Trash Talk

How viable are the 5 R’s in Tórshavn?

Næmingar: Tonicia Hansen
Útbúgving: West Nordic Studies, Governance and Sustainable Management

Waste, rubbish, refuse, litter, garbage, trash! It’s not pretty or sexy, and we have trouble dealing with the shear amount of garbage generated yearly.  Forbes estimates that the US produces 246 million tonnes of trash yearly and globally, production is estimated to be 1 billion tonnes generated annually. Anecdotal evidence for the Faroe Islands places annual production of 80,000 cubic metres.

The clamour to address the effect trash has on the environment, has become louder, more insistent and has spurred the creation of zero-waste practitioners  such as Bea Johnson and Lauren Singer ( to name but two), a song about limiting waste, as well as news reports and documentaries visually illustrating the devastating effects of pollution, which has jettisoned the issue into the limelight with surprising results.

Bottle buyback machine and glass and paper recycling banks.

When I was tasked with formulating a project in connection with Lindberg’s House, the idea that kept spinning around in my mind was the utility of the accoutrements that make up our contemporary lifestyle(s) and the impact these things have on the environment.   Specifically, I wanted to explore this issue in regard to household rubbish generation. The objects that enter and leave our homes are not the things we necessary thought to acquire (e.g. meat encased in plastic or the mailings that we get in our post boxes) and difficult dispose of, but are nonetheless are whether by incineration, landfill or recycling (see image 1).  Taking Lindberg’s House as an inspiration, I decided to base this project on ‘household’ waste management and the steps individuals can take to make sustainable life choices.

The genesis of this project, was the 2017 image of the sea horse (Image 2).  It was this image, of matter out of place, which led me to question where my unwanted items go, when I throw them away!  Whilst I was an avid recycler in the UK (due in part because it’s a requirement of most local councils and definitely those that I have been a resident of).  My recycling prowess had been somewhat lacking in the Faroes, although when and where possible, I have tried to limit its effects by the use of conspicuous consumption and by assessing the make-up, country of origin and packaging of products before purchasing them.  When I’m in the Faroe Islands and where finances allow, I’ll buy Faroese products and opt for glass or paper over plastic jars or bagged produce (where possible).  I thought this was enough, but Justin Hoffman’s image, made me question that position.

Image : Ying no Yang - JustinHofman/Instagram

Curb-site refuse collection occurs at 3 levels, general household waste, the recycling of paper and the collect of other waste that would otherwise be harmful to the environment if mixed into with general waste. In Tórshavn, a grey plastic bag denotes the first type of rubbish and is collected once a week. A green bin is has been allocated for recycled paper, which is collection once a month and a clear plastic bag is supplied twice a year (with collections to match) for the collection of hazardous household rubbish.  The Municipality of Torshavn. Everything else needs to be taken to the Recycling plants in Tórshavn or Kollafirði. Waste in the Faroe Islands tends to be incinerated.

I chose to concentrate my waste management on the groups of items that can be recycled or returned in the Faroe Islands.  As such paper, cardboard and glass as recyclable items and those bottles included in the buyback scheme employed in the Faroes became my central focus in regards the sorting aspect of the project.

My project had two constituent parts, the first consisted of a review of my household rubbish – this proved essential as it allowed me to analyse my shopping habits as illustrated by what was placed into the waste storage units  (which consisted of 3 transparent plastic boxes with lids and wheels – please see image 3) and into the bin. The second part required prudence, when selecting products to purchase and/or consume. This was achieved through simple questions like, do I need it? For how long? Is this something I already own or can do without?

One of the methods used to promote awareness of our actions pre and post litter production and the effect these actions have on the environment, are the 5 R’s to sustainability.

The 3 plastic containers (2x70L and 1x31L) and black bag denote the waste materials collected over the length of the project (October 2017 - January 2018), that could be returned or recycled, generated in a household of two adults

The 5 R’s – Refuse, Reduce, Re-use, Recycle and Rot (in that order) offer a logical way in which to think and behave before, during and after the act of consuming an item.  I have compiled a beginner’s guide to using the 5 R’s, which can be accessed here.  These R’s, focus on the actions of individuals and advocate buying less, choosing (purchases/items/products) well and making them last.

Key findings

In my home, we consume a lot of processed food which necessitates amongst other things, plastic waste. Meat and vegetables that are by and large imported into the Faroe Islands are also wrapped in plastic. Perversely, locally grown vegetables are more often than not covered in plastic and so our plastic waste is inevitably high.   A new package free initiative has arrived in Tórshavn, where members are able to purchase (amongst other things) pulses, olive oil and flour, whilst (re)using their own packaging at the point of sale.  Through constantly re-evaluating the necessity of an item, those things previously believed to be necessary, can be relegated to the unnecessary pile (e.g. the neon coloured kitchen sponge). Behavioural change is important and fundamental to breaking bad habits.  A dedicated place to store and sort waste is also paramount. My choice of transparent boxes, meant that I was forced to see the build-up of detritus, through-out the course of the project!

These boxes include mixed paper and cardboard, glass and mixed plastics.

Fundamental change takes time!  I found it easier to re-introduce the tenets of reduce, re-use and recycle into my life for this project. Sorting through our household waste, means that our general waste now consists primarily of plastic wrappings and wrappers and food scraps. Most of the food scraps can be tackled through the implementation of the final R (composting). There is currently no provision to recycle plastics in the Faroe Islands.  Refusing, was non-existent in regards the one to one interactions I had at coffee shops and bars with servers.  More often than not, I ended up with a plastic straw, I’d neither wanted nor asked for! I have however been able to refuse the unnecessary (a relative term, I know), but by pledging to do away with single use products and by using their reusable equivalents (e.g. shopping tote and travel mug), I have tentatively begun to refuse the unnecessary.

The 5 R’s take time to navigate, but are a useful barometer on which to base incremental change!  Embedding them requires an awareness of self and the structures that impact on the choices we make and the decisions we can take to live more sustainably (e.g. I incorrectly assumed that egg boxes should be included into my paper recycling container).  In my opinion the 5 R’s (particularly when/where they have been adapted for individual lifestyles), are the recognition that education and individual choice, matter.  Educating ourselves to use the power we have as consumers, will provide the initial stepping stones to sustainable living.

So to answer the question, embracing the 5 R’s is achievable but takes time, requires patience and planning. Knowledge of what can and cannot be recycled in your municipality is paramount. Awareness of pests also needs to be given consideration when storing and sorting waste, so jars and bottles were rinsed before being placed in the containers, which requires more effort than just throwing something away, although pests can still be an issue.

Buying only what is needed and making do and mending the rest, should lead to financial and environmental benefits, which may sound more difficult than it is, when compared to our convenience centred lifestyles. Through responsible consumption and production (Sustainable Development Goal number 12), we waste less, which should be an overarching principle of any transition to a sustainable future.