I was riding my bicycle into town on trash collection day last week and noticed that one of my neighbors had filled their can with weeds and other green waste. They had obviously cleaned up their yard and had accumulated a lot of green material in the process. But, I stalled out in trying to figure out why they had put it in their trash can?
Weeds, grass clippings, twigs and other cuttings are, most assuredly, not trash.
My sighting the greens in the trash can happened to coincide with reading Derek Jensen’s book, What We Leave Behind. In typical Jensen style, he has a lot to say about what we consider “waste.” Jensen is philosophical enough to turn me on — and, true to form, he muses philosophically about “waste.” He does this so much so, in fact, that the reader begins to see a lot of things very differently.
Jensen points up that garbage collection systems were rare in America until the early 20th century. This is because people did not view everything as “waste.” Those grass clippings and weeds, for example, would have naturally been turned into compost, bedding for the henhouse and/or mulch.
Likewise, much of what gets thrown away in contemporary America would have been, as a matter of course, repurposed. Wood ashes would have gone on the vegetable garden. Old fabric scraps were made into paper.
Kitchen garbage was naturally fed to livestock and put into garden compost. Tattered clothing was cut into strips for rug-making or quilts. When an outbuilding was torn down, the lumber was repurposed for another building project. And, of course, there simply wasn’t the plethora of disposable packaging that is so common in today’s commercial society.
The disposal of product “wastes” in America has seen an exponential increase in quantity in the past century. In a mere one-hundred years they’ve grown from only 92 pounds of throw-away trash per person per year to a staggering 1,242 pounds per person per year. Do the math on that for yourself.
And, an unexpected — and even paradoxical — outcome of the development of municipal garbage collection systems was that they actually led to an increase in the amount of garbage produced. This was because it became so easy to simply throw things away.
And, throw things away we do.
Americans produce approximately 220 million tons of trash each year. This is equivalent to burying more than 82,000 football fields six feet deep in compacted garbage. So, what is in all of this trash?
The average American office worker uses about 500 disposable cups every year. Every year, Americans throw away enough paper and plastic cups, forks, and spoons to circle the equator 300 times. Over 7 billion pounds of PVC are thrown away in the U.S. each year. Every year, Americans use approximately 1 billion shopping bags, creating 300,000 tons of landfill waste.
Food scraps constituted 12.7% of the waste generated in 2008, and yard trimmings were 13.2%. Only 2.5% of all kitchen waste was composted in 2008 – the rest went to landfill or incinerators.
What happened to “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle”?
The above statistics make it painfully clear that this concept hasn’t really moved off the drawing board — at least not sufficiently so. This is really where we need to be directing our attention. And, in that order: (1) reducing consumption, (2) reusing expended products and (3) recycling “waste.”
As we begin to develop these kinds of habits, we’ll see things differently. We change our views about what we “need,” what has value, and what constitutes “waste.”
In the simple act of contemplating “waste,” we’re given an opportunity to change from being unconscious consumers to conscious citizens.
–Sherry L. Ackerman Ph.D., Transition Voice