By Neva Knott
Sourcing, energy usage, and waste are the core concepts of sustainability, a much tossed around and little understood buzzword of today’s consumer culture. It’s also one of the values that underpins natural resources management. In this post, I’m not talking about “go green” consumerism; rather, about how to take responsibility for your own waste stream–as a global citizen and inhabitant of this beautiful yet ill and overburdened planet.
I grew up during the era of the Give a Hoot, Don’t Pollute campaign. So when I read about Garbage Patches in the oceans, see trash on every dog walk I take, and consider all the disposability designed into our mainstream daily life, I cringe.
This past Fourth of July weekend, I took it upon myself to clean up a stretch of beach in Taft, Oregon the day after the fireworks. I was compelled after getting down there around coffee o’clock to walk my dogs, to find giant driftwood stumps emanating smoke, pillows left on logs, beer bottles, boxes, toys, a child’s shoe, about a billion snack wrappers, broken glass, cigarette butts, chicken bones. I could go on. What really flummoxed me, since–sadly–I am used to seeing trash everywhere I go (I often say it’s not a hike in Oregon if I don’t come across a disposed diaper) was that the trashed area was just about 50 yards from a huge hotel. I guess the guests thought housekeeping services extended to their beach party mess.
The reactions of other people as I filled my trash bag bowled me over. Most acted like I was intruding, one mom thanked me and encouraged her small children to help, and two little girls were sent by their mom to ask for some cardboard to use to start a fire.
The next day the beach was trashed again.
At Thanksgiving this year I was exclaiming to my aunt and uncle about this trash-fest. They live on the Washington coast, on the Long Beach Peninsula. I was horrified by their response to my description of the Taft scene. The Peninsula is a destination on the Fourth. This year, 60,000 pounds of trash were cleaned up after the visitors left. The volume of trash spurred a community uproar–the conflict, though, is that tourists bring much-needed tourist dollars. Even so, my aunt explained shop-owners felt enough was enough.
Where does trash go?
As this video illustrates, we’re creating an enormous amount of trash.
Just a week ago, I attended a TEDx Salon on sustainability here in Portland. The Salon included three TED Talk videos and two live presenters: Marcus Young and Terra Heilman. Topics ranged from waste reduction through better product design, the sustainability of coffee-growing (Marcus Young), food waste, collaborative consumption, and “recycling doesn’t matter” (Terra Heilman). I was overwhelmed by the scenarios of waste described.
Heilman’s presentation in particular answered a big question I’ve had. Her example was a plastic water bottle. Even with aggressive recycling campaigns and habits, recycling plastic water (or any single-use beverage) bottles doesn’t yield much in terms of waste reduction. Most still end up in the landfill. What Heilman found in her research is that using a “durable” reusable bottle reduces the waste impact by 97 per cent. This is a huge consideration, given that plastic products take 400-500 years to biodegrade and cause myriad problems for humans and in the environment.
Trash is not sustainability. It’s time people take responsibility for reducing their waste. I’m decreasing my trash by working to eliminate plastic and other non-degradable trash from my grocery cart. It’s not that hard, but, it does force me to buy food to cook rather than packaged stuff. I even made my own almond milk this morning. It was easy and cost less, and I put it in a peanut butter glass jar I’d saved.
There’s so much information out there on the web about plastic and reducing waste–one of my favorite sites on the topic is Treehugger. But what I want to convey in this post is that we can’t keep fooling ourselves that recycling is taking care of the problem, nor can we afford to keep using single-use packaged products–which seem to be a huge percentage of the waste stream. For sure, most of what’s in the above photo is snack packaging.