We have a problem with our garbage, namely that we produce too much of it.
Part of it is visible on litter-strewn streets and plastic-clogged waterways. Rome, for instance, is making the news for piles of rotting garbage in the city, where trash pickup has been interrupted for months after two major waste facilities shut down for maintenance.
Part of it is hidden from us, though. What happens to the old laptops and cellphones we hang onto until there’s an electronics recycling collection? Do they wind up in India, in a mountain of used electronics shipped in from all over the world, where workers are paid a pittance to pick through them and begin the toxic process of extracting small amounts of valuable materials?
Where does that plastic bottle you chuck into a recycling bin wind up? It doesn’t actually come back as another soda bottle. Best-case scenario is that it’s collected, baled and shipped off to a facility that produces plastic granules for other uses, like those composite plastic park benches or your fleece jacket.
More likely, though, our plastic waste is too contaminated to be recycled — dirty and mixed in with nonrecyclables. For years, the U.S. shipped baled plastic to China for recycling. Last year, China began refusing the baled plastic from the U.S. and other Western countries, saying it wasn’t recyclable. It was garbage.
“Mixed dirty plastic waste is almost impossible to recycle, which is why rich countries, with their tight environmental regulations, send it off to poorer places,” Finnish public health expert Mikko Paunio wrote in the Financial Post. “But recycling is no easier in Southeast Asia, and only a small portion of the 106 million tons of waste shipped over the past 20 years or so was ever converted to new plastic granules. Most was burned in the open air, or dumped in rivers, from where it found its way to the oceans.”
What do we do with all our garbage? The problem is bigger than banning straws and single-use plastic containers. The problem is us, and our waste habit.
Americans produce more than four pounds of garbage a day, per person, according to the EPA. Other sources put it as high as seven pounds. How does that happen? How do we turn that around?
The simple math is that if we bought less, we’d have far less waste. If we used the stuff we have to its maximum capacity, we’d have less waste. That means everything from eating your leftovers, mending torn clothing, repairing rather than replacing things that break, hanging on to your car two — or five — years longer. When you have to buy something, check to see if you can get it used.
That’s all hard to do in a culture that equates overconsumption with the good life and a healthy economy with never-ending expansion.
But maybe we’re going to have to stop expanding if we’re all going to share this Earth.
Greenpoint appears every other Sunday. Look for it next on Aug. 4. Reach Margaret Hartley at [email protected] or @Hartley_Maggie on Twitter.
Opinions expressed in Greenpoint are hers and not necessarily the newspaper’s.