message to appeal to the things that they value? So I was talking yesterday with a bunch of changemakers, councils, talking about how do we get people to care for nature so that they protect it. We made the point of, well, some people don't care about the environment, but they do care about their own health. So if we tell them that spending time in nature is actually really good for their mental health, their well being, their physical health, that could be a better hook than saying, go out in nature and look at the pretty animals and, you know, we can protect them. So it's not about necessarily trying to get everyone to care for the same thing, but trying to find that common ground that has the same solution and the same outcome that everyone can get on board with.
Mark: If you look at, probably that you know some of the examples that we have in our society where change has happened. And let's look at smoking in a country like Australia, you know, we have got a reduction in smoking that has occurred over the years, yeah, so, people are doing more of the right thing, which in this case is not smoking as much. But what has led to that hasn't been just a bunch of campaigns that try and get people to care more about, you know, the impact of smoking and that we need to do something. There's been a quit hotline which gives people direct tools in order to create some change for themselves. We've banned advertising of cigarettes at sporting events. We then ban cigarettes from being smoked inside. We then did a number of promotional campaigns over the years. So there's been a range of different interventions that have been applied in order for us to gradually reduce our smoking rates, and only a part of those have had to do with public awareness and caring, and a lot of it was behind the scenes, tweaking some of these other things in order to create change. So that's that's for smoking. But it was the same situation for, say, how seatbelts were introduced in Victoria and how we gradually reduced road toll.
Kim: You know, in the context of waste, recycling is another example. Recycling hasn't always been a thing. It hasn't always been a big thing, but through a range of changes, which includes some area of environmental consciousness. But it includes, you know, councils giving us recycling bins. If we didn't have the recycling bins, we’d probably think it was too hard and we probably wouldn't do it, so we’ve seen increases in recycling across many developed countries.
Mark: I think we look for that, as I said before, we look for the silver bullet and we look for change to be instantaneous. But case studies like smoking show us that there is no silver bullet - it’s a range of different things and change is slow
Susan: Is one of the problems with the need for slow change to be sustainable is that with the environment, we actually don't have time?
Mark: Yes. And this is and this is the fear that I have - is that change will come, but in some cases, the dark side of me that wakes me up at three in the morning and I don't sleep thinks gosh, the shit is really gonna hit the fan. And people are going to suffer and unfortunately it’s probably gonna be the ones that have the least buffer to those sort of catastrophes because the rate at which we need to change, we’re just not doing that at the moment
Susan: So we need a revolution, is what you’re calling for? [laughing}
Mark. Stop putting words in my mouth! But absolutely, I am!
Kim: My deep, dark thing that wakes me up at night is, because I'm a nerd, I've read Darwin, and one of the comments that's really stuck with me is that every population that booms in any species eventually collapses, once they consume all of their resources. But I don't want to go down this path because that's that's the thing that keeps me up at night - is that at some point we're gonna collapse and we’re doing it to ourselves
Susan: Nature always wins!
Kim: Yeah, well, yeah, we're shooting ourselves in the foot.
So the recycling crisis, like, two years ago, everything was ‘working’ quote-unquote, because Australia had a system where we could collect our cycling and we could send it somewhere else for processing. They would turn it into another product or raw material that could go somewhere else for manufacturing, that eventually would come back to us. So at that point, it was working. But then when all these Southeast Asian countries have said, actually, we can't take this because it's not working for us it was, if anything, a wake up call for Australia. And to be honest, it's presented an opportunity because we were selling a material, now we have an opportunity for recovering that material and keeping it all in-house. So if we can recover our own plastics, we can then, you know, reignite the industry here, the waste industry and, you know, focus on resource recovery, focus back on manufacturing and remanufacturing have things like, you know, container deposit schemes where you take the item back and you reuse it again. You don't even worry about breaking it down and going through that costly process. So I think then, from what I've seen, Victoria really seems to be treating this as an opportunity What can we do? We need to be doing something about this. We need to do something very quickly as well, and there has been a lot happening, but how long that takes, to actually get out there and effect change is still to be seen, but it's definitely an opportunity. No one has looked at it and gone ‘oh we’re all screwed. we're just gonna send all our recycling to landfill’. I know some, some councils did that for a very brief period of time, um, but we're trying. They’re trying, everyone's trying.
Susan: Kim Borg, Mark Boulet, thank you so much for your time.
Mark: Thank you.
Susan: See you in the revolution!
Susan: Fear not. It's not all doom and gloom - in our next episode we’ll take a closer look at how we move towards a more circular economy and explore the changes we need to make this a reality. Special thanks to our guests Kim Borg and Marc Boulet from BehaviorWorks at the Monash Sustainable Development Institute. Thanks for listening, see you on the next episode of What Happens Next?
We're talking trash in the first episode of our new podcast series, What Happens Next?, hosted by Dr Susan Carland.
Developed economies generate waste at far greater rates than their share of population, and developing nations are pushing back on our strategy of shipping waste offshore. Unless we drastically change how we generate, dispose of and process waste, the future looks bleak, experts say.
If we don’t change our behaviour, by the year 2050, we’re going to have more plastic in the oceans than fish.
Kim Borg, Research Fellow, BehaviourWorks Australia
Susan is joined by researchers and behaviour change experts Kim Borg and Mark Boulet from BehaviourWorks Australia, a research enterprise within the Monash Sustainable Development Institute. Together they chat through the issues around single-use plastics, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP), food waste, food security, and what it means for our ability to feed the global population if we don’t tackle these global issues.
Find out the facts about the global waste crisis and discover how you can help drive the change we need – listen now.