“We invented garbage. There is no such thing as waste or garbage in nature, with plants and animals…” – Michael Reynolds, Architect and founder of Earthships
A typical American generates about 5 pounds of garbage every day, adding up to nearly 252 million tons of garbage generated nationwide every year. Less than 25% of that is recycled, even though 70% could be.
Most people don’t give a second thought to throwing something away in the garbage bin. Their garbage is simply hauled off, buried in a landfill or incinerated where it remains out of sight and out of mind. But landfills can permanently contaminate ground and surface water.
The EPA reports that the barriers of all landfills will eventually break down and leak leachate (the toxic soup which accumulates in landfills) into ground and surface water. Incinerators pollute the air while creating ashes that must be disposed of in hazardous-waste landfills. Additionally, incinerators are a major source of 210 different dioxin compounds, plus mercury, cadmium, nitrous oxide, hydrogen chloride, sulfuric acid, fluorides, and particulate matter small enough to lodge permanently in the lungs.
Preventing waste on an individual level requires a paradigm shift in both our thinking as well as our living habits.
It takes a degree of effort to become an educated consumer, and it takes even more effort to break old habits. The best way to prevent garbage from accumulating in landfills is to not produce it in the first place.
In the household, one of the most significant sources of waste is packaging. Consumers should be aware of wasteful packaging practices. The best ways to reduce your amount of packaging waste are to:
- Avoid over-consumption. Buy only the products you know you need when you need them.
- Whenever possible, purchase items in bulk.
- Don’t buy individual portion-size items. If you need individual portions, buy in bulk and separate the portions yourself.
- Use reusable bags and containers.
- Whenever possible, purchase items that have little or no packaging.
- Purchase products that use recyclable, compostable or reusable packaging.
There are other ways to reduce. Consider buying used items instead of new. Maintain and/or repair items instead of disposing of them or replacing them. For infrequently-used items, consider renting, sharing or borrowing instead of purchasing. Donate your useable but unwanted items instead of placing them in the trash.
In order to minimize landfill waste, always pick the reusable version of any disposable item whenever possible. Disposable or single-use items are products with limited life-spans intended to be disposed of after their usable lifespan has ended. Americans love convenience. The idea of throwing something away once it’s been used removes the chores of maintaining the item or having to store it away when not in use. While there are some things that definitely should be disposed of after a single use (most of them are medical), most disposable products don’t really need to be.
A short list of common household disposable items that have existing non-disposable alternatives:
Diapers; Disposable Wipes; Bottled Water; Paper Towels; Napkins; Plates; Cups; Cutlery; Razors; Chopsticks; Cleaning Mops; Floor Dusters; Toilet-bowl Cleaners; Contact Lenses; Tissues; Batteries; Coffee Cups; Pens; Ink Cartridges; Cameras; Shopping Bags; Sandwich Bags; Lunch Bags; Containers; Razors; Cleaning Products; Feminine Products; Plastic Wrap; Drinking Straws; Coffee Filters; Tin Foil; Tablecloths
Short of being “disposable”, many products are made cheaply and are of poor quality. They’re likely to break within a short time and will need to be disposed of or replaced; Cheap assemble-it-yourself furniture, poorly made children’s toys, electronics and so on. Whenever possible, buy items of quality and long-lasting durability.
Recycling is to be considered a last-resort defense to try and prevent waste from having to end up in the landfill. If you have been vigilant about reducing and reusing, then any bit of trash you absolutely must dispose of should be recyclable or compostable.
Common Recyclables include:
- Used Engine Oil
- Household Hazardous Waste (Paints, Cleaners, Oils, Pesticides, Chemicals, etc.)
- Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs (CFLs)
- Computers and Electronics
Common Compostable Items:
- Food Waste
- Paper Products (used paper towels, napkins, shredded newspaper, paper bags, etc.)
- Yard and Wood Waste
Always check with your local waste management service for information regarding local recycling regulations and procedures. Some municipalities may or may not be able to recycle certain items. Keep these regulations in mind before purchasing certain items.
The vicious cycle is the heart of both the problem and the solution.
It all starts with a company’s product designers, producers and manufacturers creating a wasteful product, producing a product using wasteful methods, or packaging a product in a wasteful package. When enough consumers purchase the product the company profits thereby encouraging the company to continue manufacturing the same product in the same manner. The vicious, wasteful cycle continues.
If we can make the transition in our own minds that producing waste is really just the result of collective negligence (on the part of the company all the way down to consumer) then we can form the philosophical basis to motivate our own increased reduce, reuse and recycle efforts. If enough consumers make more conscientious buying decisions, then every company may be encouraged to alter their products and/or manufacturing practices ways that meet the higher demands of their customers for the better.