Trash: A Blessing, Sure, But Mostly a Curse

By Mark Milby, Keep IU Beautiful Intern

Aliya’s last post is a fascinating taste of life in one of the largest cities on the planet. The waste littering the streets of Beijing is testament to China’s rapid economic growth, where disposability and marginal costs built on economies of scale have won out over thrift, repair, and reuse. It’s an unavoidable byproduct of our consumer-driven economies – trash it quick so you can buy another. You can’t deny the power of such a system; billions of people around the world enjoy higher standards of living thanks to it. But what’s the cost? The study of sustainability seeks to answer this question and propose solutions to mitigate the costs while maintaining standards of living. It’s fun work.

The interplay between the ‘disposable economies’ of China and the U.S. is fairly obvious to us Americans – we’ve all joked about how every cheap piece of plastic has those three words stamped on the bottom. Well, in a way, the joke’s on us. In 2010, China’s main export to the U.S., computer equipment, was worth 50 billion dollars. Our main exports to China? Waste paper and scrap metal ($8 billion). The massive, insatiable machine that is the Chinese economy is desperate for fuel, and our caffeinated junk-mail culture is the perfect trading partner. Edward Humes, in his new book, Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair With Trash, calls us “China’s Trash Compactor”. He also notes that from space, two of the most visible man-made objects are appropriately placed – The Great Wall, just an hour’s drive from Beijing, and the Fresh Kills Landfill, spanning 2,200 acres of Staten Island, which served as New York City’s main dump site throughout the second half of the 20th century.

Trash: It’s one of the most significant parts of our lives and our economy. It’s the individually wrapped, the “packaged to maintain freshness”, the middle of the newspaper, the dead battery, the cigarette butt, the packing peanut, the carryout container, the Polar Pop, the twisty tie, the blister pack, the “I’m-moving-and-the-Hoosier-to-Hoosier-sale-is-just-so-far-away”, and the carryout plastic bag holding a Diet Coke and a pack of gum. Our little actions all day long turn landfills into methane mountains brimming with leachate. The average American tosses 7.1 pounds of trash per day, and over 102 tons throughout his or her lifetime. That’s 50-100% more than other countries with similar standards of living. We, 5% of the world’s population, produce 25% of the world’s trash. Sure, we can recycle, compost, or burn trash for energy – but do we really need to be making so much in the first place?

momilby@indiana.edu

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