Sunday, April 8, 2012

Why Do We Have Garbage?

How many garbage cans do you have in your house? By average American standards I live in a modest sized house and have four (one in the kitchen, one in each of two bathrooms and on in the laundry room, mostly to collect lint from the drier). Why do we accept without question that almost every room in a house should have a garbage can? If someone told you “I have no garbage cans in my house” you would question their cleaning habits before you might question their lack of need for any.

Why is it so ingrained in our culture, in our daily activities, that we are always producing garbage? It makes sense that if you accept that fact (and simple observation confirms it) that we either live with mounds of the stuff all around us or we place receptacles everywhere (work, home, restaurants, public places) to collect the stuff and get rid of it.

But why don’t we set a goal to not create it in the first place? If I buy a product from a manufacturer that is packaged in cardboard to protect it during shipping, I can recycle the box. But what about the shrink-wrap plastic around the outside? Or the packing materials inside? Or the instructions five minutes after I read them for the one and only time that I ever will? What can I do with those? Maybe a better question to ask is why do I have them in the first place? I don’t want or need those things (this may be an over-simplification, but I think most products these days either don’t really require instructions or the manufacturer can post them online). Hey, how about a product that is so easy to use or so automated that it just works when I turn it on? But that sounds like a topic for a future blog post.

Let’s examine our food. A typical day for me might start with cereal (cardboard box with a wax bag), milk (plastic jug) and blueberries (clear plastic pint container) with a tub of yogurt (plastic tub) for breakfast. For lunch, ham sandwich (ham from plastic deli bag, bread from plastic bag) with mustard (plastic bottle), lettuce (plastic bag) and tomato (usually plastic bag, but not required, one of the few such store bought items), potato chips (plastic-aluminized bag) and an apple (like the tomato, usually from a plastic bag). Finally, for dinner a baked chicken breast (Styrofoam tray with self-stick plastic wrap), steamed broccoli (plastic bag), rice (cardboard box with internal plastic bag) and ice cream (cardboard tub).

Whew, that’s exhausting. But look at all the garbage I throw away each day just to eat my food. And I’m not even getting into table scraps, leftovers that get thrown out or that tomato that went bad in the fridge before I got around to eating it. And the amount of garbage goes up exponentially if I eat out, especially at a fast food restaurant (not only the containers I see, but those used to package and prepare the food before I get it).

I have two issues with so much garbage. One is the obvious one of running out of room to put the stuff and the resources consumed to manage it all. This includes the cost of collecting it, shipping it and finally burying it somewhere. The less obvious problem is that I’m paying money for all that packaging simply to throw it away. Now I imagine you’re saying, “But you are getting use out of the packaging before it gets disposed.” This is true, but I think we could get much more value out of our packaging than we are. In other words, as a consumer I could receive the same benefit from less packaging, which would cost me less, if the manufacturer made it a priority to minimize their packaging. “But they have financial incentive to do so,” you counter. Yes, but this is sometimes out-weighed by other incentives such as prominence on shelf displays, theft-prevention and simply misleading the customer into thinking they are purchasing more of the product than they are (case in point, cereal boxes).

Here's another question. What product do you purchase (with your hard earned money) with the express purpose of throwing it away (and in true irony, its packaging also)? Garbage can liners/bags. Does this make any sense? I expend resources (time, energy, money) to drive to the store, purchase this product and bring it home only to throw it away. Then I pay someone to pick it up from my house and drive it to a big hole in the ground and bury it. There must be a better way.

And that topic will be my next blog post.

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