Let's Talk Trash
I grew up on Staten Island New York in the 1960s. At that time, Staten Island was the home of the world's largest landfill. In college, for my Master's thesis, I did a research project to find a suitable location for a landfill in Utah. I have always been very concerned about the amount of solid waste that humans generate and what we can do with it.
Sadly, people's habits seem to not have changed much in the last 60 years. No matter where I go in the world, I find trash that was discarded by people. It always bothered me that people feel so little pride in the natural environment surrounding them that they would just throw trash on the ground as if it was normal. I especially remember that old TV commercial where a Native American is standing by the side of the road as a car drives by and throws trash at his feet. Video Link.
Global Trash Problem
Even though there is certainly heightened awareness about the importance of a sustainable environment nowadays, and there is certainly an increase in the amount of recycled goods, far too much trash gets discarded at the sides of roads, on beaches, and in pristine natural areas. I spent three months in Pune, India in 2018 and saw far too many displays of trash discarded everywhere, even in ad hoc open dumps in the middle of nowhere. I spent a good amount of time in Switzerland in the 1980s and also there found a disappointing amount of graffiti and trash in my daily commute to the office. I had the same experience in my travels around France. While I was in Taiwan, they too had rivers that were polluted with discarded trash. Several countries in South America that I visited had this same issue. I currently live outside Boston Massachusetts and even in my little town, I can walk down the sidewalk and find plenty of discarded trash in the weeds. It makes me cry and leaves me shaking my head, wondering why do people do this.
It is clear to me that the disposal of trash, the proper disposal of it, is a global issue. I think that we will probably always have a trash disposal problem on our planet because the issue is driven by people. Some people will never care enough about the environment to stop littering, period. They must think that someone else will pick it up - not their problem. If these habits continue, we will always have a less beautiful planet, but more worrisome than that is that our trash kills our fellow planet inhabitants, animals.
The most publicized killing trash is microplastics in the ocean, especially the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. I found widely varying data about the number of deaths from ocean plastic. One site states that 100 million ocean mammals die each year from ingesting microplastic or from entanglements in it (1,2). Suffice it to say that because of how humans use and treat plastics, millions of sea mammals die each year. Millions.
Fortunately, many areas are trying to stem the tide of trash disposal. It is now common to find recycling in most towns in the USA and Europe. When my wife and I traveled to Venice, Italy a few years ago, they had an ultra-restrictive recyclable program that they enforced heavily to protect the beauty of their water. In every town I traveled to in Germany, they also had an aggressive recycling program. My hometown in Massachusetts has our own transfer station where all inhabitants can recycle as much as possible for a very low annual fee. We even have a swap shop where we can donate items that others can reuse instead of our having to throw these items into the landfill stream.
Municipal governments have tried to place deposit values on bottles to entice people to return them for money but that program does not seem to have been very successful in the USA. A NY Times article reports strong resistance from beverage companies to bottle bills, where you receive money for recycling your bottles and cans. Apparently, the cost to companies would be significant so they have fought against state measures to implement the bottle bills, preferring to count on the conscientiousness of consumers to recycle. The bottle bill issue is complex and varies state-by-state, adding to the complexity of trying to implement a top-down national solution (3).
I am encouraged by all the efforts made on Earth Day to clean up local areas around the globe. I read stories about runners who incorporate picking up trash as part of their run, called plogging (4). Even though my young adult kids make fun of me, I really like the Tik Tok app. I follow a young man, Daniel Toben, whose passion is going around and cleaning up trash from places that needed cleaning up. Because of his good work and inspiration, he and others he has inspired have cleaned up over 200,000 pounds of trash so far (5)!
On the scientific front, companies are making great efforts to turn recycled materials back into useful products like turning old tires into paving material (6) and turning old fibers into insulation for houses (7). I recently read an article about waste being used to produce hydrogen that we can use to power our future hydrogen-based cars (8).
I think the ultimate solution is to design and produce all packaging and products with a cradle-to-grave philosophy. Every component needs to be biodegradable. If that’s not feasible, then every component needs to at least be 100 percent recyclable.
I have seen several initiatives to make packaging edible (9). Other breakthroughs design the packaging out of biodegradable material instead of recyclable plastics, such as the ooho bottle (10). I use compostable bags from my local grocery store's vegetable and meat aisle and then biodegrade them in my compost. Tomatoes and other veggies are being packaged on a compostable tray, again going to my compost. So, what is keeping us from expanding and delivering a higher percentage of products in compostable packaging? I believe that part of the problem is economics and another part is social.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Wouldn't it be great if every person could go into outer space like the dragon crew and get that view of the Earth to put it all into perspective? I was lucky enough to attend a presentation by astronaut Leland Melvin who spoke passionately about his journey to outer space and how it impacted his perspective about our planet (11). We are ONE planet. The planet needs to think like one holistic society. Each person is one very small but important part of the planet.
Countries need to devise a method for all people to be able to afford and live a more sustainable life. When I studied landscape architecture in the 1990s, we were encouraged to think about the sustainability of our landscape designs, which often included houses and landscape materials. Our challenge is to figure out how to get the average person to want to live a sustainable lifestyle that is easy to achieve and affordable.
If we can think more like the characters from the Star Trek TV series where everyone needs to work together and treat each person's life as something of value, that would foster an environment where people feel more important because each person is needed. Each person is an important contributor to the final result of the health of our planet. For all the generations to come, I hope we do better.
(1) NoPlasticOceans.com. http://noplasticoceans.com/how-many-animals-die-from-plastic/
(2) The National Wildlife Foundation. https://www.nwf.org/Home/Magazines/National-Wildlife/2019/June-July/Conservation/Ocean-Plastic
(5) Daniel Toben. theearthstewards.com
(6) Northeast Recycling Council. Link.
(7) FABSCRAP. https://fabscrap.org/about
(10) ooho. https://www.notpla.com/
(11) Leland Melvin. https://www.lelandmelvin.com/