United State of Waste
We are surrounded by our waste - at least, our future waste. Even if we pride ourselves on recycling our soda cans or finishing the remains of our Chinese food to avoid throwing it out, we generate it in ever-increasing numbers.
New York City residents produce about 12,000 tonnes of waste each day - that's the rough equivalent of 3000 elephants - and we recycle only about 17% of it. The United States as whole generates more than 50% of the world's solid waste. And the waste we produce keeps getting more toxic and less biodegradable.
So where does it go?
Once that garbage is sent down the chute, or finally stops smelling up the sidewalk on a hot July day, there are a limited number of places the waste can go. It can go to a landfill, where, if unregulated, the waste decomposes, produces methane, and can potentially leach toxic chemicals into the ground and into neighborhoods. The garbage can be sent to incinerators or "Waste 2 Energy" plants. While technology has vastly improved since the traditional 'just burn it' approach, it is impossible for the incinerators to fully capture all the smoke, ash, and chemicals released.
Members of the Overbrook grantee network Gaia (the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives) have made a movie called "Trashed" - viewable here - which highlights the potential dangers of these kinds of incinerators. In another, it highlights how oceans are now home to vast plastic particle soups; so contaminated that marine life is having trouble reproducing.
So what can we do?
We've all heard a hundred ways to improve the situation: bring your own bag to the supermarket. Reuse glass containers. Buy vintage! While individual actions do go a long way, it is obvious that more must be done, and on a larger-scale. For example, to reduce the waste that we do produce, San Francisco has pioneered a "Zero Waste" campaign where almost nothing is sent to either landfills or incinerators. We also need increased transparency by businesses and awareness by consumers of the chemical compounds that coat most products - and the effects they can have on our bodies. And besides innovative re-imaginings for packaging - like this use of fungus, we also need to re-package the way industry is responsible for and deals with its waste - a challenge Overbrook grantee the Product Stewardship Institute is currently tacking.
And knowing that one day soon: there will be nowhere to waste-away: it will come back home to us.