Opinion: It's time we started thinking about waste management more creatively in Irish society and not just try to hide it

As children, we are encouraged to clean up, put it in the bin and to throw things away. But there is no "away" and we’ve forgotten this. We are locked into the belief that house bins, street bins and work bins are magic portals and - just like that – the rubbish is gone. Out of sight, out of mind, unfortunately.

One of the biggest problems when it comes to waste management is that we do not have to confront the waste we create, and therefore, as a society we don’t. This lack of confrontation has left us deluded and believing the current system is working, just because the order of things appears neat and tidy.

"One creative initiative of waste management is the activity of upcycling"

But the system isn’t working and it has become a global challenge to reduce waste. Currently, as just one example, an island of plastic consumer waste, estimated at 79,000 metric tones, pollutes the Pacific and is predicted to disrupt the food chain significantly.

Across many fields of science, the term "Anthropocene" is used to describe the period of time characterised by the observable negative impact human activity has had on the Earth’s ecology and ecosystems (climate change, species extinction, health etc). The Anthropocene has been stimulated greatly by capitalist system and consumerism ideology and therefore production and consumption must be considered integral components of the culture of the Anthropocene.

The consumer market is designed to ensure we desire the new: it’s easier and often more cost effective to source and buy a new product than to repair an existing item.

The Earth cannot sustain current levels of natural resource depletion nor waste production. The balance between production, consumption, and waste must be restored quickly. To achieve this, we need to start thinking about waste management more creatively in Irish society.  

While recycling is one popular waste management initiative, it is not without its criticisms as the nature of the material being recycled influences the efficiency in terms of energy, cost and environmental impact. Also, recycling primarily results in the cyclical devaluing of material where office paper is recycled as toilet paper or cardboard etc. Within the consumer market, recycled goods lack status or appeal for the masses for the most part and rarely hold a high market share beyond niche categories. The system is designed to ensure we desire the new: it’s easier and often more cost effective to source and buy a new product than to repair an existing item.

From RTÉ Radio One's The Business, a report on how savvy architects and entrepreneurs are tapping the potential of the humble shipping container 

Certainly, our desire for new is part of the problem, but it is coupled with the functional deskilling of society, resulting in a strong reliance on the market. We have witnessed the dilution of "make do and mend" and DIY ideology as a common approach. Our rising levels of market dependence and tandem deskilling require attention – our lack of individual agency should be more alarming. 

There is some hope. Some creative, more playful and resourceful attitudes towards waste management are starting to emerge. For example, "dumpster diving" is the activity where people rummage through bins, from commercial large containers to household wheelie bins, in an intentional effort to source salvageable materials, electronics, furniture, and food. Rummager rationale should of course be employed.

"In upcycling, anything reusable become components combined and transformed into new objects with functional or aesthetic value" Photo: iStock

But such resistant attitudes to the current waste cycle must be commended, encouraged and directed to benefit society. It is time Irish society engages in more creative and healthy confrontations with the waste we create (and then try to hide). 

One creative initiative of waste management, emerging globally, is the activity of "upcycling". Upcycling is when someone reuses disregarded waste materials, objects, fabrics and furniture to create something new. Anything reusable such as bottles, plastic cartons, wooden pallets and carpets become components combined and transformed into new objects with functional or aesthetic value. The underlying ideology is to extend the life of waste objects to prevent the need for the production of others. It marks a more creative way of addressing the imbalances between production, consumption, and waste.

From RTÉ Radio One's Mooney Goes Wild, Fergus Sweeney reports on what he's learned at an upcycling workshop 

Upcycling ideas are frequent on social media, particularly Pinterest, Facebook, Instagram, Vimeo and Youtube, and also on dedicated online forums. Many upcycling and furniture businesses in Ireland already organise workshops to teach people the skills and techniques in a fun and relaxing atmosphere. 

Upcyclists highlight a range of personal physical and cognitive benefits: relaxation, fun, learning new skills, creative problem solving, physical labour, increased confidence with materials and tools, a sense accomplishment, artistic expression, and of course some monetary savings, and even earnings, if skilled enough. Due to their raw originality, upcycled objects command a higher price than recycled objects. They are also more desired among consumer groups on Etsy and Ebay. The backstories behind upcycled objects, the materials used and their enduring nature are appealing to consumers. Consumers are conditioned to desire the unique. 

From RTÉ Radio One's Morning Ireland, Aengus Cox reports upcyclers showcasing their wares

Objects aside, the greatest benefit of upcycling is the change in thinking it inspires. People stop seeing rubbish and waste. No longer are all objects or material considered waste; they become reframed as reusable units to solve problems or to express something. Upcycling encourages creative problem solving and lateral thinking when it comes to waste management.

It is a more productive confrontation with waste. We are presented with a situation in Irish society where the skills we are trying to encourage among children are aligning with a global problem needing urgent attention. We must develop healthier attitudes towards waste among children. 

By encouraging different ways of thinking, we can inspire alternative perspectives on production and attitudes towards waste management

Many primary school teachers incorporate this kind of thinking into materials used for younger children’s art lessons (washing up bottles, cereal boxes, toilet rolls etc). But this way of thinking tends to drop off. Could there be a place for upcycling projects in primary and secondary schools? Workshops, initiatives, and competitions encouraging children of all ages to creative problem solve by rethinking waste objects and their potential value for art, engineering, social causes, charity, crisis aid, the developing world etc. the possibilities are endless.

The skills of deconstructing and reconstructing – the ability to transform waste material into solutions – must be established and celebrated more in Irish society. By encouraging different ways of thinking, we can inspire alternative perspectives on production and attitudes towards waste management. We need to drastically reduce the volumes of production and waste we accept as the norm. Upcycling should be viewed as a stepping-stone towards a more sustainable future. 

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ