By: David Duesing
Photo credit: Brooke Cagle on Unsplash.com
I was up to my knees in crushed plastic bottles in a garage in rural Costa Rica when I realized we’re going about environmentalism all wrong. Controlling our impact on the planet is going to take much more than managing our waste. It’s going to take changing our habits.
My journey to sorting small mountains of trash started when the Peace Corps sent me to the town of Cervantes. As a volunteer, I worked alongside the town’s mayor to create a recycling program, which the town had never had. After months of planning, we founded a local environmental committee and began hosting weekly recycling campaigns to receive, sort, and send off everything that could be recycled.
The project was successful, but after months of ridding Cervantes of truckloads of bottles and cans, I lost my enthusiasm. I grew tired of spending my Saturdays with trash, but what’s more, I grew tired of the persistence of the town’s trash. There was always, always more trash. Wouldn’t it just be better if it didn’t exist in the first place?
I came back to the U.S. with this question in mind, and quickly grew frustrated with the omnipresence of waste. According to the EPA, the average American produces 4.4 pounds of trash each day. With a population of 320 million, the U.S. produces 1.4 billion pounds of waste a day. That’s over 1,600 Boeing 747s worth of trash. Fortunately, Americans now recycle about one-third of the waste we produce, up from just 6% 50 years ago. But this rise in recycling mirrors a rise in waste production, which have both steadily increased over the last 50 years. So too is our population always increasing, ensuring the overall waste produced in America continues to rise at an alarming rate.
The U.S. has become more conscious of its waste problem. Now we need to reframe the issue. Our current solutions to mass consumption assume that we will always be able to consume, build, eat, travel, and produce more, but this isn’t the right approach. Instead, we should focus on reducing consumption and reusing existing resources. “Reduce” and “reuse” have always been hiding in plain sight in the three Rs of environmentalism – reduce, reuse, recycle – but they’re overshadowed by the sexy R, “Recycle.” When you recycle, you feel your effort and a sense of gratification. When you reduce and reuse, you don’t have that same feeling. You don’t feel yourself not buying a cup of coffee the way you feel yourself recycling the cup. That’s why moving beyond recycling is difficult and will require largescale behavior change.
Behavior change does not come quickly, and sudden, extreme changes lead to burn-out. To ease our society into a new way of behaving, we need to make improvements at the margins. First, both individuals and businesses should strive to always produce and consume media – including books, movies, TV shows, newspapers, magazines, documents, and pictures – digitally. Your shelf does not need another DVD collection in the age of online streaming. But even digital content is not waste-free, as the server farms that support cloud computing consume large amounts of electricity. As such, server farms should rely solely on renewable energy sources, giving digital media as small an environmental impact as possible.
The government can also help redirect our consumption habits. I recommend that the government tax luxury goods, starting with secondary residences. A steep tax on secondary residences would discourage Americans from purchasing more than one house and decrease the housing market’s overall production of waste. Such a tax would have to go into effect at the national level since a state-level tax would only change the states where people purchase secondary homes. The government should also increase sales tax on other large luxury goods, including private jets and boats.
Tax breaks could also encourage better consumption habits. The government could create or increase tax breaks for businesses that use renewable energy, individuals who do not own a car, or companies that reuse goods in their production process.
Changing a country’s habits is an enormous feat, but if we encourage businesses to produce less waste and give the consumer fewer opportunities to create trash, we can start to change our waste-producing practices. We can become a country that embraces the less sexy Rs, and together we can create the hope that there will not always, always be more trash.