Fifty years ago, not much was being thrown away. Almost everything had a considerably longer life span than that ubiquitous plastic bag holding our groceries has today. What led us to this place of having and wanting so much stuff? Stuff that we literally don't know what to do with or where to put when we're done with it.
The Age of Obsolescence and Abundance
One lucrative marketing and manufacturing concept, Planned Obsolescence, changed everything after WWII, when products began being specifically designed with disposability and limited life span or functionality in mind. You would be hard pressed to get anyone to admit this was what they were doing, but I believe this is key to where we are today. Shorter life span in your home means more frequent shopping sprees to the store. What could be wrong with that? In fact, to most, at the time it truly meant progress. Susan Strasser, in her book Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash (Macmillan, 1999), refers to this idea being used as early as the 1920s when a Ford Motor Company advertisement implied that a change in style meant progress in capitalism. Growth in America was being driven by a new sense of convenience and disposability. Paper plates and cups, frozen foods, TV dinners, foil and plastic pouches, aerosol cans, and squeezable tubes were the way of the future, bringing a new convenience and ease to everyone's lifestyle—especially the housewife's. Packaging became the new billboard for marketers inside the supermarket. "Miracles in Packaging and Processing are Radically Simplifying U.S. Cooking" is a headline Strasser cites from a 1959 LOOK magazine article. Why spend time cleaning pots and pans and dishes when you can toss it all away in the garbage when you're done? Easily disposable items offered a new freedom that was quickly linked to the notion of abundance.
From then on, changes in styles and new technologies gave way to new and improved products that were increasingly affordable to more people. "Out with the old and in with the new" became ubiquitous. Once it was put onto the curb as garbage, we no longer had to think about it. It was out of sight and out of mind. Abundance and waste soon became synonymous with the American way of life. More choices, more conveniences, and with the invention of credit cards more accessible money made Americans very conspicuous consumers. With only 5 percent of the global population, the U.S. consumes a whopping 30 percent of the planet's resources and churns out 30 percent of its wastes.
Even Small Stuff Has a Big Impact
What we buy, what we use, what we keep and throw away make up the fabric of our daily lives. A sea of stuff flows in and out with such speed we hardly realize the global impact attached to each and every item we buy. The birth of our stuff begins with a long and impactful journey of production that involves the pumping of oil, mining of metals, operation of huge factories, shipping of huge containers, printing of packaging, and transportation to the retailer, before leading eventually to our door. All waste from this stage of production is called "industrial waste," which outweighs household or "municipal solid waste" (MSW) by 70 to 1. Wow! Those statistics are no small potatoes. Before we even get our hands on the stuff, the impact it has already made on the earth is huge!
To learn more about the true cost of this materials flow, visit the Website www.storyofstuff.com to see a short animated film by Annie Leonard. As her film depicts, once a product is in our homes, our use of it might range from as little as five minutes to three years. Really, if you think hard about products you've recently bought, can't you count on one hand the few that might last more than two or three years before they are considered "outdated?"
When we no longer need or want something, what do we do with it? Well, statistics show that the average American discards about six pounds of trash per day. That is more than 200 million tons per year. Where is all this garbage going? About 57 percent of all our trash is buried in landfills. What's alarming is that number is twice what it was in 1960.
The Lowdown on Landfill
What is a landfill and how is it working for us as a solution for disposing of our waste? Landfills are meticulously engineered structures built into or on top of the ground in which trash is isolated from the surrounding environment (groundwater, air, rain), unfortunately not always successfully. The attempt is to isolate the densely compacted trash underground with plastic liners and a daily covering of soil. One landfill site in Virginia is comparable to 1,000 football fields in length and the height of the Washington Monument, as cited in Heather Roger's book Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage (New Press, 2005). Trash that goes into landfill does not decompose as it might in a compost pile; it is buried with very little oxygen or moisture surrounding it, hindering decomposition. And non-biodegradable items such as plastic bags and diapers, for instance, can remain in the earth's landfills for hundreds of years in a state similar to the one they were in the first day they were placed there. In essence, you needn't bother burying any time capsules in your own backyard, since there are millions of them inside landfills all over our planet. Unfortunately, natural by-products of the decomposition of solid waste in landfills are primarily carbon dioxide and methane, both extremely powerful greenhouse gases that are depleting our ozone.
There is hardly any land left on which to place landfills, and the neighborhoods they are usually located in are those with the lowest income—which in turn tend to be communities of people with the least amount of political influence. In other words, they're situated in areas perfect for maintaining that "out of sight, out of mind" attitude. When Fresh Kills, the world's largest landfill, was filling up, New York was running out of places to put its 26 million pounds (per day) of waste. They had to look to other states to dump in. Sounds crazy that anyone else would want it, but they take it for the money it brings their state.
Seeking Sound Alternatives
The sheer volume of waste we generate was for the most part invisible until one infamous garbage barge from Long Island claimed national attention. In 1987, the Mobro barge, filled with 3,100 tons of garbage, traversed the globe, more than 5,000 miles in 112 days, stopping at more than five countries looking for a place to dump it's load. At an estimated cost of $1 million, the Mobro returned to New York, having failed to find a final resting place. While becoming a national symbol of the true cost of our disposable society, the Mobro encouraged the expansion of recycling programs and brought pressure on Congress to pass the 1990 Clean Air/Clean Water Act.
What about incineration? Currently, 16 percent of our garbage is burned. The most serious problem with burning is the release of highly toxic dioxins into the atmosphere, which adds to acid rain and exacerbates global warming. Scientists argue that new technology has reduced toxic emissions drastically. Economically, incineration plants are the most expensive to run because of strict regulations to keep them "clean." Strong political will within local neighborhoods screaming "not in my backyard" prevent many of the proposed plants from ever being built. Waste to energy is the ploy with incineration; yet, compared to the small amount of energy that is produced in a waste to energy plant, three to four times more energy is saved by recycling.
How are we doing as a nation with recycling? According to the Organization of Economically Developed Countries, America is way behind in its efforts, with only 27 percent of its waste being recycled. Europe and Japan, for instance, have "take back" laws that require electronics manufacturers to recycle their own products. Companies that don't abide pay high fees. San Francisco is leading our nation with a 69 percent recycling rate as a result of switching to a "single stream" collection process. This means one container for all types of recyclables, separate from non-recyclable trash, that can be picked up by one collection. In a single-stream recycling plant, the separating is done by machines. Paper and plastic items are spread out on a conveyor belt in a single layer, and then spectroscopic sorters identify each type of material by its wavelength in the infrared spectrum. When illuminated by a halogen lamp, each type of material reflects a unique combination of wavelengths in the infrared spectrum that can be identified with an accuracy of up to 98 percent. Compared to using new materials, recycling aluminum can reduce industry energy consumption by 95 percent, 70 percent for plastics, 60 percent for steel, 40 percent for paper, and 30 percent for glass. While the cost of building such advanced recycling centers is high, it seems to be the most effective system to date.
All of these methods are basically bandages on an already broken system—one that is painfully killing our planet. Some people see recycling as "downcycling," remaking something into inferior products that eventually need to be disposed of in landfill or incinerated anyway. Today we are working with an open-loop system of production and disposal. Things get made with virgin materials from the earth and get thrown away, never to be used sustainably again. Valuable materials are wasted and depleted. In the book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2002), by William McDonough and Michael Braungart, we are asked to consider a closed-loop industrial cycle. They suggest that a "sturdy plastic computer case, for example, will continually circulate as a sturdy plastic computer case—or as some other high-quality product, like a car part or a medical device—instead of being downcycled into soundproof barriers and flowerpots."
Beyond the 3 Rs: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
There is no doubt that reducing what we use, reusing what we have, and recycling what we throw away will help. We can go on pleading with individuals to buy less and be more energy conscious by buying more wisely, but ultimately that will do very little unless the larger consciousness of consumption and production is not changed én mass. The ultimate change must come not at the moment of throwing something away but at the moment that product is conceived, in its design phase as well as in designing the services and systems that account for the items' disposal. It must come from the valued incentive of manufacturers who see the economic potential of owning the product from start to finish, considering the end game of disposing of their products before they have even been made. Instead of designing for planned obsolescence, manufacturers are beginning to see the benefits of having these three "R's" at the forefront of their minds. A new Industrial Revolution is taking shape, but not fast enough.
We can't allow the rest of the developing world to emulate our negligence in methods of acquiring wealth and abundance. As McDonough and Braungart implore in their book, "Insanity has been defined as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome. Negligence is described as doing the same thing over and over even though you know it is dangerous, stupid, or wrong." Now that we know, it's time for a change.
In her book Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life Of Garbage, Heather Rogers includes the following facts:
- The average American discards almost seven pounds of trash per day.
- With only 5 percent of the global population, the U.S. consumes 30 percent of the planet's resources and churns out 30 percent of its wastes.
- Garbage production in the United States has doubled in the last 30 years.
- About 80 percent of U.S. products are used once, then thrown away.
- 95 percent of all plastic, two-thirds of all glass containers, and 50 percent of all aluminum beverage cans are never recycled; instead they just get burned or buried.
The EPA cites that in just one year, Americans generate 236 million tons of garbage. While about 30 percent of garbage gets recycled or composted, 164 million tons are tossed away, including:
26,800,000 tons of food
8,550,000 tons of furniture and furnishings
6,330,000 tons of clothing and footwear
5,190,000 tons of glass beer and soda bottles
4,200,000 tons of plastic wrap and bags
3,650,000 tons of junk mail
3,470,000 tons of diapers
3,160,000 tons of office paper
3,070,000 tons of tires
2,820,000 tons of carpets and rugs
2,230,000 tons of newspapers
2,060,000 tons of appliances
1,520,000 tons of magazines
1,170,000 tons of wine and liquor bottles
970,000 tons of paper plates and cups
840,000 tons of books
830,000 tons of beer and soda cans
780,000 tons of towels, sheets, pillowcases
540,000 tons of telephone directories
450,000 tons of milk cartons
160,000 tons of lead-acid (car) batteries
Surfing for Answers
www.storyofstuff.com If you look at nothing else, you must see The Story of Stuff, Annie Leonard's short film, an informative look at what we consume, what we waste, and the indelible affect it has on our lives.
www.earth911.org Just enter your Zip code at this Website to find out where your local recycling stations are and what they do and don't recycle.
www.kidsface.org, www.epa.gov.kids, sierraclub.org/sierra/mrgreen/ Educational information on doing the best we can to be green.
www.greendimes.com, 41pounds.org, catalogchoice.org Visit these sites to reduce waste in your mailbox by getting off junk-mail lists.
www.neighborrow.com, borrowme.com, swapthing.com, throwplace.com These sites allow you to get the things you need, but might not need to buy, by borrowing, swapping, and sometimes purchasing (akin to a local garage sale, but in cyberspace).
www.computertakeback.com, collectivegood.com These helpful sites show how to recycle cell phones and computers.
www.rbrc.org, biggreenbox.com, batteryrecycling.com, recycleplace.com Go to these sites to learn how to recycle batteries.
www.reusablebags.com, sunterra.us Great sites for purchasing all kinds of reusable bags.
Gone Tomorrow (New Press, 2005), by Heather Rogers. Draws connections between modern industrial production, consumer culture, and our throwaway lifestyle, while offering a potent argument for change.
Garbage Land (Little Brown, 2005), by Elizabeth Royte. It wasn't easy following the trail of her garbage through the "back end of New York"—the city's sewage-processing system. Keeping trash out of view just makes it easier for us to produce more of it.
Cradle to Cradle (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2002), by William McDonough and Michael Braungart. Challenges the belief that human industry damages the natural world and asks: Why not take nature itself as our model for making things?
Waste and Want (Holt, 2000), by Susan Strasser. A social history of trash and how Americans have become hooked on convenience. World Changing (Abrams, 2006), edited by Alex Steffen. A must-read that belongs in the library of every person who is passionate about the plight of the planet. Includes a plethora of information with an emphasis on solutions.