Have you ever considered where your garbage ends up? Here in Costa Rica the vast majority of it goes to landfills. Because we aren’t among the wealthiest nations of the world, there are people who then pick through those landfills for the pieces of scrap metal, plastic, and paper to take to recycling centers in exchange for a pittance, basing their livelihoods upon other people’s castaways. It isn’t the most efficient system, and landfills here are quickly taking over huge swaths of San Jose. But in America, the situation is even more distressing. According the Edward Humes, author of the recent book “Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash,” a typical US citizen will produce 102 TONS of trash in his or her lifetimes – that amounts to 7 pounds per person per day. Most of this ends up in landfills despite the fact that modern high-temperature incineration methods combined with enforced recycling would be considerably more efficient at managing our waste.
Consider the forty tons of garbage “lost” in the oceans per year. Imagine forty aircraft carriers dropped at sea each year and you start to get the picture. And if only it were as easy as going out to find 40 aircraft carriers and having them dragged to land for recycling. But most of this plastic weight is broken down into tiny everlasting particles of plastic that will never break down any further and end up circling in one of the giant garbage gyres that each we as humans have bestowed upon our oceans. These garbage patches encompass 40% of the global ocean surfaces and make up more territory of the earth than all the dry land combined. All of this has happened in the last 60 years since the invention of plastic.
If you’ve ever walked a beach with the intention of picking up trash you might have noticed what I quickly did: while there are plenty of single shoes and discarded water bottles, the most pervasive piece on the scene is by far the tiny scrap of plastic: bottle caps, and more common even than that, tinier scraps of brightly colored plastic broken down and scattered like confetti anywhere you choose to look.
So what can you do?
- Respond to the “paper or plastic” question at the supermarket with “I brought my own bag.” It takes only 11 uses of a reusable bag for its footprint to be smaller than paper or plastic, neither or which is a sustainable option. Plastic bags have been likened to “the gateway drug to waste” – so hopefully by weaning yourself off of them you’ll start to encounter other small and seemingly insignificant ways to lessen your footprint. consider the items you buy not only by price but by packaging, durability, and the sustainability of the company you are choosing to support.
- Recycle. Companies like Patagonia donate proceeds to the protection of the environment and take responsibility for the fate of their products. You can return your purchase to Patagonia whenever you’ve had enough and they will turn it into something else. Apple computers has a recycling system in place to accept old computers so that they don’t end up in landfills. Consider the ethical cost, durability, and shelf-life of your purchases when shopping, not just the price tag.
- Compost. Methane gas escaping from landfills has a huge carbon footprint and emits greenhouse gases. Methane comes from stuff that can decompose (like food and paper products) getting stuck amidst plastic and other non-biodegradable pieces. Composting can also help to reduce the sheer bulk and size of what ends up in landfills.
The information and inspiration for this post are from Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash by Edward Humes