Have you ever watched “Hoarders” on TLC, the show in which a voyeuristic audience watches as individuals who have literally buried themselves in mounds of miscellaneous trash and rotting food are outed and hopefully “cured” by the end of the episode? Like most viewers, I have always assumed these people were the aberrant, unhealthy ones, while the rest of us — who simply toss our garbage in a bin and forget about it — are normal. What if we saw it differently? What if the hoarders, who actually produce the same amount of trash as the rest of us (102 tons in an average lifetime), are the only ones really seeing what our waste is doing to the planet?
In his recently published book, Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair With Trash (2012), Edward Humes provides a surprisingly hopeful outlook on what we waste, why we waste, where it ends up, and how we can work towards not only lessening the amount of trash we generate, but creatively utilizing the mountainous, growing landfills that already exist. I have only read the first few chapters, but I’m already inspired to waste less, especially in the area I’m most passionate about: food.
Each year we throw away 28 billion pounds of food, or about 25% of the American food supply. This is insane, especially considering how many people are going hungry or standing in line at the food bank. Aside from the actual food going to waste, the immediate trash created from food and drink packaging is also astronomical: 35 million plastic bottles per year; 40 billion plastic knives, forks, and spoons; so much plastic waste in our environment that 92% of us have plastic chemicals in our urine. I’m no doctor, but I do not think this is a good thing.
Because I cheated and skipped to the end, I know Humes is going to discuss what we can do on a city, state, and national level to turn our garbage into renewable energy, using Copenhagen and other green-thinking cities around the world as models. But I am an impatient person; I want to know what I can do right now to make a difference, even a little one. So here is my personal recipe for doing just that — creating less garbage.
- Only use regular silverware, dishes, reusable shopping bags, coffee cups, and water bottles (= no paper cups, plates, plastic silverware, water bottles, plastic bags, etc.) My picnics just got a little more interesting. Think medieval vegan.
- Plan a menu for the week, then clean and prep all veggies within a day of buying them. (If I don’t clean and cut up my vegetables, they often end up sitting in the crisper drawer and I forget about them until they are too far gone and have to be thrown away. Most of us grossly underestimate how much food we’re wasting.)
- When brave enough to take my toddlers out, I am actually going to sit down and eat at a restaurant on regular dishes rather than get take-out in Styrofoam. In fact, I’m trying to never ever use Styrofoam in any form – it cannot be recycled and never degrades.
- Get on a no-mailing list for catalogs and plastic-wrapped booklets and promotions, etc. We don’t need the stuff being advertised, and we certainly don’t need the extra paper or plastic. (www.catalogchoice.org)
- We’re switching from plastic sandwich bags to reusable lunch bags and thermoses for coffee and soup. (Even though I have always disliked trying to clean and reuse ye old ziplocs, I am going to start doing that, too. You were right, Grandma.)
- Reuse whatever I can, then recycle the rest. I am going to actually do research into what can be recycled before I just shrug my shoulders and throw it away (plastic containers, carpets, or electronics, for example).
Americans generate 50% more trash per person than other nations with the same standard of living. We can do better!