As a nation, we suck at waste reduction. It’s a plain and simple fact that can be and has been demonstrated time and time again. Although the US is the birthplace of the “Three Rs”, we continue to lag behind those who joined the race to clean up their act well after we started (Juon 16). Yearly, the United States produces roughly 12 billion tons of waste, 350 million tons of which is classified as municipal solid waste. MSW is what we see on a day to day basis. It’s what we haul out to the curb on trash day in those big black bins; what we see blowing around on a windy day as we drive down the highway. Municipal solid waste is the highly visible trash generated by our schools, businesses, and residents alike (Mervis 668). Although the 350 million tons of solid waste may seem trivial in comparison to the 12 billion tons of total waste, addressing its reduction is a good starting point for the everyday environmentalist. By working to reduce our household waste on the individual level, we work towards a cultural shift in favor of sustainability. This, in turn, fosters momentum towards large scale waste reduction throughout all sectors.
Recycling has been the main – and sometimes the only – focus of the public campaign for sustainability. Unfortunately, the lack of education on proper recycling protocol and widespread variances concerning recycling policies between cities has led to an overall ineffective and outdated system. As stated by Tracy Fernandez Rysavy in her article “Americans are really bad at recycling…” on greenamerica.org, the EPA estimates that 75 percent of the United States’ waste stream can be recycled or composted. The most astonishing fact about this is that we are only recycling about 34 percent of our solid waste. That is a 40 percent deficit, which amounts to around 140 million tons of trash. That waste is being sent directly to the landfills around the country every year, instead of being put back into the recycling circuit for reuse. These numbers are, quite frankly, shameful in comparison to many other nations out there. Germany and Austria, for example, are recycling or composting around 62 to 63 percent of their solid waste (Rysavy, “Americans are really bad at recycling…”). South Korea boasts an incredible 80 percent recycling rate in addition to an overall 10 percent decrease in food waste in Seoul alone, due to policy reform enacted in 2013 (Juon 16). Although there are glaring problems with the system as it is, all is not lost. With a little bit of organization and effort, there is hope for instituting significant change.
The first order of action must be to change the way we think about waste. As stated by Jutta Gutberlet, “waste is not the final stage in the life of any object” (58). It is imperative to realize this; just because something is shipped off to a landfill or an incinerator, the object and consequences of disposing of it in such a way do not change. As humans we are prone to the “out of sight, out of mind” phenomena. Once we throw something in the trash or the recycling, our object permanence fails us and we completely forget about said item. There is no longer a value assigned to what goes in our garbage and that is the exact mentality we need to change. In other words, we need to put conscious effort into our trash disposal; we need to practice mindfulness. Simply put, mindfulness is the state of being conscious or aware of something. As average individuals we contribute to the trash produced nationwide at a rate of approximately 4.6 pounds per day (learner.org, “Solid Waste”). Recycling, although viewed as the end-all-be-all to many, is not the only thing we can do to reduce the ever-mounting problem of household waste management. If we also focus on reducing our overall consumption, we could very well set society on the path towards solving our waste problem. There is a twofold benefit in focusing on reduction as it means less unnecessary waste accumulating in our landfills, as well as less money spent on items that will be wasted inevitably.
Ideally these exercises would be completed over the period of a month, but if needed, start with a smaller increment of time, such as a week. The first step in practicing mindfulness in accordance to our waste is to track the things you are throwing away. To begin, compose a list of everything that goes into your bin over the week or month. This step can be started as a thought exercise if needed, but to really engage with the subject matter it is best to complete this hands-on. Be prudent in your documentation as this is meant to highlight the excess that is inevitably being wasted. After a few days, or weeks, you will begin to see a trend in your disposal habits. With these trends in hand, you can begin to modify your spending and thus your disposal habits in tandem. If you notice you are throwing away a fourth of a gallon of spoiled milk every two weeks, instead buy a half gallon and track your updated usage accordingly. If you find that you are buying more of one thing and creating an excess of packaging waste in your home, seek out more sustainable sources. Some examples being buying frequently used items in bulk or attempting to find comparable items that are packaged in more sustainable packaging. Try to purchase items that have packaging that can be refilled or reused in some way.
The next step in waste reduction over all is to take the newfound knowledge you have concerning your own habits and seek out further education. Accept that, despite whatever level of environmental know-how you possess, there will always be room for improvement. Reduction of consumption and increase in proper and educated recycling are involved and complex functions. It is very helpful to seek out like-minded, informed individuals and grassroots organizations to accompany you on this journey as studies show a positive correlation between proper completion of these functions and the support of others (Passafaro and Stefano 354).
Perceived skills are crucial in gathering community motivation
towards the greater goal of overall reduction, but the necessary training and
hands-on experience is absolutely needed to improve our actual skills. A
unified community force can be instrumental in changing the attitudes and
momentum of the current recycling-focused state of our waste management action
towards one of overall reduction. Track your own trash and be mindful concerning
your habits, because although you may be a singular entity, you may inspire others
to follow your actions. Together, we can make significant efforts to move
towards kicking our reliance on the trash can, and in turn lessen the burden on
MERVIS, JEFFREY. “GARBOLOGY 101: GETTING A GRIP ON WASTE.” Science, vol. 337, no. 6095, 2012, pp. 668–672., www.jstor.org/stable/23268850. Accessed September 2019.
Juon, Kate. “Recycling as a Nation.” Sustainable Development Law & Policy, vol. 18, no. 2, Spring/Summer2018 2018, pp. 16–42. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=133435738&site=ehost-live. Accessed 30 September 2019.
Passafaro, Paola, and Stefano Livi. “Comparing Determinants of Perceived and Actual Recycling Skills: The Role of Motivational, Behavioral and Dispositional Factors.” Journal of Environmental Education, vol. 48, no. 5, Nov. 2017, pp. 347–356. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/00958964.2017.1320961. Accessed September 2019.
Fernandez Rysavy, Tracy. “Americans Are Really Bad at Recycling. But Only Because We’Re Not Trying Very Hard.” Green America, www.greenamerica.org/rethinking-recycling/americans-are-really-bad-recycling-only-because-were-not-trying-very-hard Accessed 30 September 2019.
“Solid Waste.” Learner.org, www.learner.org/exhibits/garbage/solidwaste.html. Accessed 30 September 2019.