Rethinking Waste

A plastic refuse recycling center in Herat, Afghanistan [© Aref Karimi/AFP]

At the end of the 19th century, the stench that arose from the streets of New York City was so bad that sailors six miles out at sea could smell it. Waste was simply thrown into the streets, joining the manure of the horses that provided the city's transport. Much of the garbage disposal was left to pigs that wandered freely through the city, depositing their own waste among the rotting remains of food, ash and human garbage. Other cities around the world often fared no better.

Today, while all major cities have some form of organized waste management, the waste we are generating is a lot more complex, more toxic and less biodegradable than anything known to our forebears or more traditional cultures.

Each day we throw away an enormous amount of stuff, encouraged by a modern consumer economy that urges us to continually buy more and replace products with newer and better versions. And all those purchases come wrapped in layers of needless packaging. Modern-day residents of New York throw away 12,000 tons of trash daily--a weight equivalent to 62 Boeing 747 jumbo jets. While efficiencies of waste management take it out of sight and out of mind, much of it will still exist hundreds of years from now.

Growing mountains of trash and vast areas of landfill throughout the world are only part of the problem. The bigger issue is the careless attitude that produces them and the shortsightedness that allows us to squander precious resources, turning them into poisons which damage the air, soil and sea.

Fortunately, solutions do exist and are being explored and developed, including innovative approaches that mimic the "no waste" principle of the natural world. Some of these are explored in this issue of the SGI Quarterly. Ultimately, a sustainable future rests on each of us wasting less, questioning more and developing a personal sense of responsibility for the things we consume, realizing that our everyday decisions have far-reaching impacts.