By Four Lakes Group Member Megan Arzbaecher
Originally published in Sustainable Times Magazine
A floating garbage patch the size of several states clouds the Pacific Ocean. Overflowing landfills in the United States, huge electronic waste patches in Africa, flying garbage debris in India. Global waste production is an increasingly large problem for the future health of the planet. In this month’s installment of Sierra’s Club “Beyond” campaign, we’re talking specifically about waste in the United States.
According to the EPA, “Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) – more commonly known as trash or garbage—consists of everyday items we use and then throw away, such as product packaging, grass clippings, furniture, clothing, bottles, food scraps, newspapers, appliances, paint, and batteries.”
Annually, Americans generate about 250 million tons of MSW. This equates to about 4.43 pounds of waste per person, per day. That’s a lot of garbage! This trash is composed of about 29% paper and paperboard, 27% food and yard waste, 12% plastics, and 9% metals. The accompanying EPA graph provides a more detailed breakdown of the total waste.
Waste production in the US has been on the rise over the past few decades, reaching its peak in 2005 at a stunning 253 million tons. While the total quantity of global waste is hard to quantify, estimates range from 1 – 1.5 billion tons of waste per year. That means Americans are creating as much as 25% of the world’s total waste. Considering we only have 5% of the global population, this is a huge disparity. Interestingly, our percentage of the world’s energy use matches our percentage of waste generation. That means we are disproportionately as environmentally destructive from the inputs we demand as the waste we create.
How did we reach this level of waste generation? A likely culprit is our culture’s obsession with ever expanding creature comforts that fuel consumption. Since the 70s, U.S. consumption has skyrocketed in almost all sectors. Endless purchasing due to low cost is ubiquitous in our society. We often place little value on the environment, and even subsidize its destruction to provide the resources to build products. With materials often less costly than labor, there is more emphasis on replacing products, rather than repairing them. Planned obsolescence is designed into many products, especially since selling more products is in the company’s financial interest. With the demand too for lower prices, products are often made more cheaply or shoddily and break down or wear out more quickly. New models or new features also encourage consumers to replace their perfectly functioning gizmo with a new one that goes faster, does more, or has new can’t-live-without features.
Consider laptops, cell and smart phones or tablets as examples. New features may include a better camera, higher memory, more megapixels or a better screen. People flock to buy the newest models even if their current phone or laptop works fine. Our entire communications systems are replete with advertising that touts the advantages of these must have new toys or added features that any with-it person can’t be without.
The fashion industry is another great example. A century ago, many women knew how to sew or mend clothes so they could patch holes or change hem lengths. Today, the number of people with the ability to repair clothing has dropped, in favor of simply replacing a ripped or stained pair of jeans or buying the latest style t-shirt. The cheap cost of low-quality clothing only perpetuates this cycle. Rather than wear something until it is worn out, many choose instead to buy (or are given) something new, and the old languishes in a closet or drawer until it is thrown out or given away. Such is the nature of our disposable society.
Even for those people who are able to repair broken items, there is often a disincentive to do so. We’re often too busy and our time too valuable to spend repairing something. Sometimes the cost of individual parts as compared to the cost of the entire product, or even lack of parts availability provide a strong incentive to simply dispose of an item. This is especially true for electronics and appliances. The convenience and low-cost of replacing items only encourages this waste creating mentality.
But thanks to an increased awareness that materials used to create products can often be easily recovered to create new products, the rates of MSW recycling have soared since the mid-80s. Of our 250 million tons of waste, 34% is now recycled or composted, and that percentage is expected to rise. In fact, some places have begun ‘mining’ landfills where just decades ago, we assumed that all that went there was worthless and needed to be buried, never to be seen again.
Can we do better? Certainly. Aside from consuming less, we can build products that will last. Design products to be upgraded to render them useful (desirable?) for a longer period of time. Stop subsidizing extraction of materials from the earth, as well as landfilling what we now call waste. Start learning that creating waste is itself wasteful. Let’s reduce, reuse and recycle (and compost) – and stop our wasting away.