No Magic Bullet: Solving the Garbage Problem

by Lynne Jackson

ALBANY: Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage, a movie by Heather Rogers, was shown at the April vegetarian/vegan lasagna dinner. Afterwards, I moderated a discussion of the movie and garbage.

In my travels and listening about the garbage issue, I have noticed that no one wants a landfill near them. However, I observe some statistics I learned from the movie and the book of the same name:

  • each person in the US produces an average of 4.5 pounds of garbage per day
  • the amount of garbage has almost doubled in the past 30 years
  • most astounding statistic: 80% of the products we use are designed to be used once and discarded
  • there is 6 times more plastic thank zooplankton in the Pacific Ocean

Gone Tomorrow demonstrates that responsibility for garbage has shifted from the manufacturer onto the individual.

Remember the Keep America Beautiful program? That was created by manufacturers, an example of corporate “green-washing.” Instead of dealing with the problem of too much stuff to throw out, the manufacturers defined the problem as that garbage was in the wrong place: i.e. “litter.” The Keep America Beautiful program introduced the idea that litter is bad, and ignored the problem of too much garbage.

The packaging industry makes a lot more money with the use of throw-aways. Customers did not demand the throw-away bottle; it was done to allow the bottling companies to consolidate and grow bigger.

The three reasons for throw-away bottles are 1) forced consumption; using a brand new bottle each time makes more money for the packaging industry 2) supermarket chains did not want to devote the labor to collecting bottles and 3) the consolidation of the bottling companies.

The movie also discusses issues with recycling. People like to recycle and want it to work; however, there are serious limitations to recycling. Recycling only deals with waste after it has been created and there is the issue with “down-cycling” meaning that things can only be recycled so many times. For example, plastic bottles may get recycled into ski jackets, but those jackets are not in turn, recycled. Newspaper and plastic can only be recycled so many times before the fibers in the material break down and further recycling is not possible.

According to Heather Rogers, corporations make more money from landfills than any other waste disposal method.

Editorial Comment:

So, what do we do with the garbage? The more I study this issue, the more I realize there are no magic bullets.

What are the choices? Bury it, burn it or toss it in the water. I do not like those choices!

The solution to the garbage problem is many-faceted. First, we need to reduce the amount of garbage: how about out-lawing non-returnable bottles? Re-usable glass bottles would provide more jobs and make a lot less garbage. We need to seriously examine the packaging issue and the planned obsolescence of appliances and electronic devices.

Source separation would allow food waste to be composted and perhaps other throw-away items to be re-used first. How about cloth napkins, returnable ceramic cups at the coffee shop and cloth rags? What about that statistic that 80% of products made are to be used once?

We need to examine all of the solutions: and we need to begin with reduction of garbage.

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Printed in the May/June 06 newsletter