Talkin' Trash: Reduce, Reuse, Rejoice Heaps of garbage become piles of possibilities. By Jennifer Hattam
Recycling should be one of the environmental movement's greatest success stories. Hardly anyone had heard of it before the first Earth Day in 1970; now, with nearly 9,000 curbside-pickup programs nationwide, more Americans recycle than vote. Yet more trash per capita is being landfilled, incinerated, or littered than back then. What gives?
Photographer Chris Jordan captured a discarded cash machine and other scrap metal slated for shredding in his E-Bank, Tacoma 2004.
The simple answer is that we buy too much: too much food we don't eat, too many clothes we hardly wear, too many quickly obsolete electronic gadgets, and way too much packaging (almost a third of the average city's trash). Over the past three decades, the amount of garbage we generate has increased by 87 percent, about twice as fast as our population. Recycling is making a difference, but the percentage of household trash that goes into those plastic bins has stagnated since the late 1990s. Boosting it significantly requires creating new markets for recycled materials, increasing public education, and updating collection programs to accommodate the latest products and on-the-go lifestyles.
Fixing recycling is part of the solution (see "Recycling Resurrected,"), but changing people's attitudes about trash is just as important. When so-called garbage is burned or buried, it becomes an environmental and public-health liability. When it's recycled, it yields new products, profits, and jobs. But that's not the only way to make trash valuable. The other is to make it fun. Thrifty "Freecyclers" around the world have turned trash into a community resource by using e-mail networks to find homes for used and surplus goods—from furniture to food, children's clothes to building materials (see "Free-for-All,"). Hardier scavengers uncover similar items at the source (see "Down in the Dumpster,"). And creative types clamor to be accepted into the San Francisco City Dump's model "artist in residence" program, where they gain 24-hour access to a mountain of raw materials ("Think Outside the Bin,").
In New York City, one urban ecologist is practicing creative reuse on a far larger scale: He's turning the trash heaps at Fresh Kills—the world's biggest landfill—into a park by planting native species on top (see "Let a Billion Flowers Bloom,"). Reflecting on his childhood, Wallace Stegner wrote that "the town dump was our poetry and our history." With these innovative efforts to reenvision waste, it can be part of our future too.
What We Throw Away
In just one year, Americans generate 236 million tons of garbage. While about 30 percent of it gets recycled or composted, 164 million tons are tossed away, including:
26,800,000 tons of food
8,550,000 tons of furniture and furnishings
6,330,000 tons of clothing and footwear
5,190,000 tons of glass beer and soda bottles
4,200,000 tons of plastic wrap and bags
3,650,000 tons of junk mail
3,470,000 tons of diapers
3,160,000 tons of office paper
3,070,000 tons of tires
2,820,000 tons of carpets and rugs
2,230,000 tons of newspapers
2,060,000 tons of appliances
1,520,000 tons of magazines
1,170,000 tons of wine and liquor bottles
970,000 tons of paper plates and cups
840,000 tons of books
830,000 tons of beer and soda cans
780,000 tons of towels, sheets, and pillowcases
540,000 tons of telephone directories
450,000 tons of milk cartons
160,000 tons of lead-acid (car) batteries
Photo:Courtesy of Paul Kopeikin Gallery and Yossi Milo Gallery