When you throw things away, where is ‘away’?
As a student at UC Berkeley, I taught a course to undergraduates called The Joy of Garbage where we discussed various forms of waste in our society. Throughout the semester, we explored how waste is not just comprised of the things that we physically throw into our garbage cans and which end up in landfills, such as electronics, recyclables and food scraps, but is linked to larger structural inefficiencies, such as our use of agricultural space and energy production.
In essence, we found that issues all around the globe are often in some way linked to bad “garbage” policies. Waste is such an interesting issue because it is often one of the more subtler aspects of the “green” movement today. Yes, of course we can recycle, or even compost, and bring our reusable bags to the grocery store to show we care, but that doesn’t really touch the larger economic and political structures of waste. And there still are those times when, in the privacy of our homes, we don’t handle our waste as appropriately as we think we should.
The average American produces 4.4 pounds of household waste per day, which calculates to 1600 pounds per year. This is not just a problem of handling waste more effectively but also reducing the waste we are producing in the first place and finding ways to make use of the waste we have already and are still producing. This means evolving away from a “throw away” society (as my close friend and nonviolent activist Pancho always told me, “where is ‘away’”?) towards a new kind of social and political economy.
If we could evolve from a “throw away” economy, what would it look like?
The students in my class conducted interviews with friends and family at least a generation older than themselves to talk about waste in their societies when they were growing up and compare it against their own experience today. I was astounded by the commonalities of the responses despite the fact that the interviewees were from all around the globe.
The older generations often recycled or composted out of necessity, in order to make money by returning bottles or because they needed the free soil they could generate by composting. The students were somewhat surprised by this given that there was no clearly defined “green movement” which propelled people into wanting to do right for the environment, a sensibility which was more common to the students.
I realize the error of romantically desiring a return to the past, to a time and place much closer to nature (for of course these rural villages have been impacted by larger global structures which produce extreme impoverishment), but I still wondered: can we join this instinctive care and economic sensibility for the environment with the energies, knowledge and inspirations of the present green movement?
The Story of Stuff
We started out each semester of The Joy of Garbage with a video called the Story of Stuff, a project pioneered by Annie Leonard and developed by Free Range Studios. It is an amazing video that well explains our consumerist, “thrownaway” society, which is constantly focused on always buying the next new thing and simply throwing away our old version. This is both at the level of the individual consumer’s decisions but also, of course, at larger political and economic structures of development.
The Story of Stuff Project has expanded to also include short informative videos about The Story of Cap and Trade, Bottled Water, Citizens United v. FEC and a few others, including their most recent The Story of Change, which explores how a truly sustainable world does not just mean choosing new, “greener” products to buy, but creating new types of economies which are an evolution away from our current “throw away” society. Watch the video and also take the quiz “What Kind of Changemaker Are You?” where you can figure out what type of social activist you are.
We all have a different part to play in creating new kinds of economic and social relationships and there is by no means only one particular way to contribute. It’s about creating new types of economic and personal values, new kinds of relationships, and new methods of use and reuse. Perhaps the United States will never give up measuring Gross Domestic Product and shift towards measuring Gross National Happiness as Bhutan does, but I don’t think we need to wait for our official measurements to change before we ourselves start measuring, thinking, and practicing differently.
RYOT NOTE: Even if we reduce consumption, what do we do with all the waste we have already produced? There are many creative ways to make use of waste. Check out The Landfill Harmonic, a documentary about a youth orchestra in Paraguay that plays instruments made from waste. Not only is this a creative way to recycle discards, but it is an inspiring community project for young kids growing up in the barrios of Paraguay. You can contribute by donating to this cause or by sharing this story.