“Aside from fleeting encounters – such as a glimpse of a collection truck trundling down a neighborhood street – many people have only a vague sense of where their discards go.”
~ Heather Rogers, in her novel “Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage” (2006)
Rodgers uses this quote as an introductory sentence of Chapter I: The “Waste Stream.” The United States is one of the largest producers of trash worldwide. This rate escalated with the rise in population and is correlated with dramatic changes in consumerism during the Industrial Revolution and in the decades following World War II.
An end brings a new beginning…
The end of World War II heralded and marked the beginning of a pervasive consumptive culture and economy that persists of the present day. That consumptive economy and its associated throwaway mindset bred off the newfound availability of consumers to cheap, disposable goods. This became especially significant for people of middle and lower socioeconomic statuses. Automobiles and the emerging interstate highway system served as the accessibility factor for consumers, especially those residing in the developing suburbs, to goods.
Trash generation can be considered a hallmark of the American culture. Like eating fast food, hauling trash curbside or to a dumpster has become such a mundane activity for homeowners, renters, and businesses alike. In a relatively short time span, cans and dumpsters transition from full (maybe overfilling) to empty, and the trash generation cycle resumes. Simply stated, people are disconnected with the ultimate fate of their trash.
This disconnect is due to ignorance, an attitude, or both. Ignorance stems from a lack of knowledge and understanding. The attitude stems from the substitutability and replaceability of goods and the “out-of-sight, out-of-mind” and “it doesn’t affect me” mentalities. More specifically, ignorance is perhaps due to residency and/or employment in an area with an absence of waste management facilities like landfills, incinerators, composting plants, transfer stations, recycling centers, and waste-to-energy plants. When people don’t live, commute, study, or work near one or more of these facilities, their sense and awareness of trash disposal becomes significantly diminished. In contrast, people who do live, commute, study, or work near one or more of these facilities are more likely to have a heightened sense and awareness of trash disposal and its environmental and social ramifications. Another factor at play is the lack of education in general about waste sources, generation, collection, and disposal in the family, primary schools, secondary schools, institutions of higher education, and workplaces.
Trash disposal, a cornerstone of modern society, impacts everybody. In some communities, the environmental and social ramifications are more direct and visible while in others they are diffuse and less visible. Waste ultimately ends up in landfills, incinerators, recycling centers, waste-to-energy plants, or any place where it dumped illegally. As trash generation and disposal remains a permanent necessity, we must continue advocacy and legislative efforts to push for sustainable waste management and strengthen those currently employed. This will entail sustainable materials management of goods and products from resource extraction to end-of-life recovery.
~by Angelo Teachout
photo credit of Interstate: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:95-to_NewYork.JPG (License)
photo credit of automobile: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Vw_passat_b1_v_sst.jpg (License)
photo credit of recycling symbol: http://maxpixel.freegreatpicture.com/Earth-Green-Recycle-Environment-Ecology-29227 (License)