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The false perception that “one person can’t make a difference”

Posted: January 07 2021

Callum, Environmental Sciences BSc

Recycling (as in placing recyclable waste in the appropriate bin, or bag, at home or on the go) is something many people find straightforward.

We have been taught about recycling and learn how to do it either in places of education, in our home taught by our parents, by the media, or combinations of these. But still recycling rates are not at their highest potential. Is this due to a lack of awareness? Is it because some people don’t get the education many of us are so lucky to get? Could it be the sheer disregard for the planet and other people, or laziness at its very best? I think this is a complex issue to disentangle; however, I was terrified when I have heard that people do not do recycling because “There’s no point, one person can’t make a difference.”

If we all start to think that “one person can’t make a difference”, then what this world will come to be. This way of thinking is inherently incorrect, manifesting the inability of some people to take responsibility for their own actions. Each one of us contributes towards degrading and polluting our world, and hence, each one of us has the responsibility and ability to, prevent pollution, improve recycling practices in the household, use less goods, promote reuse and goods exchange, become more mindful and responsible of their actions, or at least to try to. It is the latter that matters; it’s about people doing their part, which often does not require much effort and time, yet is vital to protecting the environment.

For example, at my university accommodation, there is an emphasis on recycling - or at least at face value, whether there is truly any care about recycling at the higher ranks of the university is questionable to say the least. There are separate colour coded bins with signs that explicitly state and to a degree show what can and cannot go into each bin. Yet the bins (often with the exception of the food waste bin) continue to be regarded as an ‘all purpose’ or ‘general waste’ bin, which to many people, including myself initially can be seen as ludicrous and almost puzzling as to why that is the case. I wonder, how many people fully understand the consequences of their actions? Are they aware that food contaminated recycling bins get thrown to landfills, or to incineration facilities in the best case; and even if they do, do they understand the consequences arising from that kind of action? Do they understand or conceive how each one of those issues often comes with their own set of problems, creating a continuous stream of interconnected environmental complications that without understanding seem impossible to fix?

I often think, back before I began my degree in environmental science, how much I thought I knew about the way climate change works; but alas, if anything my two years of university education has taught me, it is some humility, because the more I learn, the more I realise how little I actually know. And the more I come to think how little all of us understand in the grand scheme of the world we live in. That brings me back to my original point, of perhaps a knowledge gap or ignorance surrounding the vast array of consequences every one of our actions has on our planet and our livelihoods. It’s not that a person cannot make a difference, it’s likely that often a person doesn’t know how, or why, it matters to do something as simple as recycling. I came to believe that it is the not knowing and more importantly and more often, the not understanding, and the staggering ignorance accompanied with it, that is the real barrier to people making better environmental choices. This points to the fact that solutions to environmental problems cannot be solely provided by scientists and especially those that adopt a reductionist approach to the problem, but from the society as a whole. The way we perceive reality, the way we think, as well as our habits, choices and actions need changing. Changing begins with education, reinforced by practice and supplemented with the right stimuli from media and our surrounding environment, transpiring on large in the broader community. This is necessary so people can become aware of the source of the problems and begin to take responsibility for their day-to-day actions that often go unnoticed. The world is changing and the way we think needs to change with it.

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photo: pexels.com

About Callum

Callum is a second-year undergraduate in BSc Environmental Science at Brunel University London and a committee member of the Environmental Science Society. Callum is passionate about sustainable practices and solutions, especially surrounding people's day to day lives and has participated in a campaign to raise awareness about the downsides of plastic use and what can be used as an alternative.