“Look at all this junk. What should we do with it?”
“Just throw it away.”
It’s amazing that people still say that. But what they are really saying is, “Move it from here to there.”
It’s been said that there is no “away,” but there is. That’s the problem. There is an “away,” and it’s over there somewhere – not in my neighborhood, not in my backyard. We don’t need to worry about it; someone else is taking care of all that. Just throw it away and forget about it. It’s long past time for all that thought to cease.
Whether it’s here or there, someone needs to “manage” it. Consumers and manufacturers should be in on that deal. They should carry some if not all of that burden. We call it “waste” management, and that’s where we need to make the change. The Life Cycle Analysis of any product always includes its end-of-use. The Zero Waste Plan in Austin, TX started the paradigm shift in that city by renaming the process: “resource” management. Turns out “it” is a pile of resources.
What shall we do about it? You’re not going to like the answer. How about coming to terms? How about working a lot harder than we do now? How about raising our consciousness? How about modeling the correct behavior and expecting the same from others? How about accepting what we are, what we do and how we must change? Acknowledging that we are in a bad place with our stuff gets us past denial. Stop denying that we throw too much stuff “away,” and start understanding that we need to think “resources,” not “waste.” And analyzing how we got here will help us find solutions to dig our way out.
In the TV show, Hoarders, people literally get barricaded inside their homes. They keep collecting things until there’s no room. And then they keep collecting. They move “it” from here to there. “It” consumes the resident(s), the dwelling, the psyche of the hoarder, and eventually the patience of their family and friends.
Of course most hoarders – without some intervention and therapy – can’t stop. But people who are not clinical hoarders are equally guilty, only worse. That’s right, we – the supposed non-hoarders of the world – just store it in a different place. We justify our hoarding by “throwing it away.” We deny we are hoarding. And of course, we think that’s OK. But if we don’t stop, we will be consumed; our communities will be overrun. “Away” will get filled up. Then what?
If you think of our communities (or municipalities) as organisms, they are no different than those poor souls on TV who cannot get rid of anything. And, no, throwing it “away” is not getting rid of it. The only difference is that the community organism “manages” the hoarded material through a “waste” management department. Despite the cold, hard fact that approximately 90% of that “waste” material is actually a resource that can be categorically identified. Waste management equals digging a hole or starting a fire. “It’s OK; we’ll make energy from it. Why not? There's nothing else to do, nowhere else to go. There’s nowhere to put it. Maybe we can just build another landfill. Let the next generation worry about it. Whaddaya gonna do, stop making trash?”
Imagine a world where discards are resources. It’s easy if you try. Imagine a world where “away” means “back,” where circular material flows are part of the norm. Widget made, widget returned, widget repurposed. The end-of-life is actually designed into the life-cycle strategy of the widget. How do we get to a place like that? How do we evolve into a being that truly cares about what we’re going to do with all our stuff? While driving down the street on “trash” day recently, I saw black bin after black bin with a cardboard box on top of a full bin, propping the lid open. Right next to all of them was a blue bin with the lid closed tight – obviously not full. How can people think like this? Do we need to evolve into a new species of the Homo genus in order to put a cardboard box in the blue bin? What must Homo sapiens become to get over this seemingly minor hump?
Latin for “wise man,” the term Homo sapiens seems debatable at times. It feels instead like the movies Idiocracy and Wall-E are coming true.
Evolution may indeed be the key – the only way out. If we were to evolve into Homo terramondus (that’s my made-up species, which means, “Earth-Loving Man”) we would be fine, because – by definition – we would care for the Earth that sustains us, the Earth of which we are a part. Our care for the ecosphere would take precedence, just as the lord almighty dollar rules Homo economicus.
Another cold, hard fact: We don’t care for the earth first. And don’t say you do if don’t think of your discards as resources. Don’t say you care about the earth first if you aren’t sickened every time you throw a banana peel in the trash can. My friends and family mock me when I speak of such evolution – as if our evolution has ceased. We are what we are. “It’s human nature,” they say. As if THIS is our destiny; THIS is all there is – the pinnacle. Our evolution has stopped. Just like the people of the Dark Ages thought, “This is IT.” The post-World War II American Dream, with the white picket fences and chickens in every pot. That was IT, our destiny. We haven’t stopped evolving, and if we’re to see the 22nd, 23rd and 24th Centuries we’d better hope we continue.
We didn’t know we were in the Renaissance WHILE we were in the Renaissance. That’s not possible. Do we still teach that the world is flat, that the sun revolves around the earth, that birds fly to the moon in the winter, and that maggots spontaneously create in the presence of meat? No. So why do we continue to teach farming in monocultures with petroleum fertilizers and pesticides? Why do still accept that throwing things “away” is OK? Why do we insist that divesting from unsustainable energy sources (black rocks and black goo) is something that only crazy people do? Why do we allow women to vote? Why aren’t there “Whites Only” signs in Alabama cafes? Why isn’t same-sex marriage illegal everywhere? Because we change. We evolve. We will never stop evolving. Pull tabs coming off of tin cans and being thrown on the ground was never a good idea, but we did it. Plastic bottles with screw-off tops that are not leashed to the bottle is also a bad idea that will one day be changed. Planned obsolescence is also a bad idea whose time is up. My microwave was rendered useless recently because a piece of plastic broke inside the door mechanism (check it out: http://youtu.be/UnAFLjNaW9I). Resource management and a circular economy will and must take the place of landfill hoarding and the linear materials flow that perpetuates it.
“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win,” said Mahatma Gandhi. We are now in the Anthropocene – or so I’ve been told. It’s the epoch dominated by Homo sapiens. Will we dominate it into or own extinction? Oh, there you go again… pooh-poohing the radical talk. OK then, you tell me how the world will work in 200 years when there is no fossil fuel. The sage author Daniel Quinn (of Ishmael fame) said – and I paraphrase, “If humans are still around in 200 years, they will be living in a way that is a lot different from how we live now. The earth cannot support seven billion people living our way.”
Bob Sly is a 30-year multimedia professional who has been covering zero waste happenings since 2007. Zero Waste is a goal we must perpetually pursue.