In an age of microwaved meals in minutes, planned obsolescence, and cheap plastic packaging, we are rapidly using up resources, only to throw away a significant portion of the products we buy. Our landfills are overflowing with things that will likely be intact long after humans are gone from the planet, killed off perhaps by the very toxic substances we so cavalierly dump there. There are solutions to the problems our waste causes. The big question is, do we have the will to implement those solutions?
Recycling on a larger scale would be a good start. Reusable dairy and soda bottles, so common just a few decades ago, have been replaced with disposable containers made from byproducts of the petroleum industry. Environmental damage caused by that industry aside, our landfills and oceans are being cluttered by tonnes beyond count of these containers and other debris every year. Since the debris is for the most part non-biodegradable, areas such as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch increase exponentially in mass, year after year, threatening marine animals and birds that mistake the debris for food at their peril. Since recycling programs have achieved modest public participation levels at best, it might be about time to reinstitute reusable glass containers and charge consumers a deposit to encourage them to return rather than discard the containers.
Planned obsolescence equals planned waste. Television on the blink after a few years? Just take it to the landfill, toxic chemicals, heavy metals and all, because even if it could be repaired, it would cost more than buying a new one. And if your car malfunctions, forget about repairing even a major component; the standard practice is to replace the malfunctioning part, often including such major assemblies as the engine or transmission. In the latter case, many modern transmissions are classified as cassette assemblies, for which even disassembly is impossible without destroying the entire component and writing it off as scrap, very little of which can be reclaimed. It is therefore no wonder that many car owners are quick to trade in their cars when they start experiencing problems, rather than hanging onto them and ultimately being stuck with a non-operational piece of scrap. There are, of course, a small percentage of owners who opt for older cars that are easier (or, for that matter, possible) to repair. There is even a tiny movement devoted to bangernomics, which is the commitment to keeping older cars of questionable reliability on the road, at the lowest possible cost. At this point in time, this group’s greatest impact has likely been a modest upsurge in the duct tape and baling wire industries. Perhaps when the automobile salvage yards start occupying more space than golf courses, bangernomics will inspire broader interest.
Take all you want, but eat all you take. This admonition has been drummed into military men and women at least since the beginning of the twentieth century, and many a recruit has found him or herself a student of “extra military instruction” upon discarding a plate load of uneaten food. Military veterans can chuckle at the mere quoting of the phrase, but they – and the rest of us – would do well to take the admonition to heart and practice it in our day-to-day lives. At present, food waste in the EU amounts to roughly 22 million tonnes per year, and the UK has the distinction of being at the top of the food wasters’ list. Individuals can reduce this considerably by purchasing and cooking only what they can realistically expect to eat before it spoils. On the legislative front, laws such as those enacted in France can make a significant dent in the amount of good food that is wasted every year. Such laws force distributors and retailers to donate still-edible food to charities or sell it to animal feed producers, rather than discarding it. Not only could they significantly reduce waste, they could also be an important element in the fight against world hunger.
As it turns out, simple, common sense initiatives, on both the individual and global level, can reduce the outlandish amount of waste our modern society generates. Not only can such initiatives help to avert the environmental damage caused by the narrow thinking that drives much of modern industry and business, they can also alleviate the suffering of millions of people around the world, and perhaps even halt the decimation of animal populations, both on land and in our oceans. And when business and industry get on board by making commitments to eliminate waste, they will likely see their own profitability increase as a result. That is clearly a win-win situation.