Gittisham Folk Dance Club: Recycling of waste from a Saturday night 'bring and share' meal for 110 people - and some environmental links showing how plastics waste is destroying the world.

At most social dance and ceilidh events, no-one bothers to recycle waste. At my instigation, Gittisham Folk Dance Club now implements recycling at its occasional Saturday dance events, if only to try to set a good (albeit wholly trivial) example. I take home, clean and check the pre-sorted waste before recycling it.

The total mass of waste brought home for final sorting from a dance in January 2016 was 6540g (6.54kg). The crude recycle rate based only on mass (which is often how local councils in the UK assess their rates) was therefore 6.19/6.54 = 95%. The landfill waste of 0.35kg comprised 5.4% of the total. If the glass bottles are excluded (they could easily have been taken home by whoever brought them) the landfill component rises to 7.4%.

Looking to the future it should easily be possible to run folk dances without using or offering plastics disposable products. Many people bring plates of sandwiches and take their plates home - there is no waste apart from a little Clingfilm. Too many people bring 'convenience' foods such a cheap Swiss rolls - these are inevitably left largely uneaten and then thrown away. The aim should be to buy or prepare foods that utilise a minimum of packaging. I usually take a bunch of free-range bananas.

Way back in 2004 I wrote an article on recycling for a local environmental group - you can read it here. An earlier article, from 2002, discusses sustainability. Another, from 2008, argues that climate change is unlikely to be addressed adequately. Little has changed! People are recycling more but total resource usage continues to increase.

The first item in the list below is cardboard - and most of the 2.2kg mass comprised large thick cardboard plates of a size and rigidity arguably unnecessary for such an event. At Willand Dance club for example, and elsewhere, smaller and lighter weight plates are used routinely for 'bring and share' evenings - and are perfectly adequate. The plates used at this Gittisham evening would have been more suitable for an event that included a large formal meal.

Quite apart from being a waste in itself, buying such expensive plates is a waste of club money - I'm allowed to say that because I was the treasurer of Gittisham Club for 5 years. Under my guidance (some would say mild parsimony), the club ended up with a balance of around 750.

recyclebroadclyst.jpg (570614 bytes) The masses of various material recycled were:

Cardboard 2200g - mainly comprising thick cardboard plates

Glass bottles 1800g

Recyclable plastic 1500g - mainly plastics food trays and tumblers

Landfill waste 350g - mainly heavily soiled paper plates and non-recyclable plastic film

Paper 260g - mainly raffle tickets and clean napkins

Aluminium cans 240g - several of these are marked No sugar. No calories. So why not drink water?

Aluminium foil - 150g mainly quiche trays and the like

One waxed carton - 40g (custard)

The waste per person averaged 60g.

At the dance in January 2016 some people took their own used drinks bottles etc home, so what is itemised above is probably 80 to 90% of the total waste produced by one bring and share meal for 110 people. A small quantity of food waste is not shown.

Inevitably, in a busy kitchen area with many people adding waste to various sacks some items get misallocated. Ideally therefore, it all has to be resorted - a job that took me about half an hour.

Is recycling worth the effort?

chrisjordan1.jpg (241899 bytes) In terms of value of the items recycled, only the aluminium would be saleable locally. 390g would be worth about 15p at 2016 prices, down from 30p in 2003 before commodity prices slumped as a part of the 2015/6 downturn.

Aluminium is a very abundant element in the Earth's crust but it is worth recycling because of the energy saving compared with extraction from bauxite. Scrap aluminium dumped on land or at sea poses no great risk to the environment.

In monetary terms, none of the effort of domestic recycling is at all worthwhile, which is why most people can't be bothered, which in turn is a prime reason why the Earth is now so irreversibly polluted with waste plastics. It is a massive pollution problem without a solution.

This widely viewed image is from this set.

A film about plastic pollution on Midway Island, thousands of miles from any mainland.

Saying that recycling is not profitable ignores what economists call externalities - these include the value of damage not caused to the environment and the long term benefit of using less virgin raw material for manufacturing new products.

If you set a value on 'keeping the Earth habitable' at infinity, then most or all recycling becomes worthwhile so long as the acts involved in recycling (water for washing, fuel for transportation) do not outweigh the benefits. Any encouragement to recycling or acting more responsibly, is maybe a good thing, but recognising that it is now too late to make much difference.

Recycling remains by far the least important of the 3Rs reduce, reuse, recycle that have been an environmental mantra for over 40 years. To these, one more has been added ; Refuse. Refuse to buy or use products made of plastic. And run folk dances without using or offering plastics disposable products. In terms of environmental impact, the waste that it is generally most worthwhile to collect and recycle properly is plastics because if this gets into the marine environment (which much carelessly discarded plastics eventually does) then it can cause catastrophic damage to wildlife. The problems on Midway Island (see above) are one well documented example.

All changes in behaviour and/or outlook to help the Earth survive will result either from the big decisions (made by governments sometimes under direct pressure from voters) or from the trillions of small decisions billions of people make every year of their lives. Both are important. Occasional small events (such as this dance) are far less important than are everyday decisions - but attitudinal change can still be effected.

Transport energy.

The primary environmental impact of a dance is probably transport energy. Over 100 people in maybe 50 cars attended. If each car travelled a total distance of 40 miles about 220 litres of fuel would be used, the mass of which would be around 160kg. Plastic is (put very simply!) hydrocarbons with some halogens added so the 1.5kg of plastic waste recycled is (very roughly!) equivalent to 1% of the transport fuel used. But it takes energy to recycle plastics, as well as energy to transport it to a recycling plant, so 0.1% might be a more realistic answer. 

To achieve a significantly more environmentally friendly dance, people would need to use bicycles. Car sharing is one useful route to reducing fuel use. If people switched off their house heating when they went to a dance, any saving could be offset against transport energy. Buildings use large quantities of energy but it is not taxed to the same extent as road fuel - so people don't think it's a priority for conservation efforts.

The future.

In the USA as elsewhere, forward thinking people are aiming for a zero waste lifestyle. Many examples of the impact of plastics in the oceans can be found on TED.com. In particular I'd recommend the talk by veteran oceanographer Sylvia Earle and by Capt. Charles Moore. Since these talks were produced scientists have become even more concerned that most life in the oceans may soon be extinguished.

I often recommend TED.com to people. It is a window to a world of intellect. Some links are given below.

For talks about recycling put 'trash' in the search bar (it's American for rubbish!). Or try 'hackers' for talks showing the abilities of computer hackers, one of whom is a lead scientist in a group creating a system to kill mosquitoes using lasers.

The system is described here

http://www.intellectualventureslab.com/work/photonic-fence (an incredible science lab part funded by Bill Gates of Microsoft)

The TED talk that led me to this website is here:

http://tedxtalks.ted.com/video/Top-Hacker-Shows-Us-How-Its-Don (so you think your data or your house is safe?)

and the laser talk is here:

http://www.ted.com/talks/nathan_myhrvold_could_this_laser_zap_malaria

TED talks on plastics, pollution and ocean degradation include the following.

http://www.ted.com/talks/sylvia_earle_s_ted_prize_wish_to_protect_our_oceans   (recommended viewing)

http://www.ted.com/talks/capt_charles_moore_on_the_seas_of_plastic    (recommended viewing)

http://www.ted.com/talks/dianna_cohen_tough_truths_about_plastic_pollution

http://www.ted.com/talks/chris_jordan_pictures_some_shocking_stats#t-7393 (see also albatross picture links above)

http://www.ted.com/talks/van_jones_the_economic_injustice_of_plastic

http://tedxteen.com/talks/tedxteen-2015-nyc/295-lauren-singer-why-i-live-a-zero-waste-life


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