Saturday, September 11, 2010

To landfill

The world faces environmental issues, environmental justice included, because of a disconnect between how we humans think we live our lives, and how we actually live our lives. There is a disconnect between what we think is important, and what actually sustains us, allowing us "prosperity" and peace of mind. We think, in the West (and more so now in many other countries), that our streets are clean and that it is unseemly to have it any other way, of course, we are a "developed country." We condone and encourage the purchasing of new products, cutting edge and faster than ever before. We think that this signifies progress; we think that the future is always better than the past. We think that it is important to support policies, economic systems and actions that promote ways of making a living that we have come to accept as essential and necessary. Yet we actually are sweeping great harms under the rug and stuffing them underground. We actually are depleting our Earth's capacity to renew itself, to sustain plants, animals, watersheds, prairies and humans. We actually are continuing a legacy a recklessness, carelessness, unthoughtfulness, and disrespect towards land, rocks, water, air, animals and humans.

As I've mentioned previously, we have structured our communities around how we can dispose of our trash. The fact that trash in the West is invisible makes us feel that we are doing small amounts of harm to our environment. Yet there is a disconnect between what we think happens to the trash, and what actually happens to the trash. Have you ever considered that the trash does not just vanish into thin air? Much of our trash ends up in landfills, or in our air after it is burned. I'll ask you again, have you considered that the plastic cup you are drinking from, once thrown away, will just sit somewhere else, for a long, long time?

Poonam, one of the heads of the Student Sustainability Initiative at the University of Michigan, had a wonderfully simple idea: what would happen if we changed the labels on our trash bins from "Trash" to "To landfill"? How would that change our perceptions of trash? How would that challenge us reduce trash? A meeting with the head of recycling and waste management at the University yesterday shed some light on how disconnected we are from the fate of the trash we produce. She said that "this would only confuse people, and encourage them, in a rush, put a non-recyclable into a recycling bin, consequently contaminating the recyclables." Do we actually accept the fact that trash goes to landfills?

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