I've been looking at the EPA's 2009 report on Municipal Solid Waste in the United States. It's not a subject that gets most people's attention until the landfill threatens to overflow or the tipping fee goes up, by which time (of course) the major opportunity is already past.
What major opportunity? To not throw out so much stuff. How can we do that? By not buying so much in the first place. Which is not nearly so difficult as our first impressions might indicate. A couple of simple examples:
- Food waste. In 1980 (more or less a generation ago), the USA discarded 13 million tons of food waste, or about 126 pounds per capita. By 2009 (the most recent year reported), that had grown to 33.4 million tons, or 219 pounds per cap. Almost a doubling of food waste per person, and much of it probably needless. Some of the increase is doubtless due to spoilage, as supermarkets are stocking more fresh produce than they did a generation back, and fresh produce tends to have a limited shelf life. But some of it is also due to the increased market penetration of fast food. As witness . . .
- Disposable cups and plates. Adding paper and plastic forms together (society doesn't much differentiate, but waste stream managers do), in 1980 we threw out some 820 thousand tons, compared with 2.07 million tons in 2009. If per-capita usage had stayed the same (philosophical question: if you eat off a paper plate and then throw it out, is it still waste in the same sense that it would be if it had been thrown out unused?), the more recent statistic would be 1.11 million, or a bit more than half of the waste actually generated.
- The rag trade. A generation ago, Americans discarded 19.2 pounds of clothing and footwear per person, per year. Now, it's 59.4 -- triple the amount. The average American throws out almost sixty pounds of clothing and shoes every year. Somehow, I suspect that college students -- along with high school students and young adults -- are among the worst offenders. Blame the fashion industry for successfully marketing the concept of "so last year". Blame the big box retailers for getting us to focus solely on price, at the cost of quality. Quality of construction and materials correlates to durability, but durability isn't even on our list of product virtues any more, it seems.
Solid waste is one good measure of the unsustainability of the current North American socio-politico-economic model. And the pattern exhibited by today's generation (all of us living here now) is far more wasteful than the pattern of a generation back -- a pattern that, in truth, it wouldn't be all that difficult for us to reacquire. As these examples indicate, not only is the current situation unsustainable, but it''s getting increasingly more unsustainable at an ever-accelerating rate. And if we don't find a way to teach our students how to break these trends -- how to defend themselves, and their children, and their children's children from the siren duet of convenience and low initial cost -- how efficiently we relamp the campus, or heat/cool/ventilate or recycle really won't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.