If you haven’t been to a landfill, I highly recommend it. Transfer stations, where garbage is transferred from smaller trucks to bigger ones, and Materials Recovery Facilities, or MRFs, where some recyclables are pulled out of the trash before it is dumped, are also really interesting. Seeing the often-hidden back end of our materials economy can be a transformative, or at least a very thought provoking –if smelly – experience. Click Here to see pictures from our fieldtrip to the dump.
It was a trip to the landfill on Staten Island in New York City that first sparked my fascination with the way we make, use and throw away all the stuff in our lives. Ever since then, I’ve visited dumps whenever I visit a new city, all over the world. It is a great way to get insight into what is going on in a place, what the community values, how the people live.
If you visit one of these facilities in the U.S., you’ll see pretty quickly that we are humungous waste makers in this country. Nationally, we generate over 250 million tons of garbage each year, and that is only the municipal waste – or garbage – which doesn’t even include the much larger amounts of waste from industries, mining, and construction. We make enough garbage each year in the U.S. to fill a convoy of 10-ton trucks long enough to wrap around the earth six times! That’s a huge amount and it’s still increasing. In 1980, each of us in the U.S., on average, made about 3.6 pounds (1.6 kg) of garbage per day; by 2007, this had increased to more than 4.6 pounds (2.1 kg). It is an amazing thing to watch these gigantic trucks, sometimes lined up by the dozens, waiting to dump or move ever more garbage. It just goes on and on.
And what’s in these mountains of waste? Good Stuff! That is really what drives me nuts. It is stuff that could have been prevented, repaired, reused, or recycled. When our Story of Stuff team was watching “the pit” where the waste was dumped, we saw one truck unload perfectly good picnic table benches and a dozen big terra cotta pots full of plants. Augh, I’d been searching Freecycle for a bench just like that for my backyard. I briefly contemplated leaping into that cement pit to grab the bench, until I saw the big garbage smushing machine come by.
There was other stuff – electronics, furniture, toys – that was not perfectly good, but was still mostly good. You know all that stuff that stops working because just one piece broke but it’s so hard to repair or recycle that it is easier and cheaper to just throw it away and buy a new one? There were truckloads of that stuff too.
In Europe and parts of Canada and Asia, governments are starting to ask why they and the taxpayers are getting stuck with cleaning up all this poorly designed, toxic containing, difficult to recycle stuff that companies keep putting on the market, designed to be disposable. They’ve developed a system called Extended Producer Responsibility, or EPR, which holds companies responsible for their products at the end of their useful life. The idea is that making companies responsible for dealing with all the stuff they make will encourage them to make their products less wasteful, less toxic, more durable and easier to disassemble for recovery and repair. Using tax payer money to go around picking up and whisking away all this broken stuff is like a subsidy for companies that choose to make wasteful disposable junk. Enough already.
Want to see for yourself what is coming out the back end of our systems of production and consumption? Call your local Waste Management Agency or Department of Sanitation, or whichever company has its logo is on the trucks which pick up the stuff in your neighborhood to request a tour of the dump, transfer station or MRF. If you take pictures share afterwards, please post them on FLCKR with the tag ‘StoryofStuff. If you have thoughts to share, head on over to our Facebook page.
And if that trip to the dump inspires you to get involved, you’re not alone! There are loads of groups working to on waste from the policy level to the practical level, working upstream to reduce waste at source and downstream to increase recycling and composting. My personal favorite is GAIA, an international network working to stop polluting landfills and incinerators and promote solutions that are better for the planet, for communities and for workers. GAIA has member organizations in 81 countries, so GAIA is a great place to start regardless of where you live. If you’re intrigued by the idea of using EPR to hold companies responsible for the products they make, you can learn more at the Product Policy Institute . If you’re outraged about companies in rich countries which export hazardous wastes to poorer countries, contact the Basel Action Network . There are lots more groups on The Story of Stuff website and even more at Wiserearth.