Everything that you own, buy, keep or throw away has got environmental impacts. It is hard to look at products in such a conscious way, but once you get your head around it, it will change the way you manage waste. Have you ever wondered what happened with a single pen you bought? Or where did your milk come from? Or where did your computer’s “life” started? Probably not! But it’s okay, as the modern world wants us to know that if you need something, you can just go to the shop and buy it. They don’t want you to think about where did your product came from, or what impact it had on the environment. Why not? Because it would encourage you to think twice before you buy or throw away something. It is simply not in their best interest for you to make conscious decisions about your purchase.
Life cycle perspective considers and determines aspects of activities, products and services that one way or another impacts the environment. It is a cradle to grave view, that looks at a subject from the moment it is ‘born’ until it is disposed of. Often organisations and businesses implement a Life Cycle Perspective in their environmental management systems. This approach enables them to identify areas where they can minimise their impact on the environment, whilst adding value to their organisation (economic, ethical and compliance benefits).
What does this mean in practice? To identify environmental impacts, you also need to identify environmental aspects. But what is the difference? Let’s take a bottle of milk as an example. To have milk, we need to keep cattle. You need to feed the cows, you need water, land and veterinary care (treatments, medicine, etc.) This is the input, an aspect of just one stage in producing a bottle of milk. The impact is loss of land, soil erosion, contributing to climate change due to methane emissions, potential water scarcity. And we don’t even have the milk yet! Using the same method, let’s follow a potato from cradle to grave.
Let’s call our project Spectacular Spuds. We will now have a quick look at what impact the potato you bought in the shop has on the environment.
First of all, you need to grow potatoes and for this, you need to treat anc cultivate the land. For this, you need to use water, soil, fertilisers, pesticides and manpower. The potential or actual impact of these activities will be water deficiency, soil erosion, chemical pollution (surface run-off, or groundwater pollution).
Once your potatoes are ready, you will need to harvest them. For this, you will need to use manpower, machinery, fuel in the machinery. Your impact will be air pollution and CO2 emissions.
The spuds need to be cleaned, as nobody likes to buy dirty potatoes. You will use water, machinery, manpower and energy for this, therefore you created air and noise pollution, and again CO2 emissions from energy usage.
Then the potatoes are graded, using manpower and machinery. This will create waste potatoes and thus green waste (that will be either composted or it goes to landfill), CO2 emissions and potential noise pollution due to the use of machinery.
After this, the potatoes are bagged and stored. You will use plastic packaging, energy to control the temperature to ensure your potatoes won’t be rotten by the time they reach the shop, machinery and manpower. Most likely you will have waste plastic packaging, increasing plastic pollution, you emit CO2 while using machinery and refrigerating the product, and you will also create a loss of visual amenity (due to the use of land).
You need to transport the spuds to the shop, so you will use (fuel-powered) vehicles, possibly refrigerated ones. You will, therefore, pollute the air, and emit CO2.
Your spuds are displayed in the shop, using energy, light, temperature control. And only after all this, the spud is sold!
This was a fairly simplified overview of what impact you can have on the environment by just buying a bag of potatoes! I am sure you are aware that whatever you buy, will have an impact! So how can we reduce our impact? We need to eat, we need clothes to wear, and sometimes you can’t help it, you need to buy products!
We can look at reducing our waste! Don’t throw away food if you don’t have to! Respect all the energy and work that has gone into a bag of potatoes (or bottle of milk, a box of eggs). We need to be more thoughtful about our food, and most importantly be grateful that we have it.
Don’t buy a new one, as long as the old one works. It is easy to get into the habit of buying a new phone every year, or buying a bigger, and nicer television. However, as long as the current one works perfectly fine, is it really necessary?
Choose local! There is a lot of emission and pollution you can cut out if you choose local. You won’t just support the farmer, but you will have significantly less impact buy buying a product that did not need to be transported.
Be mindful! Choose and live consciously, and be more thoughtful about your shopping habits. Overconsumption puts a lot of pressure on our environment, as we use much more resource than what we could sustainably manage.