What a Waste!

What a waste is right. Every human on this planet generates 60 tons of garbage in a lifetime. In the United States that equates to 4.5 pounds of garbage per person every day, or 1.5 tons every year.

In New York City alone, there is enough garbage discarded every single day to fill the Empire State Building. New York is also the largest exporter of waste, “with New Jersey and Illinois in second and third place, respectively. PolicyArchive says that four states (New York, New Jersey, Illinois, and Maryland) account for more than half the national total of waste exports.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Americans get rid of 20,000 cars and 4,000 trucks and buses EVERY DAY. Forty-three thousand tons of food are thrown out every day. We also discard 270 million tires each year and we use two and a half million plastic bottles every hour. And that’s just for starters.

These numbers do not include the waste that is generated by companies making the products that we purchase.

The National Solid Wastes Management Association tells us that the United States has about 20 years of disposal capacity left in existing landfills. Some states have less than five years capacity and they have long been exporting their municipal waste to states that
seek the sky-rocketing revenues that a landfill site can generate. It is a big business that is growing bigger by the day as this ABC video attests to.

Virginia is the second largest importer of other states’ waste. Since at least 1992 Pennsylvania has been the largest importer of waste. Indeed, of all the municipal solid waste that crosses state lines for disposal, 23 percent goes to Pennsylvania.

In the case of those states that import waste, landfill operations [mostly private businesses] can do so without securing the permission of local government or area citizens. Why?

Landfills are the most expensive portions of municipal waste management programs according to all reports. Municipal governments, therefore, have found a way to address the cost of establishing new landfills and operating them through privatization. The end result is that the number of public-owned landfills has dropped while private landfills are on the rise; leaving local governments without control over landfill operations but with freed-up capital that is desperately needed elsewhere (they say).

These are judgment calls and not ones that citizens should be happy about. However, citizens also want low taxes so there are obviously some big trade-offs going on behind the scenes while the national trash problem continues to spiral out of control.

[After President Obama’s inauguration, the trash was historic, too.]

What are the consequences of this trash?

Landfills pollute our air and our ground-water. That is because solid waste needs oxygen and moisture to break down, therefore decomposition does not occur rapidly when trash is buried. Indeed, it just sits there. As landfills become more and more scarce, or as they become full or eventually close because of groundwater contamination, that buried trash continues to sit there.

Our ‘disposable society’ has its roots in the 1960’s when companies began presenting us with convenience products that we didn’t have to wash or reuse any more, things like paper plates and paper knives and forks, paper napkins, cups, even disposable cameras, not to mention things like disposable diapers. Eventually the convenience factor took hold and whole spectrum of new industries rose up to meet consumer demand.

Bottled water industry was one of them. Ramon Cruz, Senior Policy Analyst for Living Cities at Environmental Defense Fund, says this: “It’s ironic. In many parts of the world, there is no clean drinking water. Here in the U.S., pure, drinkable water flows out of every tap, and yet Americans buy a staggering amount of bottled water. We pay big bucks for it, too – over $15 billion a year.”

Cruz also notes that federal regulations for municipal water are far more stringent than those for bottled water: “Bottled water rules allow higher levels of many contaminants, with more lenient requirements for filtration, testing and reporting.”

Take a look at this video by Doug James of Cornell University: look at it two or three times…

Another innovation from the 1960’s was the use of plastic bags in grocery stores and most retail markets.

What we didn’t know then, of course, but we know now is this: plastic bags and plastic water bottles both last up to 1,000 years in landfills. That is a staggering fact when you learn that Americans in 2007 alone bought 215 billion plastic beverage containers. We are now throwing away some 60 million water bottles per day in the United States. FACT: Less than 20 percent of the 28 billion single-serving water bottles that Americans buy each year are recycled. Some estimates are as low as 12 percent.

Tap water, by comparison, costs a fraction of a cent for a 12-ounce serving and it even wins most taste tests compared to bottled water. But if you are at all concerned about your health,
you should understand that plastic water bottles expose you to bacterial build-up and carcinogens leached from the plastic.

How Does Your Garbage Grow?

The above information is sobering when you consider the fact that only 39% of 24-to-34 year olds in this country bother to recycle. Recycling improves somewhat with age but according to a Barrier/Motivation Inventory that looks at patterns that emerge across numerous studies, it improves (1) the more that people see recycling as effective; (2) the more concerned people are about the environment; and (3) the more pressure people receive from family and friends to recycle.

According to the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, two factors have been identified as significant barriers to recycling: (1) inconvenience (i.e., lack of time, lack of space, messiness, pests, too few drop-off points); and (2) lack of knowledge of how and what to recycle.

A friend of mine recently told me that she was the only person in her club of several hundred women who recycled household waste. She said they actually laughed at her for carrying her own cloth tote bags to the grocery store instead of using the plastic bags available at check-out counters. “How silly!” they said and laughed some more.

Obviously there is work to be done in strengthening the motivations for recycling. Information alone is not enough to change behavior but it certainly is a starting point.

The problem is not just with our landfills

According to Fred Schwab, professor of geology at Washington and Lee University, there is a huge amount of trash found drifting around in the ocean, much of it consisting of plastic fishing nets and bottles. Three-quarters of ocean trash is dumped into oceans by rivers and most of this trash, he says, eventually piles up in vast oceanic “garbage patches” that are formed where major current systems converge. The Eastern (Pacific) Garbage Patch alone contains an estimated 3 million tons of trash.”

Watch this video about the world’s biggest plastic dump, and it isn’t in a landfill.

If that one doesn’t do it, try this one:

Oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer monitors the fate of debris set adrift on the world’s oceans. Loree Griffin Burns’ book, Tracking Trash: Flotsam, Jetsam, and the Science of Ocean Motion describes Ebbesmeyer’s research using floating objects that are spilled from container ships and then later washed ashore — “such things as 80,000 Nike sneakers, 34,000 hockey gloves, 29,000 bathtub toys, and 5 million LEGO pieces that allowed Ebbesmeyer to trace the course, velocity and variability of major ocean currents.”

Of all the environmental problems that the plague the Earth, this one is much more in our control than most.

Reduce, reuse, and recycle

There are three important things we can do about the waste that we generate: reduce, reuse, and recycle. Reducing means stopping the waste before it starts. It means thinking about what you buy before you buy it, and buying better products that will last longer.

It also means using Great Grandmother’s treasured silver and your mother’s china on a daily basis. And it means demanding that manufacturers reduce the packaging bulk that their products are wrapped in, or forsaking them altogether.

Most of the plastic put in recycling bins ends up in landfills

It is true, most of the plastic we use ends up in landfills because, until very recently, recycling programs didn’t accept plastics in the first place. But a November 2008 Popular Mechanics article states: “That problem is on the way out. This spring, San Francisco announced that its pioneering recycling program would begin accepting all rigid plastic, including anything from yogurt pots and clamshell containers to plastic toys and buckets. Other cities are also expanding the range of plastics they accept. New technology makes this feasible: Optical sorters use infrared light to instantly identify the chemical composition of a container, then a puff of air directs it into the right pile.”

The article goes on to say that “recyclers also have to find a market for plastics once they’re sorted—and that’s starting to happen, too.”


But even so, is it soon enough, far-reaching enough?

Education is the key. One positive effort on the horizon is ‘Single Stream Recycling” that eliminates the need to separate recyclable materials into multiple bins. Studies show that individuals are more prone to recycle if it takes less work on their part.

Another is the creation of “Pay-as-You-Throw” pricing tiers. By making sensible choices about how much you throw away you can control your costs for trash hauling services. Such choices include shopping smart, choosing products that can be recycled or reused, buying in bulk, and avoiding products with excess packaging. The mantra is: THINK BEFORE YOU BUY.

Some other countries take the trash problem much more seriously. In Germany,
for example, legislation gives a corporation cradle-to-grave responsibility for the packaging of their products. Of this Robin Buckallew says, “A company must take back the packaging from the customer and pay for its disposal. As a result, German companies now think twice about excess packaging. Much of their packaging, in fact, is reusable. Boxes are now wood instead of cardboard, so the box can be used to repackage another item. Refillable glass bottles are another answer, that used to be rather common everywhere. In addition, German companies have cradle-to-grave responsibility for the product they produce, leading to a higher quality of product that doesn’t need to be replaced all that often. This not only saves trash, but it saves money for the consumer.”

Americans should be demanding legislation similar to Germany’s.

A Caveat

While the waste problem is clearly one of momentus national and international concern, each of us plays a vital role in terms of our awareness and knowledge of, and support for, a cleaner Earth. Each step we take must serve this end.

Henry David Thoreau inspires with these words:

“There will never be a really free and enlightened State until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power.”

But the individual must be educated. Walt Kelly first used the quote “We have Met the Enemy and He is Us” on a poster for Earth Day in 1970. The lack of self-responsibility is at the root of many of our societal ills but it is particularly so when it concerns the mindset of the individual as he or she treks through life.

A person with a conservation mindset conserves. He or she is constantly mindful about their relationship to the Earth and its inhabitants, and those thoughts govern what they do every step of the way. They pocket their trash, they leave only footprints, they recycle, and they model for others how to live in constant harmony with the natural world.

That person comes from a family and a background where a similar mindset was modeled to them.

Since we can only pass on what we know, we have to assume, then, that those who do not adhere to an Earth First mindset lack knowledge and the philosophical and emotional commitment necessary to take corrective action. Theirs is a myopic and selfish world, a thoughtless world. They pollute their own living spaces, even their bodies, so it is no wonder that the Earth itself suffers under their watch.

But we can’t let them prevail. Like my friend who faced the laughter of her club for her recycling efforts, we have to keep talking to them anyway until the message finally sinks in.

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