The Story of Stuff: How Our Obsession with Stuff is Trashing the Planet, Our Communities, and our Health—and a Vision for Change - Annie Leonard (2010)

Chapter 5. DISPOSAL

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A funny thing happens to most of our Stuff almost immediately after we buy it. What we paid for in the store and brought home was a treasure, a prize—a shiny toy, a stylish T-shirt, the latest model cell phone or laptop or camera. But once it belongs to us and takes up space inside our home, the Stuff starts losing value. “Our houses are basically garbage processing centers,” comedian Jerry Seinfeld riffed during a 2008 tour.1 As soon as Stuff enters our homes, it begins the transformation. We get something and it starts out prominently displayed, then gets moved into a cupboard or onto a shelf, then stuffed in a closet, then thrown in a box in the garage and held there until it becomes garbage. The words “garage” and “garbage” must be related, Seinfeld points out, because pretty much everything that enters the first becomes the second.

But in all seriousness, economists have a real term for this transformation: “depreciation.” Now, it’s true that not every last thing we can buy depreciates: certain luxury items like fine art, antiques and collectibles, jewelry and well-crafted rugs are bought by the small percentage of people who can afford them with the expectation that these things will increase in value over time. But all the ordinary things that fill up our homes and our lives—this Stuff loses value like an inflatable PVC pool float loses air.

For example, it’s commonly said that your car loses more of its value the day you drive it off the lot than on any other day (barring a day of catastrophic collision). In that very instant, just minutes from the moment in which you bought it, your car is worth about 10 percent less than the price you paid2—even though it’s still got that new car smell (which is often the toxic additives in the PVC off-gassing, may I remind you) and there’s not a scratch on it!

The words “prize,” “praise,” “price,” “appreciate,” and “depreciate” are all related—they come from the same Latin root word pretium, meaning “value.” So how and why exactly does a shiny new thing go from a prize that we praise, appreciate, and pay a high price for to something that suddenly and steadily depreciates in value? As comedian George Carlin put it, “Have you noticed that their stuff is shit and your shit is stuff?”3 The value or lack of value that we assign to things is really arbitrary.

Accountants use complex calculations to determine how the value of objects (or money, or business entities, or even whole countries) is reduced over time, usually related to usage, wear and tear, decay, technological obsolescence, inadequacy, or perceived inadequacy caused by shifting fashions. But I think there’s more going on here than what accountants tell us things ought to be worth—it’s the same system-wide message we looked at last chapter that influences our opinions about our Stuff. This message tells us our Stuff is no longer good enough for us and fuels our desire for more. And when our Stuff is no longer good enough, it’s like a magic wand is waved over it: Poof! Our Stuff is transformed into waste.

There’s an exercise I often do with kids when I’m speaking at a school. I take an empty soda can and I set it on a desk. “Can someone tell me what this is?” I ask them. “It’s a can!” they always yell out. Then I hold up a little trash bin. “What about this?” “That’s trash,” they say. I show them what’s inside the bin: an empty soda can. In the bin, it’s trash. I take it out and place it next to the first one. “What about now?” “It’s a can.” The point, of course, is that there’s no difference between the can on the desk and the can in the bin. Waste is defined by where something is, not what it is. It’s about context, not content.

This is the same argument made by Dr. Paul Connett, a chemistry professor at St. Lawrence University, whose fascination with waste may even surpass my own. Over the last twenty-five years, Connett has given more than 1,200 presentations on waste to students, urban planners, community residents, policy makers, and anyone else who will listen.4 In his presentations, Connett sometimes picks up a garbage can and pulls out its contents for people to consider. He holds up paper, a glass bottle, a pen out of ink, a plastic bag, maybe a banana peel, and asks that each of them be identified. “Is anything in here called waste? No—these are all resources in the wrong place. ‘Waste’ is a verb, not a noun. Waste is what we do by mixing them together... Separated, they are resources; mixed together, we waste them.”

I agree with Connett in all cases except for those items designed so poorly or made from ingredients so toxic that they should never have been produced, sold, or bought in the first place, like a PVC shower curtain or a PVC anything. Or a disposable plug-in air freshener. Or a flushable single-use toilet bowl brush. Or a Hummer private vehicle. Or those rigid plastic cases that hold new electronic gadgets hostage inside. Or just about anything in the SkyMall catalog. In my opinion (and actually, in Connett’s as well) all these things are a waste—of materials, of energy, and of the human ingenuity spent designing and marketing this junk instead of spent figuring out how to meet people’s actual needs in healthy ways.

It’s in communities that own the least amount of Stuff that you really see just how subjective that line is between waste and resources. I learned of this subjectivity especially clearly in South Asia, where I spent three years in the mid-1990s. There, broken, outdated, or empty objects were and are understood as potentially useful materials rather than items destined for a trash can. You’ve heard that expression “Necessity is the mother of all invention”? How about: Poverty is the mother of recognition of trash as containing valuable resources? Not so catchy, I know, but it really is true.

In Dhaka, Bangladesh, I lived in a house with a half-dozen Bangladeshis. Having a westerner live with them was a novelty, and they had fixed up a clean and sparsely furnished bedroom especially nicely for my arrival. As I unpacked my Stuff (some clothes and personal “care” products like my Pantene Pro-V—this was pre-GoodGuide, and I didn’t know about the nasty chemical ingredients), I noticed there was no garbage can in my room. So on my first trip to the market, I bought a simple little trash can. But soon I discovered that the “away” of my throwing things away had a different meaning than back in the States. What I threw into the trash resurfaced around the neighborhood, put back to use. I noticed my light blue flowered deodorant container on a neighbor’s living room shelf, now a vase filled with flowers. I saw my empty Pantene conditioner bottle again in the form of a toy: someone had stuck small rods through it and attached wheels, and a neighbor boy pulled it around on a string as a toy car.

Back in the United States (and in other wasteful, wealthy countries) we need to overcome the social stigma of reuse. What if “secondhand,” “used” or “preowned” signified an attractive, desirable option for everyone, rather than a poverty-driven necessity? Throughout our country’s history, when times have been tough—either on the individual or national level—our response has been to waste less, share more, and hold on to our Stuff longer. The economic downturn that began in 2008 again inspired many to rethink frugality and thrift. Waste haulers across the country are reporting a decrease in waste put out at the curb as well as a change in content: less packaging and fewer single-use disposable items as people are buying less overall and switching to money-saving and waste-reducing alternatives.5 Some recyclers are noticing an increase in bulk food containers as families are opting to stay home and cook real food, rather than eat out or buy preprocessed food.6

However, there’s a whole industry known as “waste management” that relies on a rigid understanding of waste. And since they’re making a bundle on it, to the tune of $50 billion a year,7 they’d prefer not to have us questioning their definition. To them, waste is unquestionably waste, and the more that’s produced for them to “manage,” the merrier they are.

This industry divides waste into several different categories based on the source of the waste, what it’s made of, and how it needs to be handled. The main categories are: industrial waste, municipal waste, and construction and demolition waste. There’s also medical waste and electronic waste, which are often handled separately because of specific hazardous components in each. Here’s a rundown on these categories:

Industrial Waste

Industrial waste includes all the leftovers from the extraction and production processes I described in previous chapters—the result of making everything from paper, steel, and plastics, to clothes, glassware, ceramics, electronics, and processed food, to pharmaceuticals and pesticides. It is generated by mines, factories, sweatshops, paper mills—“from fabricating, synthesizing, modeling, molding, extruding, welding, forging, distilling, purifying, refining, and otherwise concocting the finished and semifinished materials of our manufactured world,” says the sustainable business guru and author Joel Makower.8 The hundreds of hazardous materials used in those processes—cleaners and solvents, paints and inks, and pesticides and chemical additives—are in there too. Ray Anderson, the CEO of the carpet manufacturer Interface and a sustainable business pioneer, says that a full 97 percent of all the energy and material that goes into manufacturing products is wasted: “We are operating an industrial system that is, in fact, first and foremost a waste-making machine.”9

Industries (everything from manufacturers of paper, steel, glass, and concrete to food processing, textiles, plastics, and chemical manufacturing, to water treatment) do waste prolifically, generating 7.6 billion tons a year, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency,10 but as much as 13 billion tons according to other sources!11 And both these figures omit agricultural waste, which runs in the additional billions of tons, as well as greenhouse gas emissions and air and water pollution, which could very reasonably be counted as well.12 Yet because the industrial waste is created and disposed of where most of us never see it (unless we work in the industry or have the misfortune of living alongside a factory or disposal site), it’s easy to forget it exists. Out of sight, off-site, out of mind.

To help bring this issue to light, Joel Makower has charted our Gross National Trash:

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Source: J. Makower, 2009. Note: “Special waste” was defined under the U.S. Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976 and refers to waste from mining, fuel production, and metals processing. In other words, it’s more industrial waste.

As Makower writes:

It’s only a matter of time before the story of Gross National Trash gets told and the public recognizes that for every pound of trash that ends up in municipal landfills, at least 40 more pounds are created upstream by industrial processes—and that a lot of this waste is far more dangerous to environmental and human health than our newspapers and grass clippings.* At that point, the locus of concern could shift away from beverage containers, grocery bags, and the other mundane leftovers of daily life to what happens behind the scenes—the production, crating, storing, and shipping of the goods we buy and use.13

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While still the exception, many industries are getting serious about reducing their waste, showing others that doing so is both possible and economical. Some have done so because they realize that waste is made of materials they paid good money for and there are bigger profits to be made, both in buying less replacement material and in paying less for waste disposal. Some are reducing their waste because their directors honestly care about the planet. Some are doing it because it’s good PR. And on some level, it’s not important which motivation fuels them as long as the result is a serious reduction in waste and environmental impact. Of course, still others are just pretending to reduce their waste or are hyping marginal reductions to make their businesses look better—a practice called greenwashing. This false advertising is a huge problem. It undermines the credibility of those in the business world who are making good-faith efforts, and it diverts attention and delays governmental action to force higher standards across the board, which is still the most effective way to get businesses to address their massive environmental impact.

My hero in industrial waste reduction is the previously mentioned CEO of Interface, Ray Anderson. Interface is the largest producer of commercial floor covering in the world, supplying about 40 percent of all the floor tiles used in commercial buildings globally.14 In 1994, Anderson had what he himself calls a revelation, when he realized that the planet was in deep trouble—not to mention his grandchildren—and that his beloved company was contributing to the problem. Anderson now believes that virgin materials must be switched for recycled materials; that the linear system of “take-make-waste” must shift to a cyclical “closed-loop” process (in which materials are infinitely reused or repurposed so that waste is eliminated); that power from fossil fuels must be replaced by renewable energy; that wasteful processes must become waste free; and that labor productivity must be replaced by resource productivity.15 That right there is the next industrial revolution—at least the materials part of it—in a nutshell.

Anderson’s complete overhaul of Interface proved that the shift of a billion-dollar petroleum-based industry toward environmental sustainability is feasible: since the adoption of its zero-impact goals in 1995, the firm’s use of fossil fuels and water, its greenhouse gas emissions, and waste generation has fallen drastically, while sales have increased by two-thirds and profits have doubled. Interface has diverted 148 million pounds (74,000 tons) of used carpets away from landfills, while more than 25 percent of its materials are renewable and recycled, a ratio Anderson says is growing rapidly. The $400 million Interface saved in costs avoided through the pursuit of zero waste has paid for all the costs of transforming its practices and facilities.16 Anderson notes that the company’s “products are the best they have ever been, because sustainable design has provided an unexpected wellspring of innovation, people are galvanized around a shared higher purpose, better people are applying, the best people are staying and working with a purpose, [and] the goodwill in the marketplace generated by our focus on sustainability far exceeds that which any amount of advertising or marketing expenditure could have generated.” The Interface example, he says, clearly “dispels the myth of the false choice between the environment and the economy... if we, a petro-intensive company, can do it, anybody can. And if anybody can, it follows that everybody can.”17

Green business experts often note that there are some potential silver linings to the huge scale of many companies today. For one thing, if a company with multiple suppliers all over the world demands greener standards—for example by banning packaging made of PVC—there can be a ripple effect throughout its supply chain, spreading the positive change as suppliers hustle to comply with the new requirements. Green business advocates also point out that bigger companies can leverage their economies of scale to finance environmental improvements as Nike, Whole Foods, and even Wal-Mart have done. What doesn’t get addressed by these arguments, though, is that the foundation of those businesses is still about making and selling more Stuff—which relies on the trashing of existing Stuff to make room for it.

So what excites me most about Interface is how they’re experimenting with shifting that fundamental paradigm that sees business’s role only as producing and selling ever more Stuff. Listen up, business-minded folks, because this is a hugely important innovation.

Interface was built on a conventional retail model: customers buy carpet. When it wears out, they pull it up, chuck it (so it ends up in the landfill or incinerator), and come buy new carpet. Ray Anderson was concerned that so much used and discarded carpet was going to the landfill each year. He also realized that most wear and tear generally only happened on about 20 percent of a carpeted area, yet the whole thing was being ripped out and thrown away. He figured out two things: (1) if carpets were designed to be modular (made of interchangeable tiles), just the worn part could be replaced; and (2) commercial carpet users only wanted the services provided by a carpet (e.g., noise reduction or attractive interior spaces) but actually had no need to own the floor covering outright. Thus, his business started selling carpet “tiles” and experimenting with leasing carpet, in the same way the copier company owns the copy machine and provides service to users who simply lease the machines.18

In 1995, Interface developed the Evergreen Lease program, which aimed to sell a floor covering service rather than an actual carpet. Rather than make a costly onetime purchase of carpet, businesses could pay a monthly lease fee for the service of having a floor covering, complete with the repairs and upkeep needed. And when the carpeting really was at the end of its life, the office didn’t have to figure out what to do with a few tons of spent carpet—Interface would come reclaim and recycle it, closing the loop.19

It’s a brilliant idea. It has huge environmental and economic advantages. This is the kind of change that moves from the realm of tinkering to transformation. But it hasn’t caught on (yet). It turns out that there’s a whole slew of accounting procedures and tax laws, institutional barriers, and subsides for virgin material (especially oil) that make it really hard to apply the leasing model. But Anderson isn’t giving up on the idea. He is confident that its time will come, as the price of oil and other virgin materials increases.20

Imagine if Wal-Mart owned the DVD player that you leased from them. After all, we don’t need to actually own a DVD player; we just want to be able to watch DVDs. When the player broke, Wal-Mart would take it back to repair it. They would have a financial incentive to design products to be modular, repairable, and upgradable rather than 100 percent disposable. Imagine how this shift would impact the contents of the trash that we set out on the curb every week.

Municipal Solid Waste (MSW)

In today’s world, especially in the United States, we throw a ton of Stuff away. Out it goes—when we don’t know how to repair it, when we want to make room for new Stuff, or because we’re sick of the old Stuff. Sometimes we throw something out thinking it will be easier to replace later than to store it until we need it again. Sometimes we even consider throwing things away a cathartic activity and congratulate ourselves on a productive day of getting Stuff out of the house.

Everything we commonly think of as garbage—from packaging and yard waste to broken Stuff, rotten food, or recyclables; everything we put in the bins that we set out on the curb—collectively makes up what’s known as the municipal solid waste stream, or MSW. All those nasty ingredients we examined in chapter 2 on production that end up in consumer goods, from mercury and lead to flame retardants and pesticides, and more than eighty thousand other chemicals—they’re in this stream now, too.

Some people in the recycling and reuse industry point out that “municipal solid waste” is a term that has outlived its usefulness and is actually an obstacle to getting people to think differently about the valuable materials they throw away. Dan Knapp, co-founder of Urban Ore, the premier reuse center in Berkeley, California, has long advocated using an alternative concept: “MSD,” or “municipal supply of discards.” Knapp explains that MSD “doesn’t carry the negative connotation of worthless crap that ‘waste’ does.”21 I like Knapp’s idea; just because someone has discarded something doesn’t mean it has no value. Nonetheless, I have used “MSW” here, since I draw largely on U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and industry data, which still uses that term.

In 1960, we made 88 million tons of MSW in the United States— that’s 2.68 pounds per person, per day. In 1980, it had risen to 3.66 pounds each. By 1999, at which time recycling was a household word, we were at 4.55 pounds, just below our current rates.22 According to the EPA, Americans made 254 million tons of municipal solid waste in 2007. That comes out to 4.6 pounds per person per day!23 Compare that to your average Canadian (1.79 pounds per day), Norwegian (2.30), Japanese (2.58), or Australian (2.70). In China, the number is just 0.70 pounds per day.24

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Source: Based on data from The UN Statistics Division, Statistics Canada, and Index Mundi. See note 24 for this chapter.

So what exactly is in our municipal waste? In the United States, here’s what the breakdown looks like:

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Source: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 2007.

According to the EPA, nearly three-quarters of the weight of municipal solid waste is products—things that were designed, produced (usually from a combination of materials), and sold—including containers and packaging, nondurable goods (generally defined as having an intended lifetime of less than three years), and durable goods.25 This percentage of products in the mix is the most important shift, historically speaking, in garbage. One hundred years ago, even sixty years ago, most municipal waste took the form of coal ashes (from heating and cooking) and food scraps. In fact, the number of products in the MSW stream has increased more than tenfold over the course of the twentieth century, from 92 to 1,242 pounds of product waste per person per year.26

The explosion of manufactured products in the trash will hardly come as a surprise to most people who live in the United States. Consumer goods are so plentiful and relatively cheap that it honestly is easier and cheaper just to replace Stuff than to repair it. We all have dozens of examples of this fact. When my VCR (remember those?) broke, it cost $50 just to have a repair guy look at it, while a new one that played DVDs as well only cost $39. The zipper on my fleece jacket broke. It cost $35 to have a new one sewn in, for which I could have easily bought a replacement jacket. The earphones for the little $4.99 radio I got at RadioShack broke. Big surprise, eh? No problem, I thought. I can just replace them with something from my drawer of parts salvaged from other broken electronics. No such luck. The whole radio was in one piece, connected without screws or snaps, so if any one part broke—the dial, the case, even the ear bud—it couldn’t be replaced or repaired. According to Consumer Reports, at least a fifth of the appliances (dishwashers, washing machines, gas ranges) sold between 2003 and 2006 broke within three years, while more than a third of those refrigerators with ice machines and dispensers needed service in that amount of time.27

I had to replace my decades-old refrigerator last year and was consoled only by how much more energy efficient its replacement was. But from day one the icemaker didn’t work. The repair guy came out three separate times to deal with it in the first ninety days, after which the warranty ran out and he stopped coming. By the third visit, we had gotten to know each other a bit. He shared with me his frustration at the electronic gadgetry that is a mainstay in today’s fridges now—some even have flat-screen televisions built into the door. He sighed: “I am a refrigerator repairman, not a computer technician, certainly not a television repairman.” I asked him how long this fridge would last, hoping I’d at least see my fourth grader through college before having to replace it again. “They used to last twenty, thirty years,” he said, “but nowadays you’re lucky to get five out of them.” I asked him why that was. He pulled his head out of the freezer, paused, looked at me, and said, “Ya know, it’s funny. It’s kinda like they want you to buy a new one faster.”

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That’s the norm in the United States today. Since not many people are involved in making this Stuff anymore, few people know how to repair any of it, even the repair guys! The combination of our inability to repair things plus the ease of replacing them makes us mistake a lot of perfectly good Stuff for waste. Elsewhere in the world there are definitely places where repair is still the default response. My Bangladeshi friends keep their clothes for a long time and update the cut as fashion dictates, since most of them know how to sew, and there are also inexpensive seamstresses in every neighborhood. When furniture upholstery fades or tears, the fabric—rather than the whole chair or couch—is replaced. All over India, there are small shopkeepers, sometimes just sitting on a blanket on the sidewalk, who expertly repair clothes and shoes and electronics. In India, I ripped a pair of blue jeans across the knee. I took them to a tailor whose shop was an elevated cement platform, about one square meter, on a side street in Calcutta. All day he sat there cross-legged, mending people’s clothes and sharing tea with his neighboring shopkeepers and customers. I was amazed when I went to pick up my jeans hours later; he had actually woven the fabric back together, not just patched it. On further trips to India from the United States, I learned to take a whole suitcase of worn shoes, broken cameras, and other electronic gadgets since I knew someone there could repair them. Here in the States, they would have been trash.

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There are signs that repairs will make a comeback in the United States. The economic meltdown in 2008 coincided with the first increase in consumer electronics service centers in fourteen years, and the first increase in appliance service centers since 2002, according to the Professional Service Association, which collects yearly data on appliance and consumer electronics service centers.28 Shoe repair shops are also experiencing a boom after a long decline. During the Great Depression, there were about 120,000 shoe repair shops in the United States. Today there are only 7,00029; however, many of these are reporting a 50 percent increase in business since the economic meltdown started in 2008. In 2009, Rhonda Jensen, owner of Reuter’s shoe repair shop in Topeka, Kansas, reported an increase from about thirty-five repairs each day to fifty. “When the economy gets bad, people get their shoes fixed, so we’re seeing a great influx of people. Maybe rather than throwing that shoe away they get it fixed.”30

Packaging

The largest and perhaps most annoying category of products we’re wasting in the United States is containers and packaging. Maybe you’re even surprised that this Stuff fits under the header of “products,” but it does, because it was designed by someone and produced for this purpose. You may not be going out of your way to buy it (what you generally want is the peanut butter inside the jar, or the MP3 player, not its plastic case, or the shaving foam, not its metal canister), but companies designed and produced it because they thought it would entice us—sometimes overtly, sometimes subliminally—to buy whatever is inside. Of course in the case of some foods or delicate items, packaging plays a role in keeping it fresh or intact, but even then, attracting potential customers is still a primary goal of packaging designers.

In The Waste Makers, Vance Packard cites some marketing psychologists justifying a belt sold inside packaging: “ ‘normally a woman will not be attracted by a belt hanging from a rack... It is limp, unstimulating, and undesirable. To the normal, healthy, energetic woman a hanging belt is not a symbol of virility or quality. It cannot possibly be associated with her man’... On the other hand, ‘a belt that is encased in a psychologically potent package’ has favorable symbolism and ‘is naturally assigned the role of symbolizing respect, affection, and even great love.’”31

Particularly pernicious examples of packaging are the flimsy plastic bags given out by stores in which to carry Stuff home, and single-serving bever age containers. With the former, government regulation is increasing: in San Francisco, Los Angeles, China, and South Africa there are outright bans—at least on the thinnest, least durable bags—and in Ireland, Italy, Belgium, and Taiwan, there’s a tax on plastic bags.32Within six months of the Irish tax on plastic bags in 2002, their use declined by 90 percent. The BBC reported that in the three months after the ban was introduced, shops handed out just more than 23 million plastic bags—about 277 million fewer than normal.33

As for beverage containers, we have a ways to go. Each day in the United States, we use more than 150 billion single-use containers for beverages, plus another 320 million takeout cups.34 Disposable (or “one-way”) beverage bottles are a relatively new phenomenon in this country. For decades, we drank from refillable glass bottles, which were often washed and refilled locally, a process that conserved materials and energy and resulted in jobs. In 1960, one-way containers only accounted for 6 percent of packaged soft drinks in the United States. By 1970, the number had risen to 47 percent. Today less than 1 percent of packaged soft drinks is in refillable bottles.35 Other than in Berkeley, the bubble where I live and where walking around with a disposable plastic water bottle is as shameful as donning a fur coat, use of disposables keeps rising. Industry analysts expect U.S. demand for single-serving beverage containers to keep increasing by 2.4 percent a year, to 272 billion units in 2012.36

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The simple bottle bill has been proven over and over to be a uniquely effective regulatory tool for reducing bottle waste and encouraging refillable bottles and recycling while also conserving raw materials, saving energy, and creating local jobs. Bottle bill laws require a small—usually 5 or 10 cent—deposit per container (beverage bottles or cans, usually), which is repaid to the customer when the empty bottle is returned. Despite massive industry opposition, bottle bills are now in place in eleven states in the United States, plus eight Canadian provinces and a number of other countries (including Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, and Sweden).37 In 2009, Representative Ed Markey of Massachusetts introduced the Bottle Recycling Climate Protection Act of 2009 to Congress. The bill, H.R. 2046, would require a deposit on all beverages in standard containers up to a gallon. Deposits that aren’t collected will fund government programs to reduce greenhouse gas generation.38

Because bottle bills are so effective, every time an attempt is made to introduce or expand a bottle bill, the beverage industries go ballistic opposing it—to the tune of $14 million in campaign contributions aimed at defeating a national bottle bill between 1989 and 1994.39 The opponents argue that deposits are inefficient and old-fashioned, that reusing bottles threatens public health, that deposits simply duplicate what recycling already achieves, and that it constitutes a regressive tax that will hurt local businesses, leading to job losses. Their arguments are bogus. Really, it’s about money: it’s the beverage industries that will bear the costs of collecting and refilling bottles. The Container Recycling Institute, which tracks bottle bill progress, says, “The most outspoken opponents to bottle bills are almost exclusively the big-name beverage producers. The Coca-Cola Company, PepsiCo, Anheuser-Busch, and their bottlers and distributers fight deposit laws at every turn. Retail grocers and liquor storeowners also oppose deposit laws, and in recent years, waste haulers and owners of materials recovery facilities who want the revenue from valuable aluminum cans have joined the opposition.”40 These are the very same companies that boast in their commercials and public relations materials that they support recycling! Sure, they love recycling, as long as there are no bottle bills requiring it.

In 1953, a number of companies involved in making and selling disposable beverage containers created a front group that they maintain to this day, called Keep America Beautiful (KAB). Since the beginning, KAB has worked diligently to ensure that waste was seen as a problem solved by improved individual responsibility, not stricter regulations or bottle bills; it even coined the term “litterbug” to identify the culprit. By spreading slogans like “People start pollution, people can stop it,” KAB effectively shifted attention away from those who design, produce, market, and profit from all those one-way bottles and cans.41 In 1971, KAB created an infamous ad campaign featuring the “crying Indian” (played by actor Iron Eyes Cody, who was, in fact, not a native American at all, but of Italian descent),42 about which writer Ted Williams wrote, “It’s the single most obnoxious commercial ever produced... the ultimate exploitation of Native Americans: First we kicked them off their land, then we trashed it, and now we’ve got them whoring for the trashmakers.”43 More recently, in mid-2009, KAB made an unsuccessful attempt to buy out the National Recycling Coalition (NRC), the largest national coalition of serious recyclers and recycling advocates in the United States. NRC members protested loudly, saying that the KAB “is dominated by contributing commercial interests, most of whom are unwilling or unable to address the systemic changes needed to improve recycling.”44 Among the NRC members’ chief complaints is that KAB resists legislative or regulatory approaches, advocating only for voluntary industry initiatives that clearly are just not working.

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Packaging Done Better

So far, the most serious effort to reduce packaging waste has been undertaken in Germany. In 1991, the German government adopted a packaging ordinance, the foundation of which is the belief that the companies that design, produce, use, and profit from packaging should be held financially responsible for it—an idea known as extended producer responsibility.45 What a concept!

The ordinance requires companies to pay according to both the volume and type of packaging they use, which gives them incentive not just to reduce packaging, but also to use safer materials. A full 72 percent of bottles are required to be refillable!46 To simplify the logistics of meeting the requirements, some companies got together and set up the Duales System Deutschland (DSD). Companies pay DSD based on their packaging use, and the money is used to collect the packaging waste and safely reuse, recycle, or dispose of it. DSD is commonly called the Green Dot program because participating companies put a green dot on their packages, indicating their participation in the program.47 It looks kind of like the yin-yang symbol, which somehow seems fitting.

Prior to the ordinance, packaging waste in Germany was increasing at 2 to 4 percent each year. Then, between 1991 and 1995, their packaging waste decreased by a total of 14 percent, while during the same period packaging waste in the United States increased 13 percent. After the impressive initial reductions, the rate of further reductions slowed. Subsequently the program focused on developing efficient collection, recovery, and recycling industries, enabling recovery rates of between 60 percent and more than 90 percent for glass, paper, cardboard, packaging waste, metals, and biowaste by 2001.48

Germany’s system isn’t perfect. At the beginning, the government had to subsidize it since the infrastructure wasn’t in place to make it work smoothly. Their definition of recycling is also so broad that it is not limited to recycling a material for the same use: the majority of plastics are not mechanically recycled back into plastics but processed into synthetic crude oils and chemicals or used as a reducing agent in steel production. Inexcusably, some burning of packaging waste is allowed under the definition of “recovery” in the ordinance.49 There have been scandals in which piles of Green Dot waste have been found in dumps in developing countries, including by me. Those are all problems, yes. But at least the German government has taken a stand declaring that producers are responsible and is tackling the problem, unlike in the United States, where we’re drowning ever deeper in packaging. The German model inspired the European Union to adopt a Europe-wide directive on packaging and packaging waste in 1994.50 Again, it’s not perfect, but at least the governments are trying something to reduce packaging and are moving in the right direction, albeit slowly. And the progress that has been achieved with both these directives is evidence that the incredible amount of packaging waste in the United States is absolutely not inevitable.

Taking Out the Trash: Whose Job Is It Anyway?

In fact, that solution for packaging waste is the best solution for all forms of product waste. You see, we have a big problem when it comes to our municipal trash. The term “municipal” means that it falls within the jurisdiction of local government. Garbage management first became a function of local government (instead of individuals) between 1910 and 1930, after it became clear that there were enough people concentrated in urban settings that their sewage, rotting food scraps, and the wastes from their animals were becoming a public health hazard; the problem needed a uniform, centralized solution to protect the health and even the lives of residents.51 But today, our local governments are overwhelmed with the scope of the garbage problem. The Product Policy Institute (PPI) notes that local governments (funded by our tax dollars) are essentially “shouldering the burden of cleaning up after producers and consumers of wasteful products... providing welfare for waste.”52

Based on analysis of more than forty years of data on waste disposal, the nonprofit Product Policy Institute concluded that municipalities have only truly been successful at effectively minimizing one kind of waste: yard trimmings! That said, municipal recovery of food scraps (aka composting) was only started a few years ago—and it looks like it will be equally successful.53 However, what municipalities have been overwhelmed by is the rising tide of products, including recyclables. (I’ll go into more depth about the complexities of recycling later in this chapter.)

The recommendation of the Product Policy Institute—with which I strongly agree—is that municipal waste departments handle the kinds of waste they were originally created to handle: biowastes and biodegradable materials. Everything else should fall under extended producer responsibility, or EPR, which means that the company that makes the product or packaging must deal with it (with required preference for recycling or reusing it) at the end of its lifecycle. As PPI states, “The rationale for placing responsibility on producers is that they make design and marketing decisions and therefore have the greatest ability to reduce the environmental impact of their products.”54 Also, let’s not forget—it’s their business: they profit from making and selling all those products. EPR only makes sense, right?

In the absence of extended producer responsibility systems, municipal waste departments—paid for by us, let me remind you once again—are left trying to figure out how to collect, transport, and safely dispose of every product that comes through the system. I constantly meet recycling champions who are dedicated and earnest and who agonize over how to increase recycling rates. But I have to ask: why all this effort to keep cleaning up after corporations that aren’t cleaning up after themselves?

It reminds me of an insight I had about being a mom. One day I was walking around my house in frustration, picking up my kid’s shoes and schoolbooks and musical instruments and art projects that were scattered all over the house. Why did I always have to pick up after her? In a thundering clap of clarity, I realized why: because I am always picking up after her! Holding her accountable may be more work up front but is better for both of us. Similarly, citizens don’t have to be running around picking up after and reinforcing the bad behavior of companies who persist in making poorly designed, excessively packaged toxic junk that breaks too easily and is hard to recycle. If the companies which design and produce this Stuff were held responsible, they’d be making better, longer-lasting, and less-toxic Stuff in the first place. In this scenario, municipalities would be left dealing only with wastes that are compostable and biodegradable. Of course, we still need effective recycling and reuse infrastructure for existing and even future discards; with EPR, the product manufacturers will pay both for this recycling system and for the shift toward more easily recyclable product designs. In this way, EPR is not an alternative to recycling, but an essential complement. With these pieces in places, we’ll have taken a major step toward both corporate accountability and zero waste.

Construction and Demolition Waste (or C&D)

This waste stream is considered a subset of MSW but takes up so much landfill space that it often gets addressed as a separate category. C&D waste includes concrete, wood, gypsum drywall, metal, bricks, glass, plastic, and building components such as doors, windows, old bathtubs, pipes, and more. This is the Stuff you get when you do a remodeling project or tear down an old house. If you have ever done either, you know that the easiest way to get rid of an unwanted wall, room, or entire building is just to demolish it. But smashed up and mixed together, you’ve got a big dusty pile of waste. Separately, what you’ve got are reusable construction materials. The Construction Materials Recycling Association estimates that more than 325 million tons of C&D waste are produced in the United States each year.55 Much of that contains good Stuff that could be recovered and reused, which would reduce not only waste but also the pressure to go cut down more trees and mine more metals.

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Fortunately, increasing costs of and restrictions on landfilling this Stuff, plus a desire to avoid waste and create jobs, have encouraged dozens of new businesses devoted to recovering these valuable resources. While salvaging fireplace mantels, doors, windows, and other parts, especially woodwork and metalwork, from old buildings has been happening as long as buildings have existed, more recently, an entire green industry—called deconstruction—has blossomed. Deconstruction is like construction in reverse; it is the careful dismantling of buildings in a way that recovers the components, rather than simply trashes and clears them. From Berkeley to the Bronx, deconstruction companies are salvaging and reselling components from old buildings, keeping materials out of landfills, avoiding virgin extraction and energy-intensive production, and simultaneously creating good local jobs that can’t be outsourced.

Not far from my home in Berkeley, a pioneer in this arena since 1980, Urban Ore, has been recovering valuable materials from the waste stream and selling them for reuse. I got my bathroom sink, my office desk, a replacement panel for my garage light fixture, and the metal poles that hold up my previously collapsing backyard fence from there—all used, otherwise headed for the dump, and costing a fraction of new ones. Urban Ore favors reuse over recycling because reuse conserves not just the material in an item but also the embedded energy and craft that went into making it. And when they sell a brass faucet or an old Arts and Crafts style door for reuse, they make far more money than they would have if they sold the same piece of metal or wood for its market value for recycling. Across the top of each of sales receipt from Urban Ore is printed “Ending the Age of Waste.”

On the other side of the country, in the South Bronx, a neighborhood plagued by high unemployment, piles of waste materials all over the place, environmental degradation, and devastating rates of asthma, cancer, and other environmentally related diseases, a cooperatively run business called ReBuilders Source was launched in the spring of 2008. They are diverting much of the estimated 2,000 tons of C&D waste that arrive at waste transfer stations in the South Bronx on a daily basis and reselling it at their 18,000-square-foot retail warehouse. Their mission statement proclaims: “We work to create living wage jobs by recycling and reusing building materials. We work to create alternatives to landfills. We stand for equal opportunity, and economic and environmental justice.”56 The reason this is such a great model is that ReBuilders Source sees the connection between environmental, economic, and justice issues and is tackling them all at once.

Medical Waste

This stream gets a lot of attention, and often more than it merits: there’s actually a major gap between the real and perceived threat. People tend to freak out about waste from medical facilities, fearing it may spread AIDS or other viruses. In reality, the bulk of the waste coming out of a medical facility is the same as waste coming out of a hotel, restaurant, or office, because hospitals serve all those functions. It is not unlike other municipal waste.

A small portion of medical waste is hazardous or potentially hazardous and definitely does require special treatment; this kind of medical waste includes sharps (needles), some pharmaceutical wastes, some low-level radioactive wastes from specialty clinics, and any waste that may have come in contact with a sick patient and thus has the potential to infect others.

Glenn McRae, founder of CGH Environmental Strategies, who has championed safe management of wastes in health care since 1990 and who has personally sorted through waste at hospitals around the world, says, “Very little is actually hazardous, and, depending on the type of hospital, no more than 5–10 percent is potentially infectious if it is carefully segregated.”57

That means an effective segregation system is all that’s needed to keep this slim 5 to 10 percent of potentially hazardous waste separated from a clinic’s office paper, equipment packaging, leftover food, etc. Combine that with a systematic replacement of all the disposables (dishes, gowns, sheets, and equipment) with reusable Stuff, and a hospital can seriously reduce its waste disposal needs and costs. Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City has saved more than $600,000 a year through improved segregation and waste reduction efforts.58

And what about the potentially infectious 5 to 10 percent, the legitimate red bag waste? The best, most cost-effective solution is known as autoclaving, which means high temperature steam sterilization in a machine that is basically a big dishwasher. This is a much safer alternative than incineration, though many hospitals turn to that in their desire to destroy pathogens. The catch is that incineration burns not only the germs or viruses but also the material on which they’re hanging out, which is usually plastic. And burning that plastic creates toxic air emissions, which in turn causes diseases like asthma, neurological and reproductive problems, and cancer.59 Medical waste incineration is so polluting that activist friends of mine in India wanted to hang a banner on a cancer specialist hospital with a belching incinerator in New Delhi to proclaim: “CANCER: caused AND cured here.”

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An international coalition of health care professionals, environmental health advocates, and community members called Health Care Without Harm partners with hospitals to reduce waste, eliminate the use of supertoxins like mercury and PVC, and replace incineration with safer and less expensive alternatives. See www.noharm.org for more information.

Electronic Waste

Electronic waste, or e-waste, comprises all the cell phones, computers, TVs, DVD players, electronic toys, appliances, remote controls, etc. that we throw out. The fastest growing, and most toxic, of today’s garbage, e-waste is increasing three times faster than other municipal waste and is packed with hazardous metals and chemicals.60 According to the Electronics TakeBack Coalition, the five most common sources and reasons for e-waste are:

1. Cell phone upgrades: Mobile phone service providers notoriously give free or cheap phones with new or renewed contracts. And since most of the phones are engineered to break after a couple years, it seems ridiculous to turn down their offer for a sparkly new model with all the latest bells and whistles and risk having the old one break midcontract, when replacement phones are much pricier. Out goes the old one!

2. Digital TV conversion: In the largest government-planned obsolescence ever, 2009 witnessed the end of analog TV broadcasts, which were replaced with digital. This rendered millions of perfectly fine televisions useless without a special converter box.61 For many people, the hassle of getting the converter inspired them to get the new flat-screen or HDTV they’d been coveting. Out with the old TVs—which each contain about 4 to 7 pounds of lead!62 Amazingly, only six states currently ban dumping these toxic-laden things in landfills: California, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island. Another six states (Oregon, New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, Illinois, and North Carolina) agreed to bans that will come into effect between 2010 and 2012—not soon enough to stop the toxic tsunami of 2009.63

3. Software upgrades: Often new software can’t run on older machines because they lack the memory or processing speed. Out with the old, perfectly functional computers! For example, when Microsoft released its Vista operating system, it caused a spike in the e-waste stream.64 The tight mix of plastics, metals, and glass in computers makes them really hard to recycle.

4. Can’t change the battery: Sometimes it is so hard to access and replace batteries in products that people just replace the whole product. When my daughter was younger, she loved a Sesame Street book that included a phone on which she could call the book’s characters and hear recorded messages. When the battery ran out, I had to pay more than the book originally cost for a replacement battery at RadioShack. Apple’s iPods pose the most infamous battery challenges; unless you’re an electronics whiz, you can’t change the battery yourself but must return it to Apple for a new one, which requires paying a fee and deleting anything stored on the device. With the price of iPods declining, why bother? Out with the old!

5. Disposable printers: Printers are so cheap, sometimes they’re even free with the purchase of a new computer. They’re often less expensive than a cartridge of replacement ink! Even reaching a real human on the manufacturer’s customer service line to ask about a malfunction can be more of a hassle than just getting a new one. Out once again with the old!

“Let’s just get a new one” has become the default response when electronics or appliances break or need some kind of replacement part. As a result, about 400 million electronic products are chucked in the United States each year. In 2005—the most recent year for which we have data— it amounted to 4 billion pounds of e-waste, much of which was still functioning!65 And this Stuff is highly toxic: today’s electronics contain mercury, lead, cadmium, arsenic, beryllium, and brominated flame retardants, among other nasties. Yet rather than segregating and handling it carefully and responsibly, as is necessary with this level of hazard, in the United States we still dump 85 percent of our e-waste in landfills66 or, even worse, burn it in incinerators.

In 2009, I visited a huge e-waste recycling facility in Roseville, California. The first room looked like a Costco store, with floor-to-ceiling shelving lining the walls, but rather than being filled with products to be sold, the shelves were filled with products waiting to be destroyed. There were pallets full of printers, piles of TVs, and pallet-sized cardboard boxes (called gaylords) full of cell phones and MP3 players and BlackBerries. Staring into one of these gaylords full of BlackBerries, I realized that many still had the protective plastic film that’s on the screen when you buy it. “They’re new,” our guides explained.

Every product in the place was there to be dismantled. Some were smashed first by hand, by workers with mallets and hammers on an assembly line. I watched as a series of identical printers went by, each adorned with one of the blue tags that you have to pull off before use: all new. Smash, smash, smash! I asked one guide what percent of products coming in here were brand new. “About half,” she replied. I was aghast. What kind of economic system makes it more sensible to destroy perfectly good electronics rather than sell or share them? Why not put them on Craigslist? Or in the parking lot out front, labeled with “Free” signs? Our very forthcoming guide Renee explained: “The companies don’t want this Stuff coming back to them through their warranty programs and then have to be responsible for it. It’s easier for them to just destroy it.” And then there’s all the Stuff that’s not new but still perfectly functional. What a waste!

The products travel along a series of conveyer belts, past other workers who pop them open to remove the batteries to dispose of them separately, as the hazardous waste they are. This step isn’t actually required by law but is vital to keeping the hazardous chemicals in the batteries out of the shreds of material on the backend, some of which will be landfilled or incinerated. It’s one of the ways the Roseville facility distinguishes itself as one of the best e-waste processors out there.

After battery removal, the Stuff moves along more conveyer belts to the grinders, which sit in the middle of the compound. The gigantic grinding machines occupy an enclosed two-story building the size of an urban townhouse. I saw a TV as big as my couch move into their vicious metal chompers, which are constantly monitored for jams or explosions.

After being chewed and spit out by the grinders, the shreds of Stuff are carried on still more conveyor belts through a maze of moving platforms and magnets and screens, like a giant’s Erector Set. These sort the debris into segregated gaylords. The plastics fall in one place, too mixed for any options besides landfill or incineration. The precious metals—the prize at the end of the process, the only recovered resource worth any real money—fall into yet another box. These metals are then sent by train three thousand miles to the Noranda copper smelter in Quebec, Canada, where they are smelted and prepared for use in other products. The copper is shipped to China, where it is used to make a printer or computer or cell phone that just might end up back here again. The whole process is beyond shocking; if I hadn’t witnessed it with my own eyes—especially the fact that half the Stuff was brand new—I’d never believe it. It’s like the plot of some dystopian sci-fi movie in which an evil mastermind sets up a global system specifically designed to trash resources.

In the United States some e-waste also gets sent to U.S. prisons for recycling. From 2003 to 2005, prisoners processed more than 120 million pounds of e-waste, in processes plagued with health and safety violations—often no protective gear was provided, although smashing the electronics released lead, cadmium, and other hazards.67 Federal Prison Industries (aka UNICOR), which manages prison e-waste processing, is now the focus of a Department of Justice investigation for the toxic exposures prisoners suffer. While the investigation is ongoing, an interim report conducted by NIOSH (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health) for the investigation confirmed that e-waste recycling had been taking place without adequate worker health and safety protection.68 Meanwhile, the practice continues.69

Although about 12.5 percent of e-waste in the United States is supposedly collected for some form of “recycling” either by facilities like the one in Roseville or by prison labor, investigations by the Basel Action Network (BAN) have revealed that about 80 percent of that amount is actually exported overseas to developing countries, where much is simply dumped.70 Some is processed in the most horrific manner one can imagine: whole families, wearing zero protective gear, smashing open computers to recover the minute amounts of precious metals, burning the PVC off wires to get the copper, and soaking components in acid baths before pouring the bathwater into rivers. This is a toxic nightmare of gigantic proportions. You’ll hear people argue that e-waste recycling provides these struggling communities with jobs, but as Jim Puckett, executive director of BAN, says, offering people this kind of work is offering them a “choice between poison and poverty.”71 And actually, since they don’t make more than pennies, they wind up with both.

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In early 2009, Dell announced that it will no longer export any nonworking electronic product from developed nations to developing nations for recycling, reuse, repair, or disposal. “Even though U.S. laws don’t restrict most exports, Dell has decided to go well beyond these inadequate regulations,” Puckett said. “Dell deserves high marks for leading the way as a responsible corporate citizen with their new e-waste export policy.”72

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As meticulous as the Roseville facility tries to be, e-waste is much too massive an issue, with far too many hazardous implications, for that model. The most effective place to solve the e-waste problem is upstream, where decisions about design and ingredients are made. Producers of computers and other electronics could introduce vast improvements to make electronics more durable, less hazardous, and easier to upgrade and repair. (And, as a last option, to recycle.) Some companies are starting to move in the right direction: Dell, HP, and Apple all now have take-back programs that allow customers to return old computers when buying new ones—but they only instituted these programs after concerned consumers and citizens mounted major campaigns, in some cases years long. This issue is too serious and urgent to wait for these companies to come around on their own. We need laws to force responsibility on producers by mandating take-back and recyclability.

Fortunately, this is starting to happen. At the time of writing this book, nineteen U.S. states (California, Maine, Maryland, Washington, Connecticut, Minnesota, Oregon, Texas, North Carolina, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Virginia, West Virginia, Missouri, Hawaii, Rhode Island, Illinois, Michigan, and Indiana, in chronological order by adoption date)—and New York City—have passed legislation requiring e-waste recycling. Even better, all of these laws except the one in California use a producer responsibility approach, meaning the companies that made the computers pay for the recycling.73 This is a great incentive for the producers to think hard about ways to eliminate toxics and design for repair and recycling, since they have to bear the cost of dealing with the Stuff eventually. If you live in any other U.S. state, contact the Electronics TakeBack Coalition to learn how to get e-waste recycling laws in your state.

Another positive development is the expansion of the e-Stewards program, a third-party certification program that checks out electronics recyclers and certifies those that meet strict environmental and social justice standards. Facilities certified as e-Stewards commit to recycling e-waste (using a process similar to the one I witnessed at the Roseville facility) at sites here in the United States and do not send any toxic e-waste to landfills, incinerators, prisons, or developing countries.74 Find an e-Steward certified responsible recycler near you at www.e-stewards.org.

The Away Myth

So here are all these huge piles of waste from various sources. Where does it all go? You probably already know this, but if not, here’s the big revelation: for the great majority of these billions of tons of Stuff, there is no “away.” Period. We do one of two things with most of our waste: we bury it, or we burn it. Yes, some of it gets recycled, which is as close to “away” as it gets—I’ll talk about that later on. But there’s another important aspect of “away”: too often, because we don’t want to deal with the hassle and the pollution associated with the bury or burn methods (or for that matter, the recycling) here in the United States, boatloads of our American waste are sent to other regions of the world, often under the guise of being recycled there. Not only is it unethical and immoral to dump our often toxics-contaminated wastes on other communities—it turns out we can’t escape the health and environmental consequences anyway, which drift back to us via the air, the water, and the bodies of the creatures we eat.

Away by Burial

In the most common scenario for disposal—for 64.5 percent of municipal solid waste in the United States,75 we dig a big hole in the ground and fill it up with garbage. This is commonly known as a dump, but since open-air dumps developed an image problem (and a rodent problem), some engineers figured out that they could upgrade the hole with a liner and systems to collect the liquid runoff (leachate) and then call it a “sanitary landfill.” That term always reminds me of what green-collar jobs advocate Van Jones says about so-called clean coal: “It represents a breakthrough in the marketing of coal, not in the actual technology.”76 “Sanitary landfill” sounds much better than “dump,” but they are still just holes in the ground full of garbage that stinks and leaks and that could have been prevented, reused, or recycled instead.

The purpose of a landfill is to bury the trash in such a way that it will be isolated from groundwater, will be kept dry, and will not come in contact with air. If these conditions are achieved (which happens, basically, never), the trash doesn’t decompose much, which is the point. That’s the “sanitary” part. Your typical landfill takes up at least several hundred acres of land, of which maybe a third is dedicated to the actual landfill.77 (The enormous and now-closed Fresh Kills landfill on New York’s Staten Island was 2,200 acres.78) The remaining land is used for supporting services: runoff collection ponds, leachate collection ponds, drop-off stations, truck parking, and fifty-to hundred-foot buffer areas.79

So here are the problems with landfills:

1. All Landfills Leak

No matter how well engineered the landfills are, liquid ends up inside the chambers. Rain seeps in and mixes with the liquid from within the garbage (rotting food waste, nail polish remover, spoiled milk, the last bit of Windex in the bottle, etc.). It trickles through the dry trash and picks up contaminants (like the heavy metals in printing ink, paints, household and garden pesticides, oven cleaner, drain un-cloggers—you name it) and turns into a disgusting witches’ brew. This liquid, called leachate, can seep directly into the ground, contaminating surface water, underground water supplies, and anything else in its path. Contamination of underground water is worse than other kinds of water pollution because we can’t see it so have a hard time tracking it. We can never properly clean it up and we are likely to need it more with increasing climate change. We shouldn’t contaminate rivers either, but at least they regularly flush with fresh water. Underground aquifers, which contain one hundred times the volume of fresh water found in all the rivers and other water bodies on the earth’s surface, take thousands of years to do the same.80

To prevent this, engineers have designed collection systems—networks of pipes at the lowest part of the landfill—in an attempt to divert and collect the leachate, which then gets treated as wastewater (not unproblematic itself). But the liquid can only be collected if it doesn’t escape through the liners first, and the problem is that there are lots of things in the garbage that can puncture or erode those liners. Also, the collection pipes can get clogged or broken by the weight of all that garbage. Leachate can also overflow from the top, like an overfilled bathtub. In fact, even the EPA admits that landfill liners inevitably leak, despite the claims of landfill operators to the contrary.81

2. Landfills Are Always Toxic

In the United States our laws distinguish between hazardous and nonhaz-ardous waste, which is more of a legal differentiation than a reality.82 Landfills for hazardous waste are more strictly regulated and engineered than those limited to municipal solid waste. Unfortunately, even though it’s considered nonhazardous, municipal solid waste contains a lot of dangerous chemicals—not just from the batteries and paint cans and electronics stuck in there by folks who just don’t care enough to separate them out, but also from Stuff not yet banned from regular household trash, like flame-retardant-treated fabrics, PVC-coated cables, lead-painted toys, household cleaners, nail polish remover, etc. Even seemingly benign plastics contain toxic heavy metals as stabilizers. Researchers have found that leachate from municipal waste landfills is just as toxic as that from hazardous waste landfills. In fact, 20 percent of the top-priority contaminated sites awaiting cleanup under our national Superfund program are former municipal landfills.83

3. Landfills Foul the Air and Contribute to Climate Chaos

Pollution comes out of landfills in the form of nasty gases, too. You see, when the organic material (banana peels, yard waste, soggy pizza boxes, wilted salad, etc.) in landfills rots, it releases methane gas, a powerful greenhouse gas that, although it disperses faster, is over twenty times more damaging than the more famous carbon dioxide.84 The odorless and explosive methane can also travel underground into the basements of nearby buildings, which can be a real bummer when someone lights a match down there.

Methane gas is what is known as a volatile organic compound, or VOC. There are also nonmethane VOCs released from dumps—fumes from things like paint, paint thinners, cleaning supplies, glues, solvents, pesticides, and some building materials. Routine VOC emissions are one reason that living near landfills is dangerous. Common symptoms from exposure to concentrated VOCs include headaches, drowsiness, eye irritation, rashes, and respiratory and sinus problems. Many studies have documented increases in cancer (especially leukemia and bladder cancer) and other health problems in communities adjacent to landfills.85

Waste industry representatives often promote the concept of burning landfill gas as a renewable energy source, which would make landfills eligible for massive governmental subsidies, or carbon-offsetting credits, and grant them some invaluable public relations. They argue that the gas is going to be produced anyway, and burning it to create energy is better than just letting it seep into the atmosphere. The catch is that landfill gas is dirty gas; it contains methane as well as other nasty VOCs and potential contaminants that can form supertoxic dioxin when burned. Burning landfill gas to produce energy is far more polluting than burning natural gas. Nevertheless, the landfill lobby succeeded in having it included in the renewable energy standard in the 2009 Waxman-Markey climate bill, as well as in the Senate’s renewable energy standard.86

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Composting

The main source of methane is rotting organics, which are also the source of most of the liquid, aside from rain, that becomes leachate. By simply keeping all organics out of landfills, we could virtually eliminate the methane released from them, significantly reduce leachate, and keep our climate cooler. In many cities, organics—food scraps, yard trimmings, soiled paper—make up a third or more of the municipal waste.87 That means that just by keeping organics out of the trash, we can cut our municipal waste by a third! The best way to do this is to mandate wet-dry separation of garbage at the source—i.e., in our kitchens and everywhere we eat—and then dispose of food remains by composting. This also keeps recyclables from getting gunked up with yesterday’s meals, keeps the organics from getting contaminated with the toxics in consumer products, and creates a valuable additive for soil.

I think composting suffers from an image problem. Mention composting—or worse, worm bins—to most people, and they imagine quaint farmers or hippie throwbacks. But actually, composting is a simple thing we can each do to get our own household’s materials flows in better balance. It isn’t a big political statement. It is a smart, easy, responsible thing to do. Plus, it makes your garden bloom. If you eat, compost. Simple.

Where I live, in the San Francisco Bay Area, we have curbside collection of organics. Every resident gets a little green bin to keep in our kitchen for food scraps. We dump it into a bigger green bin with our yard trimmings and this gets emptied weekly, along with the recycling and the (shrinking amount of) garbage. In the first large-scale urban food scrap composting program in the country, San Francisco’s residents, restaurants, and other businesses send more than 400 tons of food scraps and other compostable material to be composted rather than landfilled each day.88

If your city doesn’t have a municipal composting program, don’t worry. Organic waste can also be composted at the household or neighborhood level. I like decentralized backyard or neighborhood composting best anyway, because then we’re not using trucks to haul around this material that is mostly water. There are lots of easy systems for backyard composting. I have four tidy little black bins outside my back door full of worms that chomp up all my food trimmings, table scraps, yard waste, and soiled paper and turn it into a rich, effective fertilizer. When I visited my friend Jim Puckett in his tiny apartment in Amsterdam, he had an attractive wooden box just inside the front door. It looks like a regular bench but you can lift the seat and see the worms inside doing their thing to last night’s dinner.

Of course, you don’t need fancy compost bins to get started. I’ve seen neighborhood composting programs in New Delhi, India, and Quezon City in the Philippines that use old fifty-five-gallon barrels or just long ditches filled with worms into which residents dump their organic waste. In developing countries, composting is even easier since generally their waste contains an even higher portion of organics than in heavily industrialized, consumer-maniac countries, with all our disposable Stuff. From Cairo to Calcutta, community organizations and sometimes forward-thinking municipal officials are setting up composting programs.

While backyard (or garage, laundry room, or front hallway) or neighborhood composting happens at the level of individual households and communities, there are lots of ways government can support it. Where I live, the government waste agency—the Alameda County Waste Management Authority—subsidizes compost bins for residents. These high-end backyard composters or worm bins regularly cost about one hundred dollars if bought in a store. The Waste Management Authority buys them in bulk at a discounted rate, subsidizes part of the remaining cost, and sells them to the public for about forty dollars each. They don’t mind subsidizing the cost because they save so much more money by not having to pick up all that heavy organic waste. Since beginning the program in 1991 (and through July 2009) they have sold more than 72,000 compost and worm bins, which, they estimate, have diverted more than 110,000 tons of organic waste from landfills.89

Government can also get involved in bigger ways. In 1999, the European Union passed a landfill directive that required a steady reduction of organic waste sent to landfills over the next twenty years. In 1998, Nova Scotia, Canada, adopted a complete ban on landfilling or incinerating organics, which spurred the development of an impressive composting infrastructure.90 So far, twenty-one states in the United States have banned landfilling of yard waste,91 which is a good start because once yard waste composting systems are set up, it’s not hard to add kitchen and restaurant scraps too. Any method of composting is less expensive and much smarter than building sanitary landfills or high-tech incinerators.

4. Landfills Waste Resources

How are resources wasted? Let me count the ways. For starters, there’s the hundreds and thousands of acres of perfectly good land taken up with landfills. It’s true that once landfills are filled up, they’re usually covered with dirt and then replanted. After that many of them are turned into parks, parking lots, or shopping malls. But these are ill-fated. Trash settles over time, making the ground unstable, so structures built on top of them often shift and sink. As for the parks, they attract children—and having our kids running around on top of a garbage heap leaching VOCs is just a bad idea.

As Peter Montague, director of the Environmental Research Foundation, explains, “The moment human efforts cease, nature takes over and disintegration begins: nature has many agents that work to dismantle a landfill: small mammals (mice, moles, voles, woodchucks, prairie dogs, etc.), birds, insects, reptiles, amphibians, worms, bacteria, the roots of trees, bushes, and shrubs, plus wind, rain, lightning, freeze-thaw cycles, and soil erosion—all combine to take apart even the most carefully engineered landfill. Eventually a landfill’s contents disperse into the local environment and then move outward from there, often into local water supplies. It may take a decade or it may take 50 years or more before a landfill spills its contents, but nature doesn’t care. Nature’s got all the time in the world. Sooner or later wastes buried in a shallow hole in the ground will escape and disperse.”92

But the main waste of resources is the garbage itself. Consider the lifecycle of Stuff as laid out in these pages—behind every piece of garbage is a long history, of extraction in mines, harvesting in forests or fields, production in factories, and extensive ferrying along supply chains. How ridiculous is it to lock up all those resources underground after spending all that effort to extract and make and distribute them in the first place! I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: the amount of resources on this planet is finite. We’re running out of them. Locking them up underground is just plain stupid.

Away by Fire

Incinerators are big machines that burn waste. Back in 1885, when the first one in the country was built on Governors Island in New York, it seemed like a good way to get rid of potato peels, chicken bones, and fabric scraps. Even then there were much better ways of dealing with those much more benign materials (compost, papermaking, soapmaking, etc.), but today we have no excuse: fire is not an appropriate method of trying to make garbage go “away,” especially since today’s trash contains Stuff like cell phones, VCRs, paint cans, PVC, and batteries.

There are many scientists, recyclers, activists, municipal officials, and others who are working against incinerators. You could fill a library with their reports as to why incineration is the wrong way to go. Here are my top ten reasons:

1. Incinerators Pollute

Incinerators liberate the toxics contained in products into the air. We breathe that air. Those airborne poisons can also easily drop into water. We drink that water and use it to irrigate our food. The poisons in the air also land on farms, fields, and the sea, moving up the food chain into the fish, meat, and dairy that we eventually eat. Even worse, burning trash creates new toxins that weren’t in the original waste. That is because the actual process of combustion takes apart and recombines chemicals into new supertoxins. Some of these combustion by-products are the most toxic man-made industrial pollutants known, like dioxin, for which incinerators are among the top sources globally.93 For example, if anything containing chlorine—clothes, paper, flooring, PVC, cleaning products—is burned, dioxin is created. Older and badly operated incinerators release toxins into both the air and into ash, while more advanced plants release toxins into the ash. In both cases, the toxins include chemicals known to cause cancer, birth defects, damage to organs—especially the lungs and eyes—and endocrinological, neurological, circulatory, and reproductive problems.94 Meanwhile many of the toxins haven’t even been tested for health impacts.

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2. Incinerators Don’t Eliminate the Need for Landfills

Incinerator pushers love to claim they make waste disappear, even bragging about their 99 percent destruction removal efficiency (DRE), which implies that 99 percent of the waste actually does disappear. But that’s not quite true: the waste is just converted to air pollution and ash. And guess what? That ash still needs to be landfilled. In general, for every 3 tons of waste one shoves into an incinerator, we get 1 ton of ash that requires landfilling.95 Waste isn’t destroyed in incinerators; its appearance just changes. Instead of a truckload of trash, we wind up with a slightly smaller pile of ash, plus pollution in the air, our lungs, and our food supplies.

Incinerator ash is more toxic than the original waste because the heavy metals (which are elements and can’t be destroyed) become concentrated. There are two kinds of ash: fly ash, which comes up the smokestack, and bottom ash, which piles up at the base of the combustion chamber. Fly ash is generally smaller in volume but way more toxic than bottom ash. In any case, some incinerator operators merge the two before they get landfilled.

And here’s the kicker: the more effective the filter atop the smokestack is, the more toxic its ash. (Think about it: a bad filter is letting more bad Stuff escape, while a good filter catches it, meaning it’s caught in the ash.) You hear a lot about advances in filter technology, as if that’s going to solve everything. But filters don’t get rid of the toxins, they just put them in a different place—it’s like the shell game in which the pea keeps getting secretly moved from under one shell to another.

3. Incinerators Violate the Principles of Environmental Justice

Incinerators fall into the category of dirty industrial development that I described in chapter 2 on production. Dirty development follows the path of least resistance, seeking out those communities that developers perceive to lack the economic, educational, or political resources to resist. That means incinerators get built in low-income communities and communities of color, forcing a disproportionate share of the resulting toxic pollution on the people who live there. Plus, not only does an incinerator create pollution directly from its smokestack, it also means heavy traffic from exhaust-spewing trucks that deliver and sometimes drop stinky, hazardous garbage.

4. Incinerators Are So 1980s

Is there any fashion from the 80s that is really worthy of a comeback? I don’t happen to think so, but definitely not incinerators. In the 1980s, proposals for municipal trash incinerators were all the rage in the United States. Ellen and Paul Connett, editors of the Waste Not newsletter, which tracked municipal waste incinerators for years, estimate that more than four hundred incinerators were proposed during the 1980s as their proponents went from community to community, touting the environmental benefits of burning trash and promising a techno-fix to the growing problem of waste.96 Most of these planned incinerators were stopped by informed organized community resistance. Those that were built were plagued with technical and financial problems, not to mention those billowing plumes of really noxious smoke and the inevitable ash.

Following these fiascos, the incinerator industry came to a virtual standstill in the United States for nearly twenty years, with no incinerator larger than those that burn 2,000 tons per day built since 1992.97Meanwhile, the incinerator industry focused its attention overseas, on countries that were just getting on the disposables-consumption bandwagon. To the industry’s surprise, people there didn’t want them either! GAIA, the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, boasts nearly one thousand members in eighty-one countries who share information and strategies and collaborate to stop incineration and promote sustainable solutions.98

When the incinerator industry realized the strength of the global resistance movement, they started putting fancy new names on slightly updated technology. The word “incineration” is hardly seen in today’s promotional material; instead these new facilities are called plasma arc, pyrolysis, gasification, and waste-to-energy plants. GAIA calls them “incinerators in disguise.”99 Don’t be fooled by the fancy packaging: they are still gigantic, expensive machines that burn garbage (aka resources) and that produce hazardous air pollution and ash.

5. Waste-to-Energy Plants Should Be Called Waste of Energy

The latest fashion among incinerator proponents is to call them waste-to-energy plants, promising to burn up all that stinky garbage and turn it into energy, even claiming that garbage is renewable energy and these monstrosities should get renewable energy credits! Since we have too much garbage and not enough energy, that sure sounds appealing. But here’s the deal: first off, the little bit of energy recovered from burning trash is a very dirty energy, releasing far more greenhouse gases than burning natural gas, oil, or even coal. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, waste incinerators produce 1,355 grams of CO2 per kilowatt hour; coal produces 1,020, oil 758, and natural gas 515.100

Second, let’s step back and look at the grand scheme of things for a moment. When you burn something, the most energy you can recover is a fraction of the energy value (the “calories”) of the actual material; you can’t recover any of the energy investments of that thing’s entire lifecycle. When we burn Stuff, it means we have to go back and extract, mine, grow, harvest, process, finish, and transport new Stuff to replace it. Doing all that takes waaaaay more energy than the smidgen that can be recovered from burning it. If the ultimate goal is to conserve energy, we could “produce” far more energy by reusing and recycling Stuff than we ever could by burning it.

6. Incinerators Drain the Local Economy and Create Few Jobs

Capital costs for building incinerators in industrialized countries often run to $500 million—a 2009 proposal for one in Maryland came to $527 million.101 Meanwhile, their counterparts in developing countries generally cost between $13,000 and $700,000, which tells us something about double standards102; most of the incinerators built in poorer countries would never meet the standards set by U.S. or European health and safety laws, as inadequate as those laws still are. Either way, a lot of money gets spent, much of it on high-tech equipment manufactured overseas, and engineers and consultants who obviously aren’t needed after the facility is finished. Once built, incinerators are capital-and machine-intensive, not labor-intensive, offering only a few lousy jobs and even fewer specialized jobs. In contrast, recycling and zero waste programs offer a huge number of jobs—jobs that are safer, cleaner, and greener. For every dollar invested in recycling and zero waste programs, we get ten times as many jobs as in incineration—local, respectable jobs that conserve resources and build community.103

7. Incinerators Are the Most Costly Waste Management Option

Any solution to our waste problem is going to cost money, but we should invest in methods and facilities that are actually moving us in the right direction. Incinerators are enormously expensive, by far the most expensive waste disposal option available, short of sending the Stuff to the moon (which some people have considered!). In contrast to the more than $500 million that the above-mentioned Maryland incinerator would have cost, a new state-of-the-art materials reclamation center not far from me in Northern California—the Davis Street Transfer Center, the West Coast’s most advanced facility of its kind—cost just over $9 million. While the Maryland incinerator would expect to burn 2,000 tons of trash per day, Davis Street handles 4,000 tons of materials per day, of which currently 40 percent is recycled. Davis Street provides 250 people with unionized jobs; the incinerator might hope to provide about 30 full-time positions.104 You do the math.

The cost differential is even more stark in developing countries where recycling and composting are less mechanized and therefore more labor intensive. GAIA has calculated that decentralized low-tech composting in countries in the Global South can have equipment costs 75 times lower than incinerator investment costs.105 Even the World Bank admits that capital and operating costs for incinerators are at least twice that for landfills, even though it continues to fund incinerators in developing countries.106 The only communities that should even be thinking of incinerators are those with money to burn. By which I mean: none.

8. Incinerators Actually Encourage Waste

Incinerators are waste addicts. They work better when they are run continuously, so they need a constant supply of waste. Incinerator companies often try to include in their contract clauses that allow them to import waste from other locations if the local waste generation falls below a certain point. How regressive is that? We should be making commitments to reduce waste, not to perpetuate it!

Also, it turns out that the trash that is most easily burned is the most preventable waste (like single-use disposable Stuff and packaging) and most recyclable waste (like paper). That means incinerators directly compete with efforts to reduce or recycle materials. In many cities, incinerator owners have pushed local governments to take steps to ban informal recyclers, in order to ensure they have enough Stuff to burn.

9. Incinerators Undermine Creative, Real Solutions

If your city invests hundreds of millions of dollars to build one of these things, and then you come along with an ingenious idea for reducing waste at its source—forget about it! Relying on an incinerator to solve the garbage challenge signifies a real failure of imagination. It is for those who go along with impulsive temporary fixes, rather than those who can hold the long-term view and consider the broader system that created the problem in the first place. What decisions were made at the production, distribution, consumption, and disposal points that resulted in this waste? How can we go back and make different decisions to design the waste out of the system? Preventing a problem upstream is always far preferable—and more economical—than just focusing on a quick solution.

10. Incinerators Just Don’t Make Sense

I’ve met many an engineer who strives to convince me that his latest bells and whistles incinerator is really different: that it really does solve the dioxin issue; that it really does recover energy, etc. Dr. Paul Connett, who has testified at hundreds of hearings on incineration, has a mantra: “Even if you could make them safe, you could never make them sensible.”107 It just doesn’t make sense to invest hundreds of millions of dollars developing machines designed to destroy resources. It is not an investment in the right direction.

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Toxics Use Reduction in Massachusetts

Municipal leaders, community residents, and businesses will often focus on the question of what’s to be done with the hazardous waste that’s being produced. If both burying and burning are off the table, what’s the alternative? In fact, a real solution requires shifting our attention upstream, to stopping the flow of waste at its source. This may seem counterintuitive if you’re looking at a discharge pipe pouring muck into a river, but it’s the best strategy for long-term change.

Here’s an analogy I often use: Suppose you come home from a vacation to find that you left your kitchen faucet running. The sink has overflowed and water covers the kitchen floor, the dining room floor, and most of the living room. It’s a mess. Where do you start: mopping up the lovely oriental carpets or turning off the tap? It’s a no-brainer, right? In the context of hazardous waste, turning off the tap translates to reducing the amount of toxic chemicals used in production.

An impressive example of how this can work is Massachusetts’ Toxics Use Reduction Act (TURA), which was passed in 1989. The law included ambitious waste reduction goals, requiring Massachusetts companies to track their chemical use and release and to develop plans detailing how the company would reduce toxics by changing the materials or processes they used. In 1990, TURA established the Toxics Use Reduction Institute (TURI) at the University of Massachusetts Lowell to help companies and communities research toxic chemicals, figure out innovative and costeffective alternatives, and provide a range of technical assistance with toxics use reduction and energy and water efficiency.108

It worked. As just one example, the lighting company Lightolier reduced its VOC emissions by 95 percent, its toxics use by 58 percent, and its electricity and natural gas use by 19 and 30 percent respectively. In the process, it saved millions of dollars in operating costs.109 Statewide, TURI’s work has led to a reduction in industries’ toxic chemical use by 41 percent, toxic chemical waste by 65 percent, and emissions by an impressive 91 percent. Manufacturers participating in the program recently reported $4.5 million in annual operating cost savings.110

Those are impressive numbers—I give them to every public official considering incineration or landfilling of hazardous waste. With such proven viability, TURI-style options should be exhausted before even considering any other approach. TURI has proven that industries can cut their waste by more than half and their emissions more than 90 percent.

Although TURI’s work focuses on Massachusetts, its resources and tools are available online for anyone, anywhere. For those working to clean up industries, finding TURI is like hitting the jackpot. No longer can polluting industries get away with saying they’d love to change, but there just aren’t alternatives. TURI’s CleanerSolutions database offers options including “find a cleaner” and “replace a solvent.” Its online Pollution Prevention Gems (P2gems.org) has reams of information on reducing toxics in specific sectors, industrial processes, and products, for everything from bleaching and metal finishing to printing and wood finishing.

The bad news is that, as this book was going to press, funding for TURI was in jeopardy. In spite of its phenomenal success in reducing toxic chemical use, it may fall victim to budget cuts in the state of Massachusetts. Environmental health advocates are fighting back, pointing out that the program pays for itself, as industries’ fees cover the costs of administering TURI, not to mention that preventing hazardous waste in the first place is far more economical than cleaning it up later. For updates, visit TURI at www.turi.org.

Over the Sea and Far Away...

In twenty years of working on waste, I’ve seen a lot of attempts by companies in our country to get rid of our trash—especially our most troublesome toxic trash—by shipping it somewhere else in the world. But guess what? The problems don’t go away. May I repeat: there is no “away.” Here are some of the most tragic stories I collected while tracking the trafficking of waste around the globe.

To Bangladesh

In late 1991, four South Carolina–based companies secretly mixed 1,000 tons of hazardous waste containing high amounts of lead and cadmium into a shipment of fertilizer that the Bangladesh government had purchased with a loan from the Asian Development Bank. This was discovered by U.S. environmental authorities at the local and state level during a random inspection of the Stoller Chemical facility (which produced the fertilizer). They found that Stoller had mixed in an unapproved material with levels of lead and cadmium beyond the legal limits, and they alerted criminal investigators at the Environmental Protection Agency. At that time, I was in close touch with EPA officials who tracked the international waste trade, and one of them told me about it.

Unfortunately, the EPA didn’t learn of the illegal export until the contaminated fertilizer had already reached Bangladesh. By U.S. law, the companies would have been able to export this kind of toxic waste only after first obtaining written permission from the importing country.111 In this case they’d ignored that step, so the shipment was illegal. The companies were fined for the procedural violation, but neither the United States nor the Bangladeshi government was interested in taking action to recall the waste.

I headed straight to Bangladesh. My goal was to find out what had happened to the fertilizer and, if it had already been used on farms, to collect soil samples as evidence to force both governments to clean it up. First, I visited the U.S. embassy in the capital city of Dhaka. I hoped the embassy would express some concern, or perhaps embarrassment, over the export of the contaminated fertilizer. On the contrary, the embassy staff person kept repeating, “It is not our responsibility. The shipment was a private transaction between private companies and we do not get involved in private business transactions.” Sure, U.S. embassies stay out of U.S. business activities overseas, just like those relentless Bangladeshi mosquitoes stayed out of my face.

A representative of a local environmental organization in Bangladesh was far more helpful, accompanying me by bus and then bicycle rickshaw to a small town in the countryside where the contaminated fertilizer was rumored to still be for sale. Stepping off the bus, it was hard for me to imagine why any farmer felt the need to add fertilizer in this environment; everywhere I looked, the rice paddies were the most luscious vibrant green I had ever seen.

But sure enough, at the local agricultural supply shop, I found one last bag of the crap still for sale, months after both the United States and Bangladeshi governments had been informed of the contamination. I couldn’t leave it in the shop for some unsuspecting farmer to pick up, so I bought that last bag for the equivalent of four dollars and carried it along on our journey. I also got the names of the local farmers who had bought some. One of those farms was my next stop.

The Bangladeshi farmer welcomed us into his modest home for tea. The walls were made of earth and the roof from thatched grass. After we introduced ourselves and explained our purpose, he enthusiastically led us to the fields to take soil samples. I was confused about why the farmer kept smiling as my translator friend explained that the fertilizer on his fields contained toxic waste illegally sent from the United States. But then she translated what he was saying: “Now that your government knows where the toxic fertilizer has been used, they will come and clean it up so we will be safe.” Standing there, I was overwhelmed with sadness and shame. “No,” I explained, remembering my meeting with the U.S. embassy staff person, “I don’t think they will come.” But I promised him that I’d deliver his cleanup request to my government and I’d use the evidence from this case to support the call for an end to global waste trafficking. Saying that to this farmer, whom I had just informed that he had put toxic waste all over his fields, made me feel like such a schmuck. What good did it do him to know that the evidence from his field would be used to strengthen a United Nations convention on waste trafficking? Of all my times traipsing around the world investigating toxic waste, that moment was the lowest.

I returned to the capital city of Dhaka with a heavy heart and a heavy bag of fertilizer. I didn’t know what to do with either. After musing on it for some days, I came up with a plan. U.S. embassies are considered U.S. soil overseas. U.S. hazardous waste law requires prior written permission to export this type of hazardous waste to another country. Although the original exporter had violated this law, I doubted the U.S. embassy would repeat the mistake, especially if they knew I was watching. So I decided to return the contaminated fertilizer to the U.S. embassy, knowing that the staff would be unable to simply throw it in the garbage.

I wrapped up the fertilizer in a nice package, addressed to the staff person I had previously met with, and dropped it off at the embassy’s front desk with a little note informing him that I was returning this U.S. waste to U.S. soil, from which re-export was illegal. Although the embassy never did formally contact me, someone in the State Department anonymously sent me a copy of a telex message sent from the Dhaka embassy to their State Department offices in Washington, complaining about the waste, wondering what to do with it, and bemoaning my meddling. They concluded that they suspected they had “not seen the last of Leonard.”

To South Africa

One of the worst cases of international waste trafficking I’ve ever worked on was in a small, heavily industrialized town called Cato Ridge in South Africa. There, a British-owned South African company called Thor Chemicals was importing mercury waste from the United States and Europe, supposedly for reprocessing. The British parent company, Thor Chemical Holdings, had previously operated a mercury processing plant in the United Kingdom, which it closed in 1987 in the face of increasing contro versy and potential government action based on excessive mercury levels in the air and in the workers. Thor relocated its mercury processing operation to South Africa in 1988.112

Thor Chemicals in Cato Ridge was a very busy plant, importing thousands of tons of mercury during the 1990s. Two of the biggest exporters were the U.S. companies American Cyanamid in New Jersey and Borden Chemical in Louisiana. Although there were mercury-processing plants in the United States, none of them would accept mercury waste with as high a level of organic contamination as that which American Cyanamid and Borden Chemical produced. So Thor Chemicals willingly took it off their hands, for a fee of more than a thousand dollars per ton.113

Thor’s operations in South Africa were even worse than in England. Within a year of starting operations, the local water board found high levels of mercury pollution in a nearby river. In 1989, a U.S. journalist from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch named Bill Lambrecht became interested in the case. He visited Cato Ridge to test the waters himself. Lambrecht found mercury levels in the Mngeweni River behind the plant of 1.5 million parts per billion, 1,500 times higher than the U.S. level for toxicity.114 The Mngeweni flows into the Umgeni River, which continues through populated areas, irrigates agricultural and cattle grazing lands, is used for washing and playing, and feeds into the drinking supply of the big coastal city of Durban. As far as forty miles downstream, near Durban, mercury levels were found to be 20 times the U.S. limit.115

Thor’s workers began immediately complaining of a metal taste in their mouths, black fingernails, skin problems, dizziness, and other signs of mercury poisoning. At one point, nearly one-third of the workers were found to have mercury poisoning. Thor documents, leaked to the South African organization Earthlife Africa, revealed that some workers had mercury concentrations in their urine hundreds of times higher than limits set by the World Health Organization. In 1992, three workers fell into mercury-induced comas and eventually died. The situation garnered international attention when Nelson Mandela visited one sick worker’s bedside in 1993.116

Local environmentalists in South Africa, including Earthlife Africa and the Environmental Justice Networking Forum, joined forces with Greenpeace International to publicize and stop this disaster. Protests and letter writing campaigns were organized to pressure the waste exporters and Thor in both the United Kingdom and South Africa. In the mid-1990s, the South African government ordered the closure of the plant. However, a massive amount of mercury waste was left at the site.

I visited Cato Ridge in 1996 to work with local activists concerned about the potential incineration of this toxic waste. My host, the indomitable Durban-based environmental justice activist Bobby Peek, pulled over his car and led me on a trail that allowed us to get right alongside the factory fence. With no workers on site, not even a security guard, it was easy to get unobstructed views. We saw holding ponds of mercury waste—like uncovered swimming pools—sure to overflow in the heavy rains, as well as storage sheds, which, Peek said, contained even more barrels of waste. There was so much untreated mercury on the site that local environmentalists suspected that Thor may never have intended to process the waste at all. Even worse, we followed a drainage stream out of the factory to the spot where it joined the larger river. The mercury discharge from the plant was so heavy that actual streaks of silver lined the drainage ditch, reminding me of the mercury balls from broken glass thermometers that my mother warned me not to touch as a child.

It wasn’t until 2003 that Thor—now renamed Guernica Chemicals—finally agreed to contribute 24 million rand ($2.5 million at the time of writing) toward cleaning up the plant. This was less than half the estimated costs to clean up about 8,000 tons of mercury waste left on site.117

As I write this, cleanup still hasn’t happened. Meanwhile, mercury contamination continues to be a problem beyond the factory fence. In October 2008, the South African Medical Research Council released its report detailing extreme mercury levels in community residents near a local dam, Inanda, whose lake is Durban’s main drinking water source. It also reported that 50 percent of the fish sampled from the Umgeni River, downstream from the Thor plant, had mercury levels above the safe eating limits recommended by the World Health Organization.118

Some of the workers have taken legal action against Thor in search of both compensation and justice. In 1994 and again in 1998, a number of injured workers, plus representatives of three workers who had died, took legal action in the United Kingdom against Thor’s British parent company, Thor Chemical Holdings (TCH). The workers claimed that the parent company was negligent in designing and overseeing such a clearly unsafe facility and was responsible for the illnesses and death of the workers. In both cases, TCH attempted to wriggle out of the legal action, initially trying in vain to have the case moved to South African courts, where it presumably could have more influence over the outcome. In both cases, TCH ended up settling out of court; in 1997, it paid 1.3 million British pounds (more than $2 million), and in 2003 it paid another 240,000 British pounds (more than $300,000 at then current exchange rates).119

To Haiti

I have a small jar of grey powder on my desk. It usually goes unnoticed amidst the piles of paper, but every now and then someone asks about it. It’s from Haiti. Actually, it’s from Philly. It’s Philadelphia’s municipal incinerator ash that I got in Haiti. “Huh?” you might say. It’s a jar of the most famous incinerator ash in the world.

You see, for years the city of Philadelphia had burned its trash in a municipal waste incinerator. Like many incinerators, its operators didn’t have a solid plan for disposing of the mounds of ash it churned out, which they just piled ever higher in an adjacent lot. In 1986, the city hired Joseph Paolino & Sons and paid them $6 million to get rid of the ash. Paolino & Sons turned around and hired another company, Amalgamated Shipping, which owned a cargo ship named the Khian Sea. Amalgamated loaded 14,000 tons of the ash onto the Khian Sea, which headed for a dump site in the Caribbean.120

At the time, I worked with Greenpeace’s Toxic Trade Team, which tracked international shipments of waste, alerting target governments about the hazardous contents. Thanks largely to our warnings, the ship was turned away by the Bahamas, Bermuda, the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Guinea-Bissau, and the Netherlands Antilles. (In gratitude, some very nice bottles of rum were sent from several of these embassies to our Washington, D.C., Greenpeace offices.) The Khian Sea continued to sail the region in search of a dump site.

In December 1987, the Khian Sea arrived in Gonaïves, a tiny, dusty, and very poor port town in Haiti. It had in hand a permit signed by the Haitian government to import “fertilizer.” Anxious to be finished with its nightmare voyage, the crew began unloading the ash onto the beach immediately. But when Greenpeace alerted the Haitian government to the real contents of the cargo, government officials ordered the ash reloaded and removed. The crew stopped unloading but left 4,000 tons of ash on the open beach and took off.

The remaining 10,000 tons was definitely the best-traveled pile of ash ever. The voyage ultimately lasted for twenty-seven months, visiting every continent except Antarctica. Our Greenpeace team continued to track the Khian Sea, warning each country it approached. During the saga, the ship got a paint job and changed its name from the Khian Sea to the Felicia, then to the Pelicano, but it couldn’t shake us. At one point in its journey, the ship returned to Philadelphia in defeat, hoping to return the ash to the original contractor, Paolino & Sons. But Paolino & Sons refused to let the ship dock at its pier in Philly. By strange coincidence, the pier caught on fire that very night and was destroyed, preventing the ship from docking. Finally, in November 1988 the ship appeared in Singapore with its cargo holds empty. The captain refused to disclose where the ash had been dumped. Eventually an enterprising lawyer, Howard Stewart, from the Environmental Crimes division of the Department of Justice tracked down photos surreptitiously taken by one of the sailors that showed the ash being dumped overboard into the ocean, which is a violation of international law.121

Meanwhile, the other 4,000 tons remained uncovered on the beach in Gonaïves, decreasing in size as more and more of it was blown away or washed into the sea each rainy season. I visited Haiti three times while the ash sat on the beach. I was amazed how widely known the ash was; wherever I went in Haiti, if I introduced myself as a person working on waste, immediately each person would ask if I had seen the ash in Gonaïves. I asked my Haitian friends why—with the many problems that Haiti was facing, including much more immediate health threats—the ash had gained so much attention. My friends told me that Haitians have long felt “dumped upon” by the United States, and the actual ash dumping was widely perceived as the epitome of that careless attitude. What is more symbolic than the richest country in the hemisphere dumping its waste on the poorest and then turning a deaf ear to all pleas for help? So Haitians were especially committed to sending the ash home. It was a matter not just of environmental health, but of dignity and justice.

Frustrated with the lack of responsibility taken by either Philadelphia or the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, some Haitians living in the United States approached Greenpeace seeking assistance. In alliance with them, my Greenpeace colleague Kenny Bruno and I reached out to members of Philadelphia’s faith-based communities, especially the Quakers, and launched Project Return to Sender. We demanded that Philadelphia take responsibility for the ash in Gonaïves and dispose of it in a regulated landfill in this country. For more than ten years we hounded the mayors of Philadelphia, organized citizens to speak up at city hall meetings, and met with Haitians here and in Haiti. In response, successive city administrations kept changing the official party line. Sometimes they said Philadelphia bore no responsibility, other times they said they would take the ash back but had no money to help pay. Mayor Edward Rendell and most city council members turned a deaf ear, saying it just wasn’t their problem.

So finally we decided to make it their problem.

In the mid to late 1990s, Project Return to Sender organized a number of creative actions to get the attention of political leaders in Philadelphia and Washington. The mayor of Philadelphia and the EPA administrator received hundreds of envelopes from individual Haitians, each containing a pinch of the ash and marked “WARNING: contains toxic ash mislabeled as fertilizer, RETURN TO SENDER.” American students across the country sent valentines to the mayor, encouraging him to “have a heart, clean up Philadelphia’s ash.” Philadelphia residents attended city council meetings to demand the city take responsibility for its waste. In a wonderful demonstration of solidarity, a group of Philadelphians even went from Philly to Haiti to visit the ash and to protest in front of the U.S. embassy there.

For months, the mayor’s office faxed me a daily schedule of the mayor’s events. (It was easily available upon request—a policy that may have since been revisited.) We ensured that groups of students, Quakers, or Haitians greeted him at each event with a gigantic banner: “MAYOR RENDELL: Do the right thing, bring the ash home.” At the airport, celebrating a new direct flight to the Netherlands, there we were. At a gala at a museum, guests in tuxedos and evening gowns all passed the banner on the way from their limos to the entrance.

One morning, going over the fax of Mayor Rendell’s appearances, I was delighted to see that that very evening he’d be in D.C., where I was. The city of Philadelphia was hosting an event at a big hotel on Capitol Hill. My friends Dana Clark and Heidi Quante and I got dressed up and headed there. It’s a funny thing to put on high heels in an effort to get toxic ash cleaned up. We lingered at the entrance to the gigantic ballroom where the party was held, listening to the band and waiting for the right moment to make our move. Mayor Rendell, his wife, and some other local politicos were at the door greeting each person as they entered. As soon as the news cameras turned to Mayor Rendell, my friends and I went through the line. When I got to the mayor, I told him about the toxic ash left on the beach. I held his hand so tightly he couldn’t get away, while Heidi pinned a bright red badge on his lapel that said: “Mayor Rendell, do the right thing, BRING THE ASH HOME.” He brushed me aside, only to find the next young woman in line demand the same thing. And the next. Finally he said, “OK, I’ll give fifty thousand dollars and not a penny more.”

Fifty thousand dollars was only a fraction of the $600,000 estimated for the cleanup, but we nonetheless felt like celebrating. So we joined the party. Amazingly, no one kicked us out. We strolled around the ballroom, handing out flyers and explaining the situation to people who asked us about our big red badges. One gentleman from my hometown of Seattle was especially interested and asked us lots of questions. Shortly thereafter, the music stopped and the mayor took the stage, welcoming people and extolling the virtues of Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love. To our surprise, the guy from Seattle began yelling, “Bring the ash home!” We joined him and kept it up until the security guards made it known we had overstayed our welcome.

Through a series of complicated negotiations, a deal was finally reached to bring the ash back to the United States. On April 5, 2000, what was left of the ash was loaded onto a ship and removed from Gonaïves. Today there’s a big billboard in its place that reads “Toxic Dumping in Haiti: Never Again.”

No Away In Sight

After years of traveling around investigating international waste dumping and meeting the people whose communities had been dumped on, my conviction was unshakable. It is simply wrong for the world’s richest countries to dump hazardous waste on the world’s poorest ones. Period. I remember talking to a U.S. congressional representative who told me I should find a compromise position. Like what? It is OK to dump on adults, but not kids? Or on Asians, but not Africans? No way. If it is too hazardous for my child, it is too hazardous for any child, anywhere.

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Outraged by international waste trade scandals around the world, many countries have signed on to a United Nations convention called the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal. The Basel Convention was adopted on March 22, 1989, and went into force on May 5, 1992. In its first iteration, the convention regulated, rather than banned, waste exports from wealthy countries to poorer ones.122 Around the world, human rights activists, environmentalists, and representatives of developing countries (i.e., the targets of waste traffickers) condemned the convention for “legalizing toxic waste.” Fortunately, the treaty was updated with a provision banning waste exports from the worlds’ richest countries (primarily OECD members) to less wealthy ones (non-OECD countries), effective January 1, 1998.123 The United States is the only industrialized country in the world that hasn’t yet ratified the Basel Convention.

While Basel is a tremendous victory, the battle is not yet over. Some countries and business associations continue to argue for exemptions from the ban for certain waste streams. An NGO watchdog group, the Basel Action Network, monitors the Basel Convention and publishes a list of entities working to undermine the ban. Whole countries are on the list: Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States, and so are a number of trade associations: the International Council on Mining and Metals, the International Chamber of Commerce, and the United Nations Center for Trade and Development. To get involved and keep waste from being dumped on unsuspecting communities worldwide, visit the Basel Action Network at www.ban.org.

And Then There’s Recycling

Recycling is amazing in its ability to stir people—some people are inspired by it, many proud of it, others bored, cynical, or even angered by it. I’ve gone through all those stages; in fact, I go through most of those stages on a daily basis.

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Like many people, my earliest relationship with environmental causes was through recycling—starting in childhood. This was in the day prior to curbside recycling programs, so my mother had us kids collect our newspapers, bottles, and cans, pile them into the station wagon, and drive them up to the collection center at the local grocery store parking lot. I remember the heavy bundles and the rainbow paintings on the side of the storage sheds. I recall feeling good putting the bottles in the correct color-coded bins. I am not alone in having experienced that; around the world, many people recognize the good feeling that they get from recycling.

The feel-good aspect is at the heart of much of the debate about recycling. Is recycling a con that keeps us deluded into feeling like we’re helping the planet while leaving industry free to keep churning out ever more badly designed toxic Stuff? Heather Rogers, author of a book about garbage called Gone Tomorrow, writes that “industry accepted recycling in lieu of more radical changes like bans on certain materials and individual processes, production controls, minimum standards for product durability, and higher standards for resource extraction.”124

Or is recycling a good first step into broader awareness and activism on sustainability issues; a gateway experience to get people interested and then guide them along to taking more strategic and effective action? Neil Seldman, president of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, who has chronicled recycling in the United States for three decades, says that recycling has the power to transform industry: “It may have to do with one of society’s most mundane problems, garbage, or discarded materials, but its implications go to the heart of our industrial system.”125

Actually, I believe it’s both. Recycling can lull us into believing we have done our part while nothing, really, has changed. And recycling can play an important role in the transformation to a more sustainable and more just economy.

The Good

In 2007—the most recent year for which data is available—people in the United States generated 254 million tons of trash, of which 85 million tons—or about a third—was recycled.126

The environmental benefits are obvious. Recycling keeps materials in use, thus reducing the demand for extracting and producing new materials and avoiding—or more likely delaying—the point at which the materials become waste. Reducing harvesting, mining, and hauling resources, as well as the production of new Stuff, can reduce energy use and greenhouse gas emissions. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that even our meager 33.4 percent recycling rate in the United States results in an annual benefit of 193 million metric tons of CO2 reduction, which is equivalent to removing 35 million passenger vehicles from the road.127

And those CO2 reductions are just the start. Recycling also creates more jobs—and better ones—than other waste management options. The Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a Washington, D.C., think tank specializing in waste and economic development, estimates that for every one hundred jobs created in recycling, just ten were lost in waste hauling.128

The Questionable

However, considering that it would be possible to make 100 percent of our Stuff so that it could be easily and safely reused, recycled, or composted, 33 percent is a pretty lame recycling rate. It’s especially alarming when we look at the data for waste generation. Yes, recycling is increasing, but so is total waste produced on both a national and per-capita level.

Our goal should not be to recycle more, but to waste less. Focusing on the wrong end of the question can point our efforts in the wrong direction. For example, I heard about a recycling contest in which a number of U.S. colleges participated to see who could collect the most plastic bottles to recycle. At one school, kids went to Costco and bought bulk boxes of single-serving water bottles in order to win. The same nutty dynamic is happening anywhere people are measuring progress by an increase in recycling rather than a decrease in waste.

At a recycling conference I attended recently, I learned about RecycleBank, a program that weighs residents’ recycling bins at the curb and awards people points for heavier bins. That means the neighbor who buys cases of single-serving bottled water gets points over the one who installed a filter and drinks tap water in reusable containers! But wait, there’s more. Guess what you get for those points? More Stuff! Residents cash in those points for goods at partner retailers including Target, IKEA, Foot Locker, and Bed Bath & Beyond. Who invented these programs—Keep America Beautiful?

Programs like this give recycling a bad name, by encouraging more consumption and more waste. They allow producers to escape responsibility for their wasteful packaging and, perversely, subsidize the generation of disposable Stuff. And perhaps worse of all, programs like this claim to be making real change.

The Ugly

Despite its rainbow-bright image, recycling is often a dirty process. If Stuff contains toxic components, then recycling perpetuates them, exposing recycling workers and yet another round of consumers and community residents to potential health threats. Even if the material isn’t toxic, large-scale municipal recycling requires trucks and factories that use a lot of energy and create more waste. Just because it’s called recycling doesn’t mean it’s green. As currently practiced, recycling is largely controlled by huge waste hauling companies like Waste Management, Inc., which operates facilities for both recycling and wasting (and whose profit is far higher for the wasting part).

BIOPLASTICS: AN OXYMORON OR A SIGN OF HOPE?

Currently most plastics are made from petroleum and a host of chemicals, many toxic. We have to figure out how to meet our needs using materials that are renewable, safe, and ecologically sound. So what about bioplastics?

There are two generations of contemporary bioplastics (I am not counting some of the early plastics that were made from plant material, like cellophane, which was originally made from cellulose from wood pulp). The first generation was what I call the Total Scam Round of Biodegradable Plastics and the second generation is what I call the Jury’s Still Out Round of Biodegradable Plastics.

Round One: By the late 1980s, garbage was on the alarmed American public’s radar screen. In response, Mobil Chemical Company, producer of Hefty brand plastic garbage bags, mixed cornstarch with petroleum plastic and declared its bags “biodegradable.” Mobil’s spokespeople actually admitted this was just a PR stunt, not any kind of substantive claim regarding biodegradability.129

Environmental groups, scientists, and even some state governments were outraged by Mobil’s absurd claim. Within a couple years, lawsuits filed by seven states, as well as an agreement with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), forced Mobil to drop its “biodegradable” label.130

Round Two: Today, many companies make and use plastics that are produced 100 percent from plants—corn, potatoes, agricultural waste. These bioplastics are being used in food packaging, water bottles, and even computers, cell phones, and some car parts. Are these new bioplastics truly sustainable? Or do they just reinforce our disposability culture and infrastructure?

Unfortunately, right now the crops that make up today’s bioplastics are mostly grown in huge centralized farms, with heavy inputs of pesticides and fossil fuels, using genetically modified organisms and poorly paid farmworkers. Some of them use food-grade crops that could be used, duh, for food, rather than the single-serving containers for which much bioplastic is utilized.

And even though they are technically compostable, that’s only in large-scale composting operations that reach the desired conditions for them to degrade. As an experiment, I put a bioplastic cup and some cutlery in my backyard bin four years ago and none have even the slightest hole in them yet. Bioplastics often end up in the regular trash or mucking up recycling programs since they have very different properties from other plastic containers and have to be sorted out before recycling.

The jury is still out on whether bioplastics could be made in a truly sustainable way that supports a reduction in packaging and avoids single-use packaging completely; that supports small farmers and farmworkers; that adheres to the principles of green chemistry; and that avoids fossil fuel use. There’s a great group called the Sustainable Biomaterials Collaborative that’s working on this very issue.

Also, much of our waste collected for recycling is exported overseas, especially to Asia, where environmental and worker safety laws are weaker and less well enforced. I’ve tracked plastic waste, used car batteries, e-waste, and other toxic-containing components of our municipal waste to Bangladesh, India, China, Indonesia, and other places. I’ve snuck into facilities (in various disguises!) to get a firsthand look at what happens to our waste overseas. The awful conditions I witnessed are not what conscientious individuals in the United States have in mind when they diligently wash out their plastic bottles or return their used car batteries.

Another complaint about recycling is that it often isn’t even recycling but is actually something called downcycling. True recycling achieves a circular closed loop production process (a bottle into a bottle into a bottle), while downcycling just makes Stuff into a lower-grade material and a secondary product (a plastic jug into carpet backing). At best, downcycling reduces the need for virgin ingredients for the secondary item, but it never reduces the resources needed to make a replacement for the original item. In fact, by being able to advertise a product as “recyclable,” the demand for that first item may actually rise, which, ironically, is more of a resource drain.

The classic example of this is plastic—where the industry cleverly appropriated the popular “chasing arrows” recycling logo and added to it the numbers 1 to 9 to indicate the grade of plastic. As Heather Rogers points out in Gone Tomorrow, this “misleadingly telegraphed to the voting consumer that these containers were recyclable and perhaps had even been manufactured with reprocessed materials.”131 For the record, it is extremely difficult to actually recycle plastics; almost always, they are downcycled. If you’re curious, ask your local recycler what it is doing with those bottles it picks up—are they being made into new bottles or shipped off to China, where they’re turned into some secondary product?

Dr. Paul Connett says that “recycling is an admission of defeat; an admission that we were not clever enough or didn’t care enough to design it to be more durable, to repair it, or to avoid using it in the first place.”132 It’s not that recycling itself is bad, but our overemphasis on it is a problem. There is a reason recycling comes third in the eco mantra “Reduce, reuse, recycle.” Recycling is the last thing we should do with our Stuff, not the first. As a last resort, recycling is better than landfill or incineration for sure. And hats off to those dedicated people who have built and voraciously defended the recycling infrastructure that does exist in this country. Let’s use that infrastructure when our backs are against the wall, when we’re out of better options and have to chuck something.

Unfortunately though, recycling is most often not seen as a last resort, but as the primary environmental duty of an engaged citizen. It’s the number-one way people demonstrate their environmental commitment. In fact, more people recycle than vote regularly in this country! I can’t tell you how many times, when I get asked what I do for a living, people respond with a proud, “Oh, I recycle!” And while it’s good that they do, there must be greater awareness of the limitations of recycling, as well as widespread understanding of the other things that must happen to solve our problems with waste.

It is this aspect of recycling that most irritates those with a broader systemic understanding of the problems and broader vision for change. Recycling is easy: it can be done without ever raising questions about the inherent problems with current systems of production and consumption, about the long-term sustainability of a growth-obsessed economic model or about equitable distribution of the planet’s resources. Clearly, sorting used bottles and papers into a blue bin is not going to fundamentally change, or even challenge, the massive negative impacts of the way we extract, make, distribute, use, and share or don’t share all the Stuff in our lives. In fact, because it makes us feel good, because it makes us feel like we’re doing something useful, the worry is that recycling may actually bolster those very patterns of production and consumption that are trashing the planet and distract us from working for deeper change.

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Recycling Done Right

But does all this mean we should abandon recycling? No way!

I think the way to go is to look at our waste and figure out who is responsible for what.

It seems to me that green waste—yard trimmings, leaves, and food scraps—fall into the category of our personal individual responsibility. We ate the food and planted the tree, or at least enjoyed its shade. It’s not too much to expect us, then, to manage this green waste responsibly, just as we manage other aspects of our homes. This could mean composting it ourselves or lobbying to institute a municipal composting program, paid for by taxpayer dollars.

Then there’s all the other Stuff in the garbage: the Stuff that is the product of intentional choices in design and manufacturing, choices that were outside our reach of immediate influence.

This Stuff falls under someone’s responsibility—the people who designed, produced, and profited from it. If you, Mr. Ketchup Producer, switch from a recyclable glass bottle to a squeezable one made of multiple plastic resins bonded together that can never be separated for recycling, you need to figure out how to deal with that at the end of its life. If you, Ms. Printer Producer, decide to make toner cartridges that are impossible to open and refill and so must be thrown out while still perfectly functional, then you deal with it. That is your choice, not mine.

The official term for the “you made it, you deal with it” approach—of which I am a huge fan—is “extended producer responsibility” (EPR), which holds the producers of goods responsible for their entire lifecycle. This encourages producers to make improvements upstream, in the design and production phases, to avoid getting stuck with a pile of poorly designed, toxic-containing, nonupgradable junk. As I’ve previously mentioned, there are already strong government-mandated models of EPR in place, notably Germany’s Green Dot system and the European Union’s WEEE (waste electrical and electronic equipment) directive, that illustrate how entirely feasible this approach is.

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Zero Waste

True recycling and EPR are both elements of the broader Zero Waste plan. Zero Waste includes, but goes well beyond, recycling. Zero Waste advocates look at the broader system in which waste is created, from extraction to production all the way through consumption and disposal. In this way, Zero Waste is a philosophy, a strategy, and a set of practical tools.

The cool thing about Zero Waste is that it breaks free from the self-defeating “what can we do with all this waste?” paradigm. Zero Waste challenges the very acceptability and inevitability of waste. It seeks to eliminate waste, not manage it. That’s why Zero Waste advocates can’t stand the term “waste management.” Their efforts don’t focus on better waste management, but on moving closer to zero waste. Unrealistic? Maybe so, but it’s the right goal to have. Just like factories have a zero defects goal and airlines have a zero accident goal. They aren’t there yet, but they are really clear about where they are heading. Can you imagine United Airlines saying “Zero accidents... or darn close?” No way; I’m aiming for zero.

For a long time, when I would test the phrase “zero waste” in random conversations (with my dentist, the guy at the bus stop, the woman next to me on the plane), I’d get blank stares. For most people, “zero” and “waste” just didn’t fit together. It didn’t compute. We’ve all been taught that waste is inevitable, the price of progress. I still get odd stares on a regular basis, but I am happy to report that the term is catching on. Newsweek magazine’s 2008 Earth Day issue included Zero Waste on its list of “10 fixes for the planet.” The Newsweek article said, in essence, that recycling paper, plastic, and aluminum is a start, but oh so twentieth century.133 Jeffrey Hollender, executive chairperson of Seventh Generation, which makes nontoxic, recycled paper towels and other products, says, “Zero Waste is the mother of environmental no-brainers.”134

That the concept is seeping into common vocabulary and the media is nice, but I’m really more interested in it seeping into practice. That too is happening. There is no one place that has it down pat, but there are lots of places that have, as we say, pieces of Zero. These pieces look different in different places because Zero Waste isn’t a cookie-cutter model, but a set of approaches designed to meet the needs of each place it is implemented.

The international organization GAIA (Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives) lays out nine core components of Zero Waste programs, which can be tailored and added to for different settings, from schools to neighborhoods to whole states or countries:

1. Reducing consumption and discards

2. Reusing discards

3. Extended producer responsibility

4. Comprehensive recycling

5. Comprehensive composting or biodigestion of organic materials

6. Citizen participation

7. A ban on waste incineration

8. Improving product design upstream to eliminate toxics and instead design for durability and repair

9. Effective policies, regulations, incentives, and financing structures to support these systems135

That covers it: you’ve got the upstream waste prevention and the corporate responsibility, the downstream waste reuse, composting and recycling, and the active, informed public and responsive government to create and implement the policies needed to make it all work. To get to Zero, we need this whole-systems approach.

GAIA notes that “a Zero Waste approach is one of the fastest, cheapest and most effective strategies to protect the climate.” In its 2008 report Stop Trashing the Climate, GAIA explains that significantly decreasing the waste disposed of in landfills and incinerators will reduce greenhouse gas emissions the equivalent of closing one-fifth of U.S. coal-fired power plants.136

Already there are many cities around the world that have adopted Zero Waste policies, goals, or actual plans: Buenos Aires and Rosario, Argentina; Canberra, Australia; Oakland, Santa Cruz, and San Francisco, California; Kovalam, India. In New Zealand, 71 percent of local authorities have passed a resolution to head for zero waste, and the government runs a national benchmarking system to track their progress called “Milestones on the Zero Waste Journey.”137

In the United States, San Francisco was the first city to adopt a serious Zero Waste plan and to move aggressively toward zero. San Francisco committed to diverting 75 percent of its municipal waste from disposal by 2010 and reaching zero by 2020. San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom acknowledged the roles of “producer and consumer responsibility to prevent waste and take full advantage of our nation-leading recycling and composting programs.”138 San Francisco currently has the strongest recycling and composting laws in the United States for households and businesses and, is now diverting 72 percent of its waste—the highest rate in the country.139

On the other side of the world, the coastal town of Kovalam in South India is also aggressively working toward Zero Waste. Kovalam transformed in one generation from a quiet fishing town to a crowded holiday destination. The explosion of Western tourists led to an explosion of waste, or “dumping tourist syndrome” as my friend there, Shibu Nair, calls it. The beach, the roads, and makeshift dumps in the area overflow with empty bottles for shampoo, sunscreen, lotion, and increasingly, for water. Concerned, the local tourism department proposed building an incinerator in 2000. Local activists organized an international e-mail campaign, in which potential visitors from all over the world wrote to the tourism department, saying they wouldn’t come to a beach anywhere near an incinerator. The tourism ministry turned to a local environmental group, and Zero Waste Kovalam was born.140

The Zero Waste Kovalam activists looked for opportunities to design waste out of the system. They set up stations for people to refill water bottles with boiled and filtered water, rather than buy new bottles. They set up worker cooperatives that trained local unemployed people to make reusable cloth bags from leftovers from the tailor shops, thus eliminating the formerly ubiquitous plastic bags.

The founder of Zero Waste Kovalam, Jayakumar Chelaton, is proud of how the issue of waste connected to bigger issues like governance, environmental health, and economic justice in Kovalam. The Zero Waste philosophy for him “is about relationships. It is about people and communities and how we want to live together.”141

And that’s exactly why I became so passionate about waste some twenty years ago. I understood waste was connected to everything else in our world. Unraveling the story of waste is what led me to the Story of Stuff.