By Jeff Frost LEED AP
It is the legacy we are leaving to our children’s great-grandchildren. It represents the number one product made in the U.S., and thanks to our convenient collection system, we continue unabated in its production.
“We are operating a waste-making machine.”
~ Ray Anderson, Founder and Chairman of Interface carpets.
Let’s visualize for a minute, a big box retail chain like Best Buy, Wal-Mart, Target, Costco, Home Depot, Lowe’s, Bed Bath and Beyond, Kmart or Sears; walk through the automatic sliding doors, past the welcome person to the middle of the store and stop. Let gravity slip away, and feel your feet leave the floor as you float up to the ceiling. Look below. What do you see? Aisle after aisle, shelf after shelf, rack after rack, hanger after hanger, box after box, stuffed to the ceiling as far as your eyes can see.
TV’s, CD’s, bikes and balls
lipstick, shampoo, deodorants for all.
Fruits and veggies, things in cans
baskets, buckets, pots and pans.
Pencils, pens, socks and shoes
ladders, wheelbarrows, nuts and screws.
Some chairs and sofas, and lamps
endless rows of toilets, tubs and sinks.
Newspapers, magazines and books galore
and endless racks of clothes and more.
Some would call this the best of capitalism; others might say it’s the epitome of endless choice. And endless it is…
The U.S. has over 14 billion square feet of retail space dedicated to this endless supply of stuff. That’s equivalent to 46 square feet for each of us, restocked daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, seasonally and endlessly. The point is, everything that we see, everything that fills our 46 square feet, represents only between 3 and 6 percent of the resources (material, energy and labor) it takes to make it. The remaining 94 to 97 percent is referred to as our Non-Product Output, which represents the best of 21st- century American ingenuity. These externalities are out of control, and it’s time we take a look behind the aisles of stuff and our need for stuff.
“…for every pound of trash that ends up in municipal waste,
at least 40 pounds or more are created upstream by industrial process… and are more harmful.”
~ Joel Makower, author of “Calculating the Gross National Trash.”
Products and Packaging
According to the Product Policy Institute (PPI), 75 percent of our waste stream is from throwaway products and packaging. Throwaway products are those pesky one-time-use items like Starbucks cups, plastic bottles, takeout containers, newspapers and plastic bags. The volume of these items that we use every year is staggering. Let’s break up packaging into two groups: food packaging and merchandise packaging.
Food packaging waste presents itself every day. Take a trip to any school cafeteria and see the endless stream of throwaway in action. Ziploc Bags, Lunchables, Fruit Roll-Ups, potato chip bags, yogurt cups and tubes, juice boxes, aluminum foil and “disposable” silverware – all of which end up in the trash, destined for a landfill after 30 seconds of use.
Starbucks produces over 2.3 billion coffee cups every year.
We throw out 320 billion single-use beverage containers and takeout cups every year.
In the U.S., 20 million sandwich bags are thrown away every day, that’s about 7.3 trillion bags every year.
Businesses spend billions of dollars on merchandise packaging, most of which is encased in plastic. Most of this plastic could be recycled, but since its recycling type is not labeled, it ends up in the landfill regardless of which bin you put it in. Our greatest hope for merchandise packaging is that businesses are looking for ways to reduce their impacts on the earth. Packaging design can make a significant impact. For example, SunChips® came out with a 100% biodegradable bag for the Original flavor in 10 ½ ounce bags.
Second Stop, Cheap Products
As competition to stay on store shelves has grown, companies are under intense pressure to reduce the cost of their products to appeal to the largest buyer base. The result of these pressures led to producing cheap, short-lived products. Since the 1960s we have bought into this mentality, as our definition of “value” has shifted from one balanced between durability and cost, to one evaluated solely on sticker price. How many of us, when something breaks, have said, ‘“Don’t worry, it didn’t cost that much. I’ll just buy another one.”’ This simple statement has manifested into our perception of value as a society.
We’ve all experienced this. How many of us have purchased the cheaper garden tool, only to have the handle break or the metal forks bend? Or the cheap office binders that split at the seams? Or the hole punch that breaks after a month? Shall we even talk about electronics?
Many appliance and electronics manufacturers design failures into their products – it’s referred to as Planned Obsolescence. You can get a new DVD player for $69, and when I breaks (and it will), it costs more to fix it than it does to buy another one. The same thing happens with the beloved iPhone. If the battery dies or the screen cracks, it costs the same to invest in a new model as it does to repair the old one. Digital cameras, computers and their batteries, and microwave ovens are but a few more of another endless list of products gone cheap. The majority of these products are simply tossed at the end of their short, invaluable lives into a landfill.
400 million electronic products are tossed into landfills each year.
In 2005, there were over 4 billion pounds of e-waste, 85% of which ended up in the landfill.
Food and hazardous waste, e-waste (electronics), industrial and construction waste, medical and municipal waste, and of course, human waste, have contributed to the doubling of our waste stream since the 1960s. It seems we have just as many waste products available to us as we do merchandise in a Wal-Mart store, and we continue uninhibitedly to throw things away.
Out of Sight, Out of Mind
When we talk about throwing something away, where are we referring? What if everything you brought to your home had to be disposed of on your property? Would this change the way you purchase products?
20 million Hershey’s Kisses are consumed each day, using over 133 million square miles of aluminum of packaging each year.
Imagine how this one little decision would change society forever. Instead of buying meat from the supermarket with its plastic wrap and foam, you purchase it from a local butcher wrapped in paper. Instead of buying cheap plastic toys, you buy toys that would have value to someone else after your child has outgrown them. Our waste consumption would take on a new perspective, and the need to accumulate throwaway waste would decrease. No matter what gets done to address our waste, one of the biggest challenges we will face is our over-reliance on a little thing called plastic.
A Garbage Patch in the Ocean
Plastic is ubiquitous on earth today, and unfortunately when we throw it away it ends up polluting our environment in appalling ways. While our intentions are typically less harmful, the simple act of disposing of plastic creates so much damage to our environment that it will be millennia before its impacts can be reversed. The biggest impact plastic has is on our oceans and marine life.
2 million plastic water bottles are thrown away every five minutes.
4 million plastic airline cups are tossed every day.
Between 60 and 80 percent of all marine debris is plastic material. Plastic doesn’t go away, it just breaks down into smaller and smaller pellets, allowing smaller species down the food chain to consume them in astonishing volume. What happens over the 500 years it takes before the plastic breaks down? It gets caught in our ocean currents and circulated into gyres. The North Pacific Gyre, or the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, is the most famous gyre. This floating barge of trash is twice the size of Texas and extends deep below the ocean surface. There are five confirmed gyres, and research suggests that there could be as many as 11 gyres currently in our oceans. Captain Charles Moore, Founder and Research Coordinator of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, has been studying these gyres for decades, and has noted that plastic is now the most common surface feature of the world’s oceans.
While we can’t cover all of the issues surrounding our waste production in this country, I encourage you to consider a redefinition; one posited by famed architect William McDonough. We need to stop calling it waste and realize that waste is merely a resource in the wrong place. On a planet with finite resources and potentially thousands of years ahead of us, isn’t it time we learned to do with less and to be preservers of our planet for our children’s great-grandchildren?
Solutions for you
Here’s your chance to answer that call to stewardship. Consider these recommendations as you evaluate the waste of resources in your life.
1. Precycle. Evaluate products and their packaging before you buy them. Determine if the product is recyclable at the end of its use. If it isn’t, don’t buy it.
2. Encourage and support Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR). EPR can be simply defined as, “if you make it, you deal with it,” and it applies to product producers. Europe has already implemented EPR on electrics and electronic equipment.
3. Evaluate your use of “one-time-use products,” and find solutions to limit use. Consider these tips:
a. When taking your lunch, try LunchSkins reusable, dishwasher-safe fabric bags for snacks and sandwiches, and stop using Ziplocs.
b. Use glass food storage containers instead of plastic. They will last longer and you can heat them safely in the microwave. Consider Pyrex or Glasslock.
c. Purchase fresh deli meat and crackers instead of Lunchables. It takes only five minutes to prepare a fresh lunch for your kids, and it cuts down on daily waste.
d. Bring your own reusable, refillable coffee cup or beverage container. SIGG or Clean Canteen products are great and come in small sizes for those school lunches too.
e. Refuse the straw at restaurants. The waiter will look at you funny, but that’s OK.
f. Reduce your intake of take-home food containers.
g. Take a reusable bag when you go shopping… not just grocery shopping!
h. Use reusable plates and silverware for parties and picnics. Preserve products are made from 100 percent post-consumer recycled milk jugs and yogurt cups, and they have a free take-back program.
4. Support companies with environmentally sound products and packaging. Green Toys and Simple Shoes are great examples.
5. Compost your food scraps. Consider a Compost Tumbler or under-counter options by NatureMill.
6. Doing a remodel or building a home? Weinberger Waste and Premier Waste Services provide complete recycling of your construction debris.
7. Own a business? Friedman Recycling can help you with a waste audit and set up recycling at your business that is appropriate for your needs.
8. One person’s trash is another’s treasure. Consider Craigslist to extend the life of the products you no longer desire.
9. Visit Earth911.com to locate where and what can be recycled near you.
10. Buy the things you need. Need the things you buy.