Plastic Trash and Whack-a-Mole

“A year’s worth of [the world’s production of] plastic would outweigh a navy of more than five-hundred Nimitz-class aircraft carriers, the largest ships ever built…” —Edward Humes, author of “Garbology”

plastic trash

No place is too remote for plastic trash. Plastic items on the beaches of Laysan Island, in the Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge. As unsightly as this is, the biggest problems may stem from the plastic in the ocean that we don’t see, that which has been broken into innumerable floating bits.

l’m reading a book I just came across, “Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash”, by Edward Humes. I’m not quite finished yet, but it has definitely made me think. Here’s a some of these trash-thoughts, and a few others that I’ve had lately—

— Well, this first one is a no-brainer, but we could all create less waste. We are emerging from a profligate era of abundance, where consumption was glorified, and where trash could be set by the curb and made to just disappear (but not really). We are rapidly reaching the end of that era, and are entering a time where we will need to husband every resource, and live very intentionally, lest we irreversibly damage our planet and the life on it. Humes proposes one way to think about this “waste”—that we need to quit thinking about that word as a noun, but rather to think of it as a verb, because what we put into the trash is often the result of wasteful activity or processes; it is “waste” in several senses of the word. It takes energy and resources to mine or grow or otherwise produce and ship all those items that go into the trash, and more energy and resources and effort and money and nature destruction to get them to the landfill and make them “disappear”. Just the fact that this pattern is not circular, but is a one-way trip, makes this activity inherently wasteful. Humes calculates that every American will produce 102 tons of trash in his or her lifetime (other countries do better, on the whole), much of it caused by excess or wasteful consumption patterns. Much of this “trash” isn’t really trash, but rather material that could be separated from the waste stream. Which leads me to my next point…

garbology book— Large percentages of what we do dispose of could be recycled or composted. According to Humes, the average American’s trash, by weight, consists of 28% paper, 14% food, 14% yard waste, 12% plastics, 9% metals, 8% rubber or textiles, 7% wood, 5% glass, and 4% “other”. Again, no rocket-science is required here—the paper, plastics, metals, and glass can all be more-or-less readily recycled, and the food waste, yard waste, and wood can all be composted. Even conservatively, this appears to be more than 80% of the waste stream. Imagine every trash truck or train having its volume reduced by 80 percent! Now, recycling is great, but recycling alone doesn’t really absolve us from environmental impact (and there was a very similar message in the book “Junkyard Planet”, my post here); even recycling has its limits and costs. So, back to point number one—the best trash is the trash that never got created in the first place. But if it has to be disposed of, then recycling is far better than the landfill.

— Composting is more important than I previously thought. I had come to this realization before I read this particular book, and have actually been meaning to write a post about it. Here’s why—a few years ago I considered composting to be a relatively minor part of living sustainably, something that was great to do and could create a few pots of good soil for the garden, but wasn’t going to play some huge role in saving the planet. I might be wrong about that, for several reasons. First, composting creates fertile planting material, but it also helps close the nutrient loop; an important permaculture principle. Second, it appears that over a third of typical trash could be composted, which could prevent it from having to be landfilled, and thereby save all of those costs. But perhaps the most important reason is that if organic material does get buried in a landfill it decomposes anaerobically, which produces methane, a gas that is more than twenty times more potent than CO2, in terms of global warming. So, positives on one side, big negatives on the other—this makes composting pretty important (…and some cities are making it mandatory).

— Plastics are forever. And they’re wonderful. And they’re horrible. They’re wonderful because they’re incredibly useful. Plastic products are inexpensive and nearly infinitely versatile, which is why over 50 million tons of plastics are produced every year, according to Humes. We use plastics for food wrap and dashboards and buttons and kayaks and literally millions of other products. BUT, virtually every piece of plastic that has ever been made is still around, and when those plastics get into the ocean, as they invariably do, they cause really big problems, and will perhaps cause even more problems in the future that we can’t yet foresee. Ingested (because plastics are often mistaken for food by wildlife), they kill birds and turtles and fish. The animals die and decompose, releasing the plastics to be ingested yet again. Plastics wash up on beaches, absorb organic pollutants, and break down into tiny pieces that turn huge expanses of ocean into what Hume calls “plastic chowder”. It’s an absolutely huge, and growing, problem, with some researchers calculating that over 150 million tons of plastics are now in the ocean, with more washing in every year. (One organization working on this problem is 5gyres.org; there is a lot of material on their website.)

Divers attempt to free a seal from ocean debris.

Divers attempt to free a seal from ocean debris.

So, to recap—we could probably “waste” dramatically less, more of what we do have to dispose of could be recycled or composted, and plastics are causing some big problems. And I would guess that most of this isn’t particularly surprising to most people. But here’s the bigger question—what does this mean to me, as someone who is trying to morph their lifestyle and habits into something approaching “sustainable”? A bit of inspiration might come from Beth Terry’s book, “Plastic-Free: How I Kicked the Habit and You Can Too”.

Plastic-free---possible but difficult?

Plastic-free—possible but difficult?

I glanced through it the other day, and might read it soon. Another book, “Zero Waste Home”, by Bea Johnson, details her family’s methods that enable them to only make one quart (!) of garbage in a year. But here’s what I suspect—that reducing one’s trash burden, whether or not one is making a specific effort to reduce plastics, requires a bit of effort and attention. It might come down to being a matter of time and convenience, because in many cases, doing things in ways that create trash is just easier. If this is true, then it might be a problem, because in my life trying to do things in a sustainable way is starting to feel like playing “Whack-a-Mole”. For the last six months I’ve felt like I can to this thing the right way, or that thing the right way, but not everything, because they all take time, and I run out of time. For instance, cooking more is a good pattern for all kinds of reasons, but as I got busy last fall with the solar project, I found myself cooking less and eating out more, or eating foods that were pre-prepared in some way. Likewise with gardening, and the bees, and cutting firewood, and minimizing my belongings, and myriad other aspects of my life—I’m not sure I have time to do them all. Now, in the Amazon write-up for Bea Johnson’s book, it says that after reducing their trash to near zero that “…their overall quality of life has changed for the better: they now have more time together, they’ve cut their annual spending by a zero_waste_home_jacket_500remarkable forty percent, and they are healthier than they’ve ever been…” I might have to read this book next, instead of the one about plastic reduction, because it doesn’t do us all any good to know what we should be doing, but not have the time to do it. Much to contemplate, and I suspect I’ll be revisiting this topic…

 

 

 

 

Opening quote—emphasis mine.
Beach image credit: Susan White, USFWS, Flickr Creative Commons.
Seal: NOAA, National Ocean Service Image Gallery.