Ten everyday products with hidden costs

Think your life is made easier by throwaway goods? Someone else’s isn’t.

Ten of the worst: In production or disposal, these goods have a terrible effect on the environment. Photo: Creative Commons collage.

Ten of the worst: In production or disposal, these goods have a terrible effect on the environment. Photo: Creative Commons collage.

1: Coffee pods

Those newly commonplace little aluminium or plastic cups that are manufactured worldwide, including in Australia by companies such as Podpac. In 2013 journalist Murray Carpenter estimated that the output of one US company, Keurig Green Mountain, was enough to encircle the Equator 10.5 times – around 8.3 billion of their K-Cups. Even as their manufacturers strive to insist their pods are becoming biodegradeable and recyclable, most pods are so small and ecologically compromised they go to landfill.

2: Batteries

Batteries – both single-use and rechargeable –  have been one of the world’s worst environmental polluters for many years. Lead, mercury, cadmium, lithium and nickel are all multiple offenders in the polluting stakes, through both the method of their mining and their post-use disposal. There’s no national recycling scheme for first-use batteries, although the  industry-led group ABRI is attempting to formulate an approach. About 90 per cent of the lead in car batteries is recycled.

3: Disposable razors

The disposable razor as we know it today – a plastic cartridge or entire plastic razor – was invented in the early 1960s and by the 1980s was overwhelmingly the most popular form of hair removal in the developed world, fast supplanting the (recyclable) steel disposable blade patented by King Camp Gillette in 1904. Their combination of plastic and metal is too difficult to unravel for recyclers and so they end up as landfill.

4: Plastic packaging

Forget those distressing pictures of animals being choked by six-pack rings: it’s plastics generally breaking down that are our worry. Research into the chemical building blocks of plastics – things such as pthalates – have found that are so volatile and changeable that we are ingesting, inhaling and absorbing them in ways so insidious the EU banned them from use in children’s toys.

5: Car tyres

As with so many issues, The Simpsons were right on the money with their endlessly burning mountain of tyres. The CEO of Victoria’s Environmental Protection Agency Chris Webb says there are at least six million tyres unaccounted for in the state, and illegal dumping and stockpiling can lead to fires such as the one in Moyston in January 2016. These fires release hundreds of pollutants and particles that can be so fine as to be transferred children through breast milk, causing illnesses from asthma through to cancer.

6: Disposable chopsticks

It’s the utensil of choice for about half of the world, it’s most properly called kuaizi in Chinese, and over 57 billion of them are manufactured each year in China alone. It’s the disposable wooden chopstick, and it’s responsible for deforestation on a massive scale. Made of bamboo, birch and spruce, about a rugby field a day of timber is felled just to make the throwaway implement. And while Chinese legislators have imposed a tax to slow timber imports, use is on the rise.

7: Hand and nappy wipes

A relative newcomer on the environmental disaster scene, replacing tissues and handtowels, the throwaway wipe is made of non-degradable synthetic fibre and is responsible for blocking sewers the world over. In London, a blockage the size of a double-decker bus was dubbed “Fatberg.”

8: Make-up

Two words: palm oil. One of the major constituents of lipstick as a fixative, the palm oil industry is clearing swathes of rainforest in South-East Asia to plant palms, endangering the orang-utan, elephants. tigers and rhinos, just to name the larger species. Illegal clearing and animal trafficking are two of the less attractive sidelines of the palm oil industry.

9: Jeans

Xintang is branded as the ‘denim capital of the world’, but one of the least-known facts about the world’s most popular fashion item is the devastating amount of heavy metals that are used in the distressing of the fabric and the unregulated use and discharge of these into waterways. If you want to see what happens when you allow mercury to accumulate in a body of water, look at Minamata in Japan.

10: Mobile phone

The most successful consumer product since consumers and products were invented, the mobile phone is undoubtedly one of the high points of technology – and one of the most wasteful. Comprised of expensive rare metals, LCD technology and PVCs, the construction of a phone uses huge amounts of energy, exposes workers making them to harmful materials – and at the end of their life are rarely recycled. The phone recycling program MobileMuster estimates there are nearly 24 million stashed phone in Australia alone – one for each of us.