by Linda Scott
I see garbage. Other people see other things, maybe plants, animals, birds, nice houses, gardens or woodpiles (actually I see them too), but I see garbage. Garbage cans on the curb, garbage on the roadways, garbage in the streets, garbage going down the storm drains, garbage cans next to the gas pumps with recyclables thrown in them, and— I am sorry, friends, but— I also see what goes in the garbage at people’s houses.
How did this minor little obsession start? I work in Scranton, and every day on the way to work and back, I pass a landfill. For the first 5 years or so I sort of noticed it in the summer when it smelled a bit. Then it started smelling in the winter, too. Over time — ten years now — the mountains have just grown and grown and grown. Finally, one day, my mind just said “What are we thinking!!?” How are we going to explain this to our children, grandchildren and future generations? “Oh, we just liked to use stuff for a short period of time, maybe even just once, and then we’d throw it out—the more toxic the better. Sorry about that.”
In 1858, an event occurred in London called the Great Stink. That summer was particularly hot. The stench from the sewage dumped in the Thames was so bad that the MPs, who were sitting in their new Parliament building, could barely stand it. This event finally convinced Parliament to invest money in a sewage system for the city.
Landfills are our present day Great Stink. I am not disparaging the landfills, the way they are constructed and managed or the people who work there. At present, until we redesign our products, landfills are needed for some things—just not all the things we are throwing in them. A landfill doesn’t, after all, put garbage in itself. We put it there. We buy things we don’t really need, throw it in the garbage, haul it to the curb, pay a little money and away it goes. Only it doesn’t. More than likely, our garbage from Wayne County ends up just one county over in one of several landfills. And not just our garbage. Pennsylvania currently imports more of other people’s garbage than any other state in the country.
How did we get to this point? In 1960, we each generated 2.68 pounds of trash per day (with .17 pounds recycled) leaving a net disposal rate of 2.51 pounds per day. In 2010, we each generated 4.43 pounds of trash per day; however, between recycling (1.15 pounds), composting (.36 pounds) and combustion with energy recovery (.52 pounds) our individual disposal rate was 2.40 pounds—less per person than it was in 1960. In 1960, the population of the United States was approximately 180 million. Today it is 309 million. You can see where this is headed. If we had maintained our 1960 generation rate coupled with recycling, composting and energy recovery, significant progress would have been made reducing the amount of trash sent to landfills.
But, we didn’t. Instead, we went on a serious, decades-long consuming bender much of which had no benefit to ourselves, society or the environment.
What we purchase does matter. What we don’t purchase matters more. Reduce, reuse, recycle starts with reduce. Individually we can make a huge difference in the current average of 4.43 pounds of trash generated per person, per day. Stand at any grocery checkout line and watch the number of plastic bags leaving the store. Reusable water bottles and grocery bags should be the norm, not the exception. If there was a $1.00 deposit on these items, which probably reflects their cost more accurately, none of them would end up in the landfill.
The book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, which was reviewed in the March/April, 2012 issue of “On Track,” is an excellent discussion of a whole different approach to designing the products we use. Products that are actually designed so that the end of their life is not a landfill, but another useful product or purpose. We are at a point where we can no longer be complacent participants. And, we are participants.
We are fortunate to live in such a beautiful place. The Earth has provided us with everything we need – for free. Currently, we are using its resources at a rate of 1 1/2 Earths. We have just one. We don’t all need to do a lot, but we all need to do something. As consumers, each one of us can learn to reduce, reuse and recycle more, and to consume less in the first place. Hopefully we can move forward with respect, gratitude, and appreciation for this marvelous planet that sustains us.