The problems with garbage are so huge that it is easy to be overwhelmed, but you needn't be. In general, try to think about what kind of trash something will become before you buy it: will it be toxic in a landfill or an incinerator, or will it soon become obsolete? Can the object be repaired, reused, or recycled? Can you rent or borrow it from someone else? When you're done with this product, can you pass it along to someone else instead of shunting it to the curb?
One of the most shocking things I learned while reseaching my book, and the most important thing for all of us to remember, is that for every barrel of waste you send to the landfill, there are 71 barrels' worth of waste generated by the industrial processes that transform raw materials into finished goods. When you avoid buying new goods, you help avoid all that other waste upstream.
Here are 10 practical things you can do to reduce your garbage footprint and help slow the garbage juggernaut:
- Support recycling industries—and lower the demand for virgin materials—by buying goods with recycled content. If no one buys the recycled stuff, we're not closing the loop.
- Avoid disposables and individually wrapped single servings. Buy in bulk, or buy the largest size possible.
- If at all possible, compost your food and yard waste.
- To stop junk mail, visit Ecocycle and heed their advice.
- Bring dead cell phones and rechargeable batteries to an office supply store that accepts drop-offs. To find a store near you, go to www.earth911.org and type in your zip code.
- Donate working computers to nonprofits (try www.cristina.org); to find a responsible e-waste recycler (one that pledges not to landfill, burn or export hazardous components), visit www.ban.org/pledge/Locations.html. If there isn't a responsible recycler nearby, you could ship your equipment to an approved e-cycler. If that's too expensive (it ain't cheap), hang onto your equipment until a local recycler signs BAN's pledge. Then contact your equipment's manufacturer and ask the company to take responsibility for its products at end-of-life. For more on this topic, visit computertakeback.com.
- In your workplace or school, launch an environmental purchasing program for cleaning products, paper, computers, paint, and renewable energy. See www.newdream.org/procure/products/ComputerPrinciples.pdf for inspiration and guidance.
- If your landfill is publicly owned, urge your city council to ban yard waste and recyclables from the dump.
- Urge local and federal governments to support producer take-backs. Here's the deal: if producers had to take financial responsibility for their products' end of life, they'd have an incentive to design goods that are more durable, that are easily recycled, that contain fewer hazardous materials, and come wrapped in reusable packaging. Manufacturers will continue to externalize the social and environmental costs of the goods they're pumping out until government and consumers force them to take responsibility for their waste (as in Europe, where manufacturers are required to recycle computers, cars, and packaging).
- Don't lose heart. Consumers wield enormous power. We have persuaded food corporations to add organics to their product lines; pushed sales of recycled paper at Office Depot up 65 percent over the last three years; convinced some publishers (but not mine, yet) to print books on recycled paper; and persuaded Dell to take back and responsibly recycle its used computers and Apple its iPods. Individuals can make a difference by pressuring lawmakers to adopt and support sustainable initiatives. Add your voice to this growing community by joining New American Dream.
The pictures on this page are details of pictures taken by the photographer, Chris Jordan, though at these sizes they merely hint at the actual photographs' monumental power. See them in person if you can, or visit Chris's website.