particularly the idea of green, which can mean anything to anyone and is used on so many labels. I found that most people respond to the idea of waste as a verb, or as the physical manifestation of a wasteful mess. From our grandmas or their equivalent — you learn that [waste] is just not good. It is kind of a social sin. Wasting is bad. Thriftiness is good. The reason that those values exist is because they were
survival skills, both economically and in terms of resources and preserving food. My grandparents survived the Great Depression, and they did so with very little money and very little waste. And I guarantee you that 30 percent of their food was not thrown away. They used everything they had until it could not possibly be used or repurposed. I have tools in my toolbox that were my grandfather’s. He would never dream of throwing them away or not trying to repair them. Somewhere in the last 40 or 50 years, we have shifted
from those being accepted values [about] how our economy should be structured, and how products that we spend our hard-earned money on should behave and perform. We have shifted into this single-use, disposable economy and mindset and culture, where somehow it has become acceptable to expend our hard-earned wages on things that are almost immediately thrown away. And for which we have no good strategy for dealing with — products and packaging that have a useful life that you measure in minutes or hours, but which are made of materials that can last for centuries. I do not think that our current lifestyle would be viewed as very sen- sible by previous generations who lived very different lives and consequently had very different kinds of waste.
You suggest that people who want to become less wasteful should start by refusing stuff. One of the things that happens at meetings is that there are a lot of giveaways. That is a great example. You know you do not need that stuff. How many times have you brought that stuff home and it just sits somewhere until it gets thrown away or sits collecting dust in a drawer? Of course, I’ve gotten some good green conference give-
aways, like reusable bottles, that our family fights over. [But there] is stuff that we really could just say no to and be hap- pier without. Say no to it, and if we all do, then people will stop making it or make things that you will not say no to.
What do you notice now when you attend conferences? I went to my alma mater last year at Hampshire College, to a sustainability conference. And everybody was giving out bottled water right and left. So the first thing you look for is the obvious disposable items like that and plastic utensils and so forth .… People are much more conscious of that sort of thing now than they have been in the past.
Book Excerpt From Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair With Trash
The EPA reports a third of our trash gets recycled or
composted, but the real-world figures indicate that this diversion rate is less than a fourth of our total trash.… It’s tough to overcome an
addiction when you can’t even admit how big a problem you’ve got. That 102 tons [of waste per
person over a lifetime] is just what Americans personally toss in the garbage can and haul to the curb — the trash in our direct control. Counting all the waste transported, extracted, burned, pumped, emitted, and flushed into the sewage system by and on behalf of each American man, woman, and child, as well as what’s tossed out by U.S. industry in order to make the products Americans consume, the total waste figure for the nation reaches 10 billion tons a year. This raises the per-capita garbage calculation considerably. By such an all-waste accounting, every person in America stands atop more than 35 tons of waste a year — or a staggering average lifetime legacy of 2,700 tons. No wonder America, with 5 percent of the world’s population, accounts for nearly 25 percent of the world’s waste. Then there’s the wallet issue. Trash is such a big part
of daily life that American communities spend more on waste management than on fire protection, parks and recreation, libraries, or schoolbooks. If it were a product, trash would surpass everything else we manufacture. And guess what? It has become a product — America’s leading export.
Waste FAQ A few facts about the state of garbage in the United States, from Edward Humes’ research:
› America is home to 4 percent of the world’s children, but Americans buy and throw away 40 percent of the world’s toys.
› Americans throw 96 billion pounds of food in the trash each year. Just 5 percent of that food would feed 4 million people for a year.
› Americans throw away 25 billion non- recyclable Styrofoam cups a year — enough to circle the Earth 436 times.
› Americans throw away 694 plastic water bottles every second.