Trash Talking

For our household, soccer is a weekend mainstay.  As typical weekends go, this one was no different, aside from enjoying the gorgeous Fall colors peaking here in southern Maryland.  After my older daughter’s game, on our way home, we stopped by the local Caltort for a quick-lunch.  Sitting there with Ragan and her friend, I was struck by the sizable amount of rubbish we generated in just one meal at a cost of $32.58.   It was one of those moments where the conscience breathes life into the subconscious and the habitual.  

I recall the same feeling earlier this Spring, when, in a fit of spring cleaning, my wife and I purged dozens of those horrendous plastic toys our girls had accumulated over the years from visits to McDonald’s and other fast food chains.   And this weekend, I had that same feeling.   Embarrassed may be the wrong adjective, but acutely mindful of the waste and excess I was.   But what could I have done differently, other than opting to pass by and pass up this fast meal?   Surely a meal at home would have generated less waste, but not much.   Sadly, the spokes of society have become so dependent upon packaging for marketing, convenience, and sanitation, and yet we don’t fully appreciate what this means.

As irony would have it, I was perusing last evening the latest issue of Nature, and lo and behold, there was an article titled “Waste Production Must Peak This Century.”  And it made me reflect even more upon this weekend’s momentary pause.  As the world’s population continues to develop and become more urbanized, solid waste production is expected to peak in 2100.   According to the authors,

Solid waste is mostly an urban phenomenon.  In rural communities there are fewer packaged products, less food waste and less manufacturing . . . As a country becomes richer, the composition of its waste changes.  With more money comes more packaging, imports, electronic waste and broken toys and appliances.

The authors go on to make some predictions:

Using “business-as-usual” projections, we predict that , by 2100, solid-waste generation rates will exceed 11 million tons per day – more than three times today’s rate.

Some would argue that the growing trash problem really isn’t a problem at all since landfill capacity is plentiful for centuries to come.  And, in fact, they would be correct on that front.  However, the types of solid waste and nature of trash being generated continue to create some real challenges on other fronts.  And while the production of a virulent form of the greenhouse gas, methane, is a byproduct of the trash business, EPA’s efforts, “Methane to Markets”, run by my former classmate and friend, Victoria Ludwig, is making a big difference in minimizing the harmful environmental effects from landfill methane gases.  However, the environmental impacts (to air and water) and energy costs in terms of collecting, transporting, and incinerating trash are not insignificant.  As well, the increasing problem associated with plastic pollution littering our highways and oceans not only offends our aesthetic sensibilities, but threatens the quality of our waters and the wellbeing of wildlife and sea creatures exposed to it, as I’ve discussed here and here.  Plastic bags, for example, are expected to take 500 to 1000 years to decompose. 

So, what can we do to address the issue of the growing trash heap.  The authors offer up some broad suggestions,

Reducing food and horticultural waste is important – these waste components are expected to remain large.  Construction and demolition also contribute a large fraction by mass to the waste stream; therefore, building strategies that maximize the use of existing materials in new construction would yield significant results. 

The planet is already straining from the impacts of today’s waste, and we are on a path to more than triple quantities.  Through a move towards stable or declining populations, denser and better-managed cities consuming fewer resources, and greater equity and use of technology, we can bring peak waste forward and down.  The environmental, economic and social benefits would be enormous.

Would welcome to hear from readers on what they are doing to reduce their waste generation.