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For Earth Day this year, the Renewable Choice team headed outside, armed with gloves, good shoes, and trash bags to gather the litter and other disposable waste from the wild habitat surrounding our offices. In only 45 minutes, each member of our team was able to fill a 33 gallon bag worth of trash, ranging from cardboard boxes to floppy disks to old railroad parts.
On Earth Day itself, I went to a workshop offered by our local government on backyard composting. I learned a lot about how to turn waste back into useful material. In the workshop, I was reminded that part of what allows compost to work is the presence of air, water, sunlight, and microorganisms. I had been reminded of that when we were outside, too. Slowly, but surely, nature was taking its inevitable toll on the waste we found buried among the plants and trees. Even plastics were being steadily buried under the detritus of season after season of life.
Unfortunately, I was also saddened by the whole event. I have two kids now, and all I kept thinking about over the weekend was the depiction of earth in the film Wall-E, a pretty clever story about how humans have to abandon the planet for a life in space when the trash piles get too high. The thought that kept coming back to me was something along the lines of “is trash the legacy I’m leaving for my children?”
Often, we talk about the various aspects of sustainability (things like energy consumption, water consumption, and waste) as though they are disparate from one another. In truth, just as the elements must work together in nature, the pieces of the sustainability puzzle must also work together to form a cohesive, whole strategy. While we may choose to focus on one area over another, particularly when we are initially embracing sustainability as a lifestyle choice or a business practice, without attention given to each aspect, we may miss a crucial element.
Let’s take solid waste, for instance. For thousands of years, we coexisted with the planet as one among millions of species. Our waste was organic, and like other types of organic waste, was reclaimed and reused by the most effective and efficient recycling program we know of – the earth itself. However, with the advent of technology and industry, we began to generate waste that wasn’t organic, and trash was born. The greater our technology and industry, the greater our demand for inorganic possessions, and the greater our inorganic waste.
Environmental activist Julia Butterfly Hill calls this “disposability consciousness” or the idea that we’ve become comfortable living with the mindset of wastefulness. She challenges us to consider the phrase “throw it away.” Where, exactly, is away?
The answer, in the United States at least, is the landfill. The EPA estimates that there are approximately 6,000 landfills in the US, most of which contain municipal waste. Because landfills trap waste and prevent air, water, sunlight, and microorganisms from doing their jobs, the waste doesn’t break down cleanly the way it does in a compost pile – instead, putrefying waste releases a variety of toxic gases, including carbon dioxide and methane, both greenhouse gas emissions responsible for climate change. Landfills are the single largest anthropogenic source of methane in the US—not to mention all the additional emissions from the waste management fleets that collect and deliver all that trash every day.
And let’s consider for a moment the environmental impacts of generating so called “virgin” products. Take the humble aluminum can, for example. The process for extracting virgin ore is highly environmentally destructive, poses a danger to workers and communities, and consumes considerable natural resources in the form of water and energy. Recycling aluminum cans, on the other hand:
- Saves 95% of the energy used to make new cans
- Allows the industry to make up to 20x more cans for the same amount of energy
- Creates 97% less water pollution than producing new aluminum
And—in case you didn’t know—aluminum can be recycled forever.
How can we mitigate our impact on solid waste, as individuals and organizations? It may feel simplistic or redundant, but the good ‘ole slogan Reduce – Reuse – Recycle is time-tested and still a sound practice to adopt to help alleviate the burden on our waste systems.
Decreasing our waste footprint starts with reducing our consumption. A simple rule of thumb? Ask yourself questions like “Do I really need this?” or “Can I get my need for this purchase met another way?” before buying anything. If you are a business owner, conducting a lifecycle analysis on your products and supply chain can help you determine if there are ways to change your environmental impact by changing the way your products are designed and produced.
Our disposability consciousness allows us to put waste into the landfill without considering how it could instead be reused. For example, consider all the plastic bags that we consume. We put groceries in plastic bags, food in plastic bags, and use plastic bags for storage in our homes, lunch boxes, and offices. Giving consideration to how these bags can be reused may lead us to change our habits and instead begin using reusables – things like cloth shopping bags and plastic containers that can be reused repeatedly.
Expand your consideration of recycling beyond paper, aluminum, and glass. What else can you recycle? An individual action such as shopping in thrift stores recycles products on a community-scale. Participation in programs like TerraCycle promotes broader recycling in our homes and workplaces. Through lifecycle analysis, companies may consider how their products can be recycled at end-of-life or how they can recycle components of their manufacturing process. Starting a compost pile at home or at work is the ultimate form of recycling.
Lastly, here’s a quick trick to help you remember that there is no away: label your trash bins “landfill.” It will—hopefully—stop and make you think about what you’re about to put in there. Even better? Get rid of your trash can altogether. Without it, what will you do with your waste?