Friday, September 17, 2010

Why focus on trash and waste?

Katie asked me a pointed question on Thursday, while we were talking about nuclear waste - "Some people say focusing on a problem like trash takes away from devoting energy to more significant environmental problems. What do you think?"

Trash is visceral. We feel trash. We smell it, touch it, and hear it, sometimes every day, several times a day. When we go out to dinner, we use napkins to wipe our hands. When we crack open a bottle of wine, we rip off the wrapping hiding the cork. As soon as we're done with a plastic bottle of orange juice, some of us lift lift the lid of the trash can in our kitchen and throw the bottle out. The yard of a college fraternity house is littered with plastic cups on game day. We hear the early trash collectors with their huge truck at the crack of dawn, lifting and crushing pounds of trash. A trash bin filled to the brim releases a putrid smell that just makes us want to walk away. Indeed, trash, when we are near it, suffers way less from a problem of perception than do our other friends, such as greenhouse gases. Take carbon dioxide for example. When we flip on the light switch, the light appears here, but the odorless, colourless carbon dioxide is emitted elsewhere. How many of us can visualise such an invisible threat? What does 385 parts per million mean? That means that out of a million, there are 999,615 parts of other gases. Greenhouse gases suffer from a perception problem.

But that doesn't mean that trash and greenhouse gases aren't related. The social, economic and philosophical structures in place that cause the formation of trash and greenhouse gases are the same. Trash is just a different manifestation of the same problem - consumption without limits, carelessness about the future and disrespect for the ecosystems of the present.


  1. Although I completely agree with this post, I feel as though trash is becoming as invisible to the average American as carbon dioxide emissions. Trash is taken away from our daily lives and most of us do not see the major effects of the trash we produce. There is no direct effect on us.
    If we had a personal responsibility for our trash, if we had to keep our trash on our own property then we would produce less.
    Instead trash is lugged away to some unknown landfill to effect a nameless faceless future.

  2. You are right. What do you think might be an option of dealing with this invisibility? As always, there have been "economic" measures taken to reduce trash, e.g. taxes, but this is not a satisfactory answer...

  3. The waste sort at EarthFest is a great example of ways to make waste more visible. On a smaller scale (at UM), working with administration to hold more waste visibility events on a regular basis.

    I'm not sure how this can happen on a more individual level. Perhaps kids actually taking on your personal zero-waste challenge and carrying around their trash for a day/week/etc, perhaps cities picking up trash on a less regular basis (though that could cause issues in sanitation) or even making landfills be located closer to trash sources!

    I am not sure about things on a much larger-scale.

    Have you thought of any options for dealing with this?