Susan Carland: The state of our environment is something that people care about deeply, and that's growing. In the latest Mapping Social Cohesion report released in November of 2019, the most striking change has been a vast increase in the number of people who rate the environment or climate change as the most important problem Australians face today, and that's been the largest change in the history of the survey. And in the most recent IPSOS Issues Monitor released in December of 2019, it was also found that the environment has for the first-time surpassed healthcare, cost of living and the economy to be the No.1 concern for Australians. The survey asked Australians to name the top three issues facing the nation, and in the November survey nearly one-third of people rated the state of the environment among their top worries. This is a huge jump in the two years since November 2017, when the number was at just 14 per cent. It's clear many Australians care about this, but what are we doing to take action? This year, thousands of people attended the school climate strikes around the nation, calling for action on climate change.
[Audio from protest]: This Friday, many thousands of students across the country will go on strike from school, calling for emergency action on climate change.
Susan: And the recent catastrophic bushfires around Australia have brought the harsh realities of climate change right to the front door for many.
[Audio from Prime Minister]: Mr Speaker, southern Queensland, northeast of New South Wales, has experienced unprecedented fires Friday.
Susan: As we've heard in previous episodes, the global waste crisis has the potential to significantly increase the effects of climate change.
[Audio clip from Mark Boulet]: Food waste emissions account for about one-quarter of agricultural emissions overall. So you think dystopian future ... it’s contributing to something that we well know is going to make life a lot harder for humans on the planet, which is climate change.
Susan: So what actions can individuals take? What should we be doing? In this episode, we talk to those helping people to take steps to make change for the better, whether that's reducing your waste at home or at work, or working with governments and industry to get them on board. Let's start with some tips from our experts, Kim Borg and Mark Boulet. The problem seems so big it can feel quite overwhelming. What are some practical, concrete, clear things that the average individual like me can do right now to help with food waste or plastic waste.
Kim Borg: So, with plastic waste, there's a lot that individuals can do. And at a basic level, I look at it as following the waste hierarchy, which, if you're not familiar with that, step No.1 is avoidance. So find those single-use and unnecessary plastic items that you come across in your daily life and ask yourself, ‘Do I really need this? Do I need this straw, or can I just use my mouth?’ Find an alternative. A reusable option is the next step to go. OK, plastic bags are banned in Victoria now – guess I'll have to bring my own reusable bags. But are there other single-use items that I could be reusing as well, like a Tupperware container, or even an old Chinese food container that I've gotten from previous Chinese takeout? Could I take that back and reuse it? If you've got an older item that's broken down, can you repair it? Can you take it somewhere to fix it? And then once you've exhausted all of those individual options, the next part of the waste hierarchy is about recycling. So, making sure you’re recycling correctly as well. So finding out from your local council which items they accept in their recycling, because not all councils are the same. And then once we get down to, OK, we need to do energy recovery and then, ultimately, disposal, which is really based on sort of government and systems from an individual level. What we can do is petition for the government to do things. So write to your MP, sign petitions actually calling for change for something like improving the recycling system in Australia.
Susan: OK. Mark?
Mark Boulet: Food waste is not ... it doesn't actually happen when we put food in the bin. Essentially, that's just hiding the evidence. Yes, you can put it into a compost bin, and that's great. But the food has still been wasted, and food waste actually occurs as a result of, I suppose, a series of events that happen to do with food in your home. It occurs when you plan or don't plan when you go shopping, it occurs what you do in the supermarket. It occurs when you come home from the supermarket, how you store food and it occurs, how ... how much you cook and then what you do with leftovers. So at each one of those stages, we actually already waste food, and really the kind of food at the bin is just the outcome of the decisions, bad or good, that we make in those steps. So a bunch of easy things that we can do, which actually are often far removed from the time that we put the food in the bin, we can, before we go shopping, check what we have in our pantry and our fridge. We can write a shopping list. In the supermarket, we can only stick to the shopping list and don't get caught up by promotions and discounts. When we get home, store things properly, put them in the fridge. The food should be at four degrees – that's the optimal temperature to keep food fresh longest – use Tupperware, keep things stored well so that they last longer. Cook only the amount that you know you're going to eat, and that often comes from experience, and then reuse your leftovers. So each one of those are behaviours that we can do throughout the entire process of food within our home. Which means that probably the amount that we put in the bin, or if we're ... if we have a backyard, we put in the compost bin, is actually quite small.
Susan: Have you ever thrown out a bag of uneaten spinach?
Mark: Once or twice, yes. Well, it's been a while, and now that my family know that I'm studying food waste, the guilts that I get from my children becomes much greater. So either eat it or it goes to ... well, for us it goes to the compost bin, or the chickens as well.
Susan: So you, of course, could never be seen with the plastic straw.
Kim: So, not a plastic straw. I had to take a plastic bag when I was in Singapore, but I kept that bag, and it’s currently folded up and lives in my handbag, and I've had it for about a year now as one of my emergency, ‘Oh no, I haven't brought enough bags to the supermarket’, so even in those situations where you can end up with the single-use item, funnily enough, you can reuse them sometimes.
Susan: In a previous episode, we spoke to Associate Professor Fiona Newton about the plastic promotions a lot of supermarkets are doing at the moment, and asked her what we could do about them. Here’s some great tips, she offered ... What advice would you give to people who are frustrated by campaigns like the Ooshies or Little Shop, or any other plastic-focused promotion? What can they do to let the supermarkets know that they're not happy about how things are? And they'd like to see something different or a different approach?
Fiona Newton: That’s a really, really good question. I think I've got three different ways to approach that; some of them are pretty similar. First of all, write to the company. Actually, letters do count, because they take effort, and that’s recognised. I would say that writing, but being factual, not just getting out there. I know we can feel outraged by any of these, but the more that we are calm, we’re factual, we get out the information, that can be a really great way of them realising somebody’s taken this effort. Of course, then you can also post onto the company's social media sites your concerns. Again, do that homework so that you can really present a cogent kind of case.
There’s always petitions around these types of campaigns, so signing those. Some of them got huge numbers of signatures, and I think that does send a very concerted message to the retailers. I think we can also start a dialogue with family and friends, and I think it's at that level, where the parents are at the school pick-up that teachers are talking to parents and we’re starting to actually saying, ‘Look, maybe don't participate in it’. I think, though, if we go down that track of talking to family and friends and peers, we need to be careful about the tone of voice that we use, or we could make matters worse; I kind of think we need to be non-judgmental. Again, you might be outraged, but expressing that, you could induce a sense of psychological reaction in the person that you’re trying to convince not to do it, and what that actually means is that they're going to feel, ‘You're taking away my free choice, you're taking away my alternatives’, and you will get them doubling down on the behaviour rather than listening. So I think if we're going to do that kind of conversation, we need to take a moment to chill, and just to come in with a, ‘Well, look, have you thought about the consequences? Is there another way to do this?’
And I think that that, at a slow pace, starts to build momentum where people are going to say at the checkout, ‘No, thank you’. And therefore the supermarkets are going to say, ‘Well, hey, we’ve got heaps of this stuff left, people are no longer interested in it’. So I think if you take all of those approaches, we might get to a point where the supermarkets are thinking, ‘OK, enough, what do we do next?’.
Susan: Even taking individual action can be a challenge when the systems around us don't enable change. Monash Arts researcher and waste expert Dr Ruth Lane says it's a common barrier, and that's why we need government and industry to step in. Dr Ruth Lane, we talk a lot about the individuals. I wonder, really, in the end, how much can an individual do? Should we really be turning our attention to what government and industry should be doing? I could use my keep-cup as much as I like – in the end, if we’re not going to honour the Paris Accord, for example, this is a drop in the ocean.
Ruth Lane: I think there's a lot of individuals can do, but we need to feel part of something larger. A lot of people do undertake these sorts of, like, lifestyle initiatives off their own bat. However, they do meet resistance. They meet resistance through their social networks, even, you know, an immediate partner. Often it's kind of it's … so having a capacity to link up with others who are likeminded becomes quite important, and I think ultimately these sorts of personal initiatives need to have a more public political orientation for them to be able to gather momentum more broadly as a sort of a social change movement.
Susan: BehaviourWorks researcher Dr Stefan Kaufman is concerned our federal government might not only be loath to step in, but it actually might want to discourage individual action as well.
Stefan Kaufman: OK, my name is Stefan Kaufman. I'm a researcher with BehaviourWorks Australia at the Monash Sustainable Development Institute. I'm someone who's been interested in the links between behaviour change and system change for much of my career in a variety of different roles, which has ranged from applied behaviour change efforts in organisations right through to the theory and research of it.
Susan: Why are the government, in particular, so reluctant to try to enforce some of these things, whether it be state or federal? Why won't they show a bit more leadership?
Stefan: I've interviewed enough people in business, and in government as well, to be reasonably believing that many people making some of these policy decisions genuinely feel limited by what they believe consumers and citizens will accept and support and – not to get too political here – but I thought Scott Morrison’s speech to the Queensland Resources Council was pretty interesting in that regard.
Susan: Tell us what he said.
Stefan: Well, I'm paraphrasing here, and obviously you should read it yourself and listen to the speech if you want to hear what he actually said, but what I was hearing was, he was saying that you know, the ideal Australian is a quiet Australian who just gets on with living. And the government takes care of these bigger issues like droughts and bushfires and climate change in a way that makes as minimal an impact on your day-to-day life as possible, no costs or inconvenience, and that people who are making your life difficult are the enemy, not people who are causing these problems. And they were talking a lot about the need to prevent things like shareholder activism and secondary boycotts, and to make things like activism illegal. So, you know, if you have doubts about whether or not the current government is prioritising action on climate change and other things, he's also telling you, I guess, that they'd actually prefer that you didn't become an activist and you didn't do shareholder activism – that ‘quiet Australians’ are much preferable than noisy Australians or ones that are at least constructively vocal.
Susan: Agitating Australians
Stefan: So I mean, I think there's a clue there that, you know, again, I'm probably being a little bit cynical and jaded, but this is the Prime Minister who fondled a piece of coal in Parliament. He would see his interest as being very aligned with the fossil fuel industry in Australia, and is telling people to get back in their seats and be quiet.
Susan: Perhaps the government hopes their thoughts and prayers will be enough. Ruth’s view is that this attitude could have serious impacts, not just on the environment, but also on the Australian economy. What are your particular areas of concern?
Ruth: I think that Australia is very economically dependent on the export of extracted resources, particularly coal and iron ore. And because of their enormous importance as revenue-raisers for state and national governments, I think that the approvals that go through for extracted industries are really not doing the job they need to for environmental protections, and governments are really too beholden to extractive industries in Australia.
Susan: Do you think there's something in our psyche, in the Australian view of itself, that keeps us reliant on things like mining? That we see it as part of … it’s connected to our identity. Is that why we can't let it go?
Ruth: Look, Australian identity used to be more bound up with agricultural industries. Now it's more mining. It's not actually an employer of a large ... of a very large portion of the labour force. It's more important for cashflows and export revenue from exports. I think because of the importance of this industry, we’ve turned away from local manufacturing. And it's kind of interesting, because now, at a time when there's more trade wars. The world in the future may not work like it did in the past in terms of the flows of commodities – exports, imports; we may need to be more self-sufficient, and I don't think we're prepared for that. I don't think we're having those sorts of conversations and, worse still, I think we're lagging on climate policy big-time, and that's actually likely to blow up in our faces in terms of embargoes on trade in the future.
Susan: Stefan’s advice is to choose the issues most important to you and focus on those. Change takes energy and attention, and most of us are spread pretty thin already. I know I am. Stefan wants us all to stop being so hard on ourselves.
Stefan: Like, if it is almost impossible to recycle correctly, you know – if you go to the Monash food court here and you find it's actually quite difficult to buy lunch in anything other than disposable packaging, you could beat yourself up for not being able to bring the right thing, or bring food from home. Or you could have a friendly but constructive conversation with the shop that you favour, or talk to the student union management or Monash, and encourage them to do it. And this rolls out all over the place. So I think if you are, sort of, clear about what you're trying to achieve, believe that you're trying to do the right thing, but it's well beyond your personal resources and capacity to do it, it’s time to get organised and talk to other people and connect with other people as well, and try and influence some of those actors and systems that constrain that behaviour. So you can be a conscious agent while forgiving yourself that it's difficult to do everything right yourself and be a change agent.
Susan: But, like in all situations, as Stefan points out, don't expect a quick fix.
Stefan: So I think there are useful things you can do on a personal level about how you live, and you just need to acknowledge that it’ll probably take a little bit more time and effort to do these things. But that can also give you clues about where activism and change can be useful. There's other people who have the temperament and interest to go out there and wave banners and protests, or do often quite creative and interesting direct-action things. I mean, I think most of us probably draw the line at non-violent protest. We wouldn't go beyond that. But there are models of social change that people like Fran Peavey talk about, for example, which says that, you know, you work out where you can fit in the model of change, and if you've got the appetite and desire to be an activist, be an activist, but you can be someone who supports those activists by doing petitions or helping with funding or just showing up at the rallies they organise, while trying to do your day-to-day life things, too, and I think all these things create the preconditions for change. And the emergence of media shows like this also do as well, but we need to sort of keep in mind that these are complicated, multifaceted processes that are going on. You know, I don't think just being reactionary about things is going to help stuff. There's a simple solution to every complex problem, and it's wrong.
Susan: Thanks so much to all our guests today for their tips and their insights. And if you want more information on what you could do to help tackle the waste crisis, whether at an individual or community level, there are plenty of resources available. Sustainability Victoria is a great place to start. Run by the Victorian government, Sustainability Victoria provides guidance and advice on everything from recycling to renewable energy, and you can find them at sustainability.vic.gov.au. Or, Monash’s own ClimateWorks Australia at the Monash Sustainable Development Institute also has plenty of information and advice designed to help Australia transition to net zero emissions by 2050. Visit monash.edu/sustainable-development. Special thanks to Kim Borg, Mark Boulet, Ruth Lane, Stefan Kaufman and Fiona Newton. If you like the podcast, please give us a five-star rating and tell your friends.
Next time on the podcast, we’ll delve into a brand-new topic: modern slavery. Thanks for listening. See you on the next episode of What Happens Next?
We’re not going to recycle our way out of this one. It takes awareness and education to change our behaviours surrounding waste.
Find out what you can do – this episode includes small steps to take at home that can make a major difference such as:
"Write a shopping list and only stick to that shopping list. Don't get caught up by promotions and cook only what you need."
Mark Boulet, Research Fellow
To receive a fortnightly email wrap up of stories from Lens.