Words by AF Keck
“Our waste problem is not only the fault of the producers. It is the fault of an economy that is wasteful from top to bottom, a symbiosis of an unlimited greed at the top and a lazy, passive, self-indulgent consumptiveness at the bottom and all of us are involved in it". – Wendell Berry
MAKE, PARTAKE, THEN REGURGITATE Our consumption of goods is a function of our culture. Only by producing and selling goods and services does capitalism in its present form work. The more that is produced and purchased, the more prosperity is generated. After all, the single most important measure of economic growth is the Gross National Product (GNP) – the sum total of goods and services produced by a given society in a given year. However the by-product of this ongoing production and consumption in society is waste. Waste, rubbish, trash, garbage or junk is unwanted or undesired material. Although generic terms, they do have more specific meanings: rubbish or trash is meant to designate mixed household waste including paper and packaging, whereas garbage, junk or scrap is generally considered to be metallic or industrial material. There are other categories of waste as well, such as sewage, ash, manure, etc, but whatever the designation, we are producing more and more of the stuff every year.
THE PIONEERS The US Environmental Protection Agency reports the United States produces approximately 220 million tons of garbage annually. This is equivalent to burying more than 82,000 football fields six feet deep in compacted garbage. Every day the inhabitants of New York City throw away approximately 26,000 tons of trash. Since the landfill at Ano Liosia, northwestern Athens, reached full capacity in late December 2007, the authorities have not known what to do with the 6,000 tons of trash produced daily in this city of four million people. The 100-hectare landfill, said by environmental groups to be the largest in Europe, is a 160-metre mountain of partially-treated sewage, toxic hospital waste, rubble and household trash, besieged by a horde of disease-ridden seagulls and rats. In July of this year, US and European embassies in Rome warned their citizens of the potential health risks in visiting Italy's southern Campania region due to a garbage crisis that has filled the region’s streets with piles of rubbish. Since May, the streets of Naples and nearby towns have been piled with household waste that has nowhere else to go, apparently the fault of political mismanagement, conflicting self-interest and organised crime.
THE NEWBIES Not to be outdone, the emerging economic powerhouses of Asia are catching up in the smelly world of waste production. In Jakarta an estimated 70% or 1,200 cubic meters of the Indonesian capital's daily waste gets dumped into the city's canals, most of which lead to the Angke River estuary in the north; a reeking drainpipe for a city of 10 million people. It has been described as a broad, black and noxious channel, moving with the viscous sloth of an oil spill; pushing all the jetsam of 21st century life before it. Apparently, the trash is so dense in parts that the river can actually be walked across.
The Vietnamese capital Hanoi, which is a key beneficiary of the nation's economic boom, is a perfect example of the environmental challenges exacerbated by success. The average resident of Hanoi throws out 1kg of trash per day, up from .05kg in 1996. By the end of this decade, the figure is forecast to jump to 1.5kg as rising wealth spawns greater consumption. Yet the statistics from China are the most daunting of all. The world's most populous nation produces 150 million tons of trash annually, with the volume of garbage from its cities surging by almost 10% a year since 1979 and by almost 20% in a metropolis such as Beijing. Today, most of the Chinese capital's refuse of 5 million tons a year is sent straight to the city's 490 landfills. Of these, 231 were recently found to pose a medium- to high-level health risk to surrounding areas, triggering increased rates of cancers and respiratory illnesses.
FLOSSING THE JETSAM In recent years, recycling has become the preferred choice of waste disposal for many industries. The British government set a target of recycling 25% of all household waste by the year 2010. Likewise, the proportion of household rubbish recycled in Germany increased from 12 to 30 percent between 1992 and 1995. Around 75% of the average European car is already recycled, largely because the metal can be sold as scrap. However, electrical scrap accounts for merely 2% of waste produced in the European Union, and car scrap even less.
Each method of waste disposal has its drawbacks. Reusing glass bottles can require more energy than their initial manufacture as they have to be sterilized. Incineration is a source of greenhouse gases and toxic chemicals such as dioxins and lead. Landfill sites are a possible source of toxic chemicals and produce large quantities of methane gas. They must be managed so that pollutants do not seep into groundwater and should therefore be kept dry, but this slows down the rate of decomposition. Industry and business are responsible for most of this waste, but consumer product packaging accounts for about 15% of what's discarded. When you purchase a frozen dinner, you are paying not only for the meal but for the outer paperboard box, the plastic or foil tray that holds the meal, and the covering over the food. You pay again for packaging, directly or indirectly, when your garbage is picked up and disposed of in a landfill or incinerator. Some communities are moving toward ‘pay-as-you-throw’ fees for every bag put out at the curb, so it makes sense to reduce household waste. Composting, recycling and reusing items all help, and by shopping carefully you can reduce excess packaging that you would throw away. Yet ultimately the most effective solution would be to commit the ultimate sin in today’s global economy.
Instead of ‘shop till you drop’, ‘stop… and then drop the shop’. AF Keck