I’ve just been in Italy for a month surrounded by artists. Strangely, the most unusual thing I encountered was not the work or the differences in culture and language: it was the approach to garbage.
Perched on top of a mountain with views so gorgeous that they border on the ridiculous, I was introduced to the Italian system. “Everything is sorted,” they said. “All of it.”
For this, you need 6 bins: 1 each for food (compost), plastics, paper, tin, glass, and then anything else. “Finally!” I thought. “Somewhere that recycling is taken seriously!”
Sadly, the reality is that the garbage, once sorted, doesn’t really go anywhere special. After collection, it seems to be integrated again and dumped or burned together. However, it will not be collected unless it is sorted, so everyone sorts. It’s a bizarre system, and many of the theories around it wear the scent of conspiracy.
In Australia, we sort garbage and recycling, so it isn’t a new concept for me. But having to sort every single thing from the other really highlighted just how wasteful we (I) have become. The revelation came, as all good things do, from a humble cup of tea.
Boiling the kettle, I turned to the little pack — the only one available at the store. First up, a plastic wrapper. Into the plastics bin. Then the cardboard box, later headed for the paper pile. Inside, each tea bag was individually wrapped: it was plastic-y paper. Sigh. I erred on the side of plastic. Then, the tea bag itself had the little tag attached: paper again. The used tea bag went into the compost.
5 garbage steps for one cup of tea. I realised I’d be doing this several times a day. It was properly grotesque.
“Why on earth,” I asked my residency buddy Margaret, “does tea need an individual wrapping, after being sealed in a bag, box and plastic wrapper? What is that extra wrapping about? Why am I participating in this?” It went on for some time, before I realised.
That extra little wrapper made me feel kinda rich.
It told me I didn’t need to buy in bulk for the discount. Bulk tea bags don’t have their own wrapper. It said “this tea bag is a bit special”, even though the tea itself was really very average. It wasn’t organic. It wasn’t fair trade. it was just plain old black tea, probably the result of chemically treated off-cuts from better tea. It was just tea.
But there was no denying it; I felt a teensy bit richer than I did when using the other, equally low quality tea.
In reality, that extra wrapper made me considerably poorer.
It cost me extra time to unwrap it, and to sort it into its rightful bin. It costs 5 square cms of space on the planet if buried. It cost me the trees and minerals destroyed to create it. It will cost me healthy air, polluted by the burning, and clean water and a healthy marine ecosystem when it flows in one way or another into our waterways. It costs so much, for the sake of an affluent little pang. For one very average little cup of tea.
Naturally, this curbed my tea drinking. It also made me grateful to be sharing a house with Margaret Craig, a Texan artist turning plastic water bottles into sculptures; a commentary on our wastefulness and the fact that nothing ever really goes away. I wondered if the archaeologists of the future, instead of finding layers of pottery and tools, will just find one big, coloured crust of perfectly preserved plastic that they’ll peel back like a giant roll-up.
Essentially, the psychology of packaging comes down to the feelings of clean and dirty; safe and unsafe. Clean things are safe (wealth), dirty things are unsafe (poverty). Our food is packaged to make us feel clean, which is safe, and we therefore purchase that brand more often. It doesn’t mean that an extra wrapping on my tea bag actually is any more safe or clean, it just all comes down to how I feel about it. (You can find one cool article about this here.)
So I am asking these questions of my food. How do I feel when I buy/open/use/waste something? Am I getting unconscious pleasure from something that actually goes against my values? How am I contributing to my global well-being long term, not just in the moment?
Our decisions are influenced by our emotions, and left unchecked we are too easily sucked into the marketing mecca that is food packaging.
All change really does all start with a question, and a cup of tea.