Thursday, February 15, 2007

Thoughtful Disposal

Way back in the Paleolithic era of the environmental movement, I remember hearing someone speak about what happens to the gigantic amount of trash we toss away. I also remember being led by the speaker to the distressing realization that there is no "away." All that trash may no longer be in our living space (and Heaven knows we are grateful any time that we can get stuff out of the house), but where does it go?

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, we produced a staggering 245.7 million tons of municipal solid waste in 2005, and the majority of it is now crammed into landfill. Some of that waste consists of things that are genuinely fully used up or worn out, or from the packaging of products, from shipping supplies and containers, and from outdated items that have no after-market. Obviously, being thoughtful consumers would help reduce the huge amount of waste that we generate from the products that we buy. If we buy higher quality, more durable items and fewer of them, we have less to throw "away." If we choose items that are recyclable, that would help, too.

"Oh, great," I can hear some of you moaning. "We're already feeling guilty and overwhelmed by too much stuff everywhere we look in our homes, and now we're supposed to feel guilty when we get rid of it because we're adding to the problems of the entire planet!"

Well, not exactly. Feeling guilty about how much stuff we already own doesn't help the situation. What helps is action. The good news is that most of us have already started to take action. That huge figure the EPA cites actually indicates a reduction of 1.6 million tons of waste compared to the statistics for 2004. Clearly we're wising up about disposing of things more responsibly.

We're taking advantage of recycling paper, plastic, aluminum cans, etc., and some communities offer trash pickup to take organic matter to composting facilities. We still have far to go when it comes to disposing of or recycling hazardous materials, but where there's a potential for profit, there's motivation. That's exactly the situation discussed in an interesting LA Times article on 2/10 by Martin Zimmerman about e-waste recycling.

Discarded electronics are the fastest growing source of solid waste with a 17% increase from 2000 to 2005. Californians contributed our share in 2006 by trashing 450,000 tons of the stuff. However, because cell phones, printers, computers, and other electronic items contain hazardous lead, copper and cadmium, they can't go into municipal landfills, so they create a major disposal headache. Fortunately, they also contain plastic, metal and glass that are very desirable and thus an entire e-waste recycling industry has been born.

Even those of us who struggle to keep up with our daily obligations usually make at least a token effort to be responsible about recycling. I'm completely in favor of it and try my best, but if you've read my book, you know that I'm also in favor of some flexibility for people in a crisis situation who simply cannot cope. At the height of my efforts to unburden our home of too much stuff, I did a great job of getting massive amounts of paper recycled, but I confess that I tossed some flashlight batteries and ink cartridges right into the trash. I thought my head would explode if I had to deal with getting them to a hazardous waste pickup collection site at some indeterminate future date for an event that occurred only once in a blue moon. I'm not proud, but I'm also not perfect. In fact, at this moment I have two empty ink cartridges torturing me as they sit near my desk, waiting for me to find the recycling bag the library kindly provides and that I have managed to misplace. Who will win this round in the fight to recycle? I'm pretty certain that I will find the bag so the library, and the planet, will end up on top.

Most of us aren't perfect when it comes to handling our stuff, otherwise how would we have gotten into such uncomfortable situations in the first place? But perhaps thinking about the impact our decisions have on the fate of our planet will be a helpful way to motivate us to choose more wisely when we're buying things and to make a little extra effort when we're letting go of what we have. We have only a few options when it comes to disposing of our excess stuff:

1. Sell it (be certain it's worth the effort),
2. Donate it to family, friends, or a charity (be certain it's still in decent or reparable shape), or
3. Toss it. If we're going to toss it, let's try our best to dispose of it appropriately.

We can't just throw it "away."

(c) 2007 Cynthia Friedlob

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