By Maria and Rob
Uh oh, folks.
A major study of waste practices around the world reaffirmed what we already knew: we in the US are really bad about our trash. Per person, we produce three times the global average amount of trash, and we do unfortunately create the largest amount of trash per person of any other country in the world. Most estimates of our trash production range from 1700 to 2500 lbs. per person per year, and even when we try to recycle, there is no guarantee now that our recyclable materials are actually being recycled due to a lack of infrastructure. To reference the University of Southern Indiana, we make up only 5% of the world’s population, but we create 40% of its trash. We have a culture of convenience, and that has gotten us into hot water.
Yes this is rotten (erm…literally), but don’t panic!
Ultimately, what this means is we have to all work together to start producing less trash. We can’t wait for the perfect non-profit or governmental solution. We must act on our own now and invite others to follow. Below, we have a few suggestions that what will help this situation, and the suggestions have a difficulty assignment. If this all seems daunting, don’t worry! We are all in this together and we can all help each other. Start easy on the list and keep moving your way to bigger concepts, don’t overwhelm yourself at the beginning. We can do this.
Easy: Use reusable grocery bags and produce bags
Keep some bags in the car, keep some at home, whatever will help you remember them. Plastic shopping bags effectively cannot be recycled; and in the US alone, it costs us 12 million barrels of oil to produce them annually. And don’t forget you can take bags to Target, the mall, the farmers’ market, the antique show—everywhere you might shop!
Easy: Reusable bottles instead of bottled water and bottles of soda
This is probably the easiest yet most effective transition you can make. Americans used 50 billion bottles of water in 2017, and only 23% of those bottles were sent to be recycled (and of that 23%, it is unclear how much was actually recycled). Some companies have recently announced that canned water will be available soon, which is a helpful step, especially for emergency situations where bottled water is a necessity—but reusable bottles should always be our default. Rather than tell ourselves something can be recycled, we should avoid purchasing some things whenever possible.
We should also mention, besides the landfill issue, there is increasing evidence that bottled water contains leached material from the plastic bottles (whether it’s the bisphenols or phthalates, the latter of which often don’t make it to the conversation), it is more costly to consumers, and many bottled water companies use unethical practices to drain aquifers or water supplies from smaller communities. Reusable bottles with filtered water are just better.
Easy: Email politicians and large companies to ask that corporations take responsibility for their packaging.
Product packaging is a huge source of waste in the US. If you buy a pack of cookies, you’ll get a dozen cookies in a plastic tray, wrapped in a plastic bag, inside a cardboard box. Crikey, when we bought spaghetti a few weeks ago, even the pasta was inside a plastic bag, inside a cardboard box. It may not seem like a big deal, but when there are 327 million of us making trash every day, it dramatically adds up. We need to start asking companies to be responsible producers of goods.
Hear us out on this one: The blessing and the curse of the United States is that we have a lot of space—we can keep building landfills where our trash is out of sight and out of mind. One of the reasons some European countries are decades ahead of the US in terms of waste management was originally a matter of practicality: they didn’t have anywhere to put their trash. Germany, now one of the countries with the best recycling record in the world, began working fervently on this issue of too much trash back in 1991 when they passed a packaging ordinance that said any manufacturer or packaging company had to accept the packaging waste of their products from consumers and retailers. As you can imagine, the amount of packaging decreased as manufacturers didn’t want to deal with the trash they produced. At the beginning of this year, a revamped version of the law went into effect to increase emphasis on recycling and data management.
And in case you were worried about the effects on their economy, Germany is still fourth-highest in the world by GDP, right behind the US, China, and Japan. Politically-charged talk show may try to tell us otherwise, but sustainability and planning for a healthy future is excellent for long-term business.
Medium: Avoid single-use plastics
This is tough since single-use plastics are everywhere, but that is also what makes this point so important. A single-use plastic is just what it sounds like: a plastic that is only intended for one use before it is discarded. Plastic cutlery, nearly any sort of plastic packaging, coffee stirrers, lids, straws, clamshells like what salads and bakery goods are often sold in, etc.—all are materials intended for just one use. It’s a very short lifespan between production and landfill. Their ubiquity makes them tough to avoid, but we at least need to be aware of them and cut back when we can.
In response to these items, an Australian-based team created the Plastic Free July initiative—challenging us to go just one month without single-use plastics. Last year, US zoos helped make the concept mainstream with many staff members taking up the challenge, and mega-corporation the Walt Disney Company will significantly reducing plastics by mid-way through this year.
Medium: Take your own straws and to-go containers with you to restaurants
Figured we would be honest here – this one is difficult to remember. We do try, but it requires planning ahead.
Depending on where you live, this may or may not be feasible, which is what earned composting a spot on the “medium” list. A major feature of US landfills is our food waste. By composting, you can recapture all those nutrients that would otherwise be lost to a garbage pile—plus our food waste is a major contributor to climate change, so diverting it from the landfill is a win-win.
Difficult: Shopping at food co-ops, zero-waste grocery stores, and through zero-waste shopping
The possibility here is HUGE. Many co-ops or zero-waste grocery stores allow you to purchase your coffee, flour, rice, cereals, meats, cheeses, spices, pasta, etc using your own containers – thus completely removing packaging from the picture. This also eliminates the high-energy stage of packaging to begin with. In addition to these brick and mortar options, new companies like Loop are testing reusable container systems in partnership with mega-brands like Hagen-Daaz, Procter and Gamble, and Coca-Cola. These options are still limited, though, and many of us don’t live near something like a co-op. You can always look it up, though 😊
Always: Reduce, reuse, and rethink before recycle.
There are three R’s in that saying before recycling! Whenever we purchase something, let’s all take a minute to just consider that life of that item. How long will we have it? How will it be used? What will happen to that item after its original use is completed?
In the End…
Yes, our trash is a huge issue and we need to tackle it, but it doesn’t have to be painful. It’s the right thing to do, and we can do it together!