Saturday, June 7, 2008

There is no away, only a waste

The society I live in doesn't just waste- it fosters a culture of wastefulness; it encourages waste; and it profits off of waste-at least in the short term.  As for the long term, there isn't much concern for it when it comes to our habits with waste.  Consumer culture, from an economist's point of view, is much better off with waste in the picture.  And from the consumer's perspective, waste is out of sight and out of mind. 

The ability to profit off of waste is made possible by the concepts of planned and perceived obsolescence. Planned obsolescence is when something is produced in such a way that it will fall apart and need to be replaced for some functional reason. There is a careful balance of being well enough made that the consumer still trusts the producer to buy the same product again, but poorly enough that they feel the need to replace the original product altogether.  Kitchen disposables are an example, but this category has grown to include more and more types of products.  A lot of new clothes are made now to last just long enough to get you through a season, and by the time the style is out of fashion, the clothes have also started to fall apart. (Think H&M, a popular clothing store with essentially disposable clothes.) 

The style factor is what's known as perceived obsolescence.  Items that are in perfectly good condition might be considered garbage simply because they have gone out of fashion.  This allows producers to target the same consumers with new 'needs' constantly and indefinitely.  Clothes aren't the only thing that go in and out of fashion, though.  Cars, furniture, electronics, even houses go through phases of popular design changes, and consumers are encouraged to keep up with the ever-changing standards of what is 'in.'  

As long as every consumer is either forced by function or encouraged by form to shop more, the economy has little incentive to shift its habits away from this culture of wastefulness. What's worse, consumers are so far removed from the waste they produce that it is rarely even an after thought.  While proper waste management is an important aspect of the solution needed here, true sustainability calls for a shift in the world's mindset towards waste. 

From the producer's perspective, this means waste=food.  I don't mean eat shit, I mean recycle and reuse contents of old items to make new and improved items. It's been proven by many pioneers of industry (Ray Anderson of Interface, Inc. is one such hero), but it hasn't caught on by the mainstream just yet. I am optimistic that eventually it will be widely understood that this model of production is the only way humanity can sustain itself as we face new limits of nonrenewable resources. 

From the consumer's perspective, this means getting to know your waste, and changing your relationship with it.  Find out what happens to your trash after the garbage man takes it from your curb.  Find out what waste is caused by your consumption upstream from you, in the production, packaging and marketing process of the items you buy. Go visit your local landfill to see what "away" really looks like.  

The most fundamental way you can change your relationship with waste is to stop thinking of it as going "away."  Incinerated garbage produces toxic air pollution.  Landfill garbage piles up eventually, (look what happened to Naples, Italy) and puts chemicals into the ground and water. Toxic chemicals in my drinking water is not what I have in mind when I say waste equals food.  

Simply put, there is no away.   Our language about garbage should reflect this fact.  Rather than saying "I am throwing it away" imagine if we instead said "I am wasting it."  This shift in language habits would have a great impact on how we think about our trash, and eventually, how we act with trash.  A better awareness of the consequences of consumption and waste opens the door to new actions. Consumers have the ability (and the responsibility) to choose higher quality, longer lasting products, and products that follow the model of waste=food.  

If you'd like to learn more about this, I'd recommend the book Cradle to Cradle- check it out in my recommended reading list on the right.  

Another nice recap of this concept of closing the loop of waste and production is the video The Story of Stuff

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