Throwing It All Away

May 22, 1998

By Michael Jessen

Garbage is not a pretty sight, but most people see only a fraction of it.

First, there is the waste -- a mountain of it! The world's largest landfill is Fresh Kills on Staten Island; it provides a repository for the garbage of New York City.

Already covering four square miles, it contains 2.9 billion cubic feet of trash. New Yorkers dump 13,000 tons daily into Fresh Kills! By the time it closes in 2001, it will be the tallest hill on the eastern seaboard.

Fresh Kills recently became the largest human-made object on earth. It is now bigger than the Great Wall of China, a fact we humans should not be proud of.

But as massive as Fresh Kills is, it takes in just .02 percent of the waste generated in the United States. Every day, Americans dispose of an additional 5,300 times as much waste elsewhere.

Then there is the waste behind the waste.

According to business author Paul Hawken, Americans are far better at making waste than at making products. For every 100 pounds of product manufactured in the United States, at least 3,200 pounds of waste is created says Hawken.

An analysis by Robert Ayres, an expert on industrial metabolism, found that about 94 percent of materials extracted for use in manufacturing become waste before the product is even made. A further 80 percent of what's left becomes waste within six weeks of use.

And the Institute for Local Self-Reliance estimates a billion tons of virgin materials are displaced annually to make the products that become the 250 million tons of garbage generated each year in the United States.

Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Stuart Hart says human activity now exceeds sustainability on a global scale and the "average American today consumes 17 times more than his or her Mexican counterpart and hundreds of times more than the average Ethiopian."

In an April 1997 report, it was estimated the average American uses every week the equivalent of 300 shopping bags of natural resources for food, shelter, energy, transportation, and other products and services.

Entitled Resource Flows: The Material Basis of Industrial Economies, the report was jointly issued by the World Resources Institute (U.S.), the Wuppertal Institute (Germany), the National Institute for Environmental Studies (Japan), the Netherlands Ministry of Housing, Spatial Planning, and Environment. This report is available on the Internet at (

Our recycling and composting efforts are reducing the amount of material sent to landfills, but American and European lifestyles are not sustainable. According to the Wuppertal Institute, per capita resource use is too high by roughly a factor of ten.

Paul Hawken says it more pointedly: "Somewhere along the way to free-market capitalism, the United States became the most wasteful society on the planet. Most of us know it. There is the waste we can see: traffic jams, irreparable VCRs, plastic coffee cups, landfills; the waste we can't see: Superfund sites, greenhouse gases, radioactive waste, vagrant chemicals; and the social waste we don't want to think about: homelessness, crime, drug addiction, our forgotten infirm and elderly."

Making our society sustainable requires more than just controlling the amount going into our individual garbage can. To achieve sustainability, some things must grow: jobs, productivity, wages, capital and savings, profits, information, knowledge and education. At the same time, other things must not grow: pollution, waste, poverty, overly stressful impacts on natural systems.

Renew America, an environmental/community development research group, says retooling the economy for sustainability and equity, far from costing jobs, will generate millions of them.

Our challenge, therefore, is to demonstrate to decision-makers everywhere how reducing resource use can simultaneously increase profits and productivity, create jobs, and make a healthier environment.

Go tell it on the mountain!

TRASH TIP: Recycle newspapers like this one. Recycling a one-metre (three-foot) stack of newspapers can save one tree.

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