LIVING GREEN for Feb. 14, 2013

For Weekly SurgeFebruary 11, 2013 

Our trashy ways

We are in love with our trash. Not only do we purposely make purchases with the intent to throw things away, but also we waste so much on a daily basis. It seems that we love to throw things away because it’s easy and it’s out of sight, out of mind. According to Edward Humes, author of the book “Garbology,” during our lifetime, we are each on track to generate 102 tons of trash.

In the book, he says, “Each of our bodies may occupy only one cemetery plot when we’re done with this world, but a single person’s 102-ton trash legacy will require the equivalent of 1,100 graves.”

Think about your trash legacy. What do you throw away on a daily basis? Personally, I’m throwing away about 10 dirty diapers a day, since I just had a baby in January. Yes, I did look into cloth diapers as an alternative, but I didn’t try hard enough to make it work for our lifestyle. Making green changes in your everyday life requires a valiant attempt. While some changes, such as recycling or reusing water bottles, are simple, changes such as composting or using cloth diapers may be more complex. However, any change makes a difference to reduce your 102-ton trash legacy.

William Rathje, a professor at the University of Arizona, initiated the Garbage Project in the 1970s and 1980s, which included the excavation of dozens of landfills in the U.S. with his students to discover what trash tells about our lifestyles and us. The project was an archaeological and sociological study in which they also collected trash and correlated it to census data. Rathje believed that “what we say about ourselves is never as honest or as revealing as what we throw away.” Through the Garbage Project, they discovered that food waste rose during times of shortages and high costs. Rathje concluded that when shortages occur, consumers buy more than normal which led to spoiled, uneaten food. People simply overbought food thinking they were going to save it for later, but instead their trash told a different story.

They also found that middle class households wasted more than richer or poorer ones. Households also underreported the amount of alcohol they actually consumed. The term garbology was coined by Rathje, and later became a word in the Oxford English Dictionary as defined as “the study of a community or culture by analyzing its waste.” During the excavations by Rathje, one of the most startling findings was that garbage does not decompose inside landfills as most people believed. A landfill was more like a mummifier of trash than decomposer of trash. Rathje and his students found 50-year-old newspaper that was still readable and steaks still intact. When we throw something away, that away place also known as a landfill, it ends up being preserved for years to come. Trash never really goes away.

The less we buy may lead to less we have to throw away. However, when you do make purchases, think about the end life of that item. Are you buying out of convenience or are you buying out of need and quality? If you make big purchases, such as furniture or household appliances, do your research and buy something that will last. We still have the same furniture from when we first got married more than 10 years ago and we even have antique furniture that used to be my grandmother’s. These items also mean more to me than some piece of junk from Walmart that I bought for convenience purposes. If you buy perishable food, make sure you know you will consume it. Our household had a bad habit of buying food for dinners, then letting it spoil because we decide to go out with our friends instead. We’ve learned the hard way, especially when we threw away $50 worth of meats just because we wanted to spend $50 eating out instead. Not only do we waste meat, we waste our money. It comes down to making the right choices and being conscience consumers.

Trash defines us. What we throw away is a reflection of our lifestyle and our habits. Our trash ends up in the Horry County landfill on S.C. 90 in Conway and we have no one to blame for the size of this landfill but ourselves.

So, what can you do to reduce your 102-ton legacy?

Jennifer Sellers is the sustainability coordinator at Coastal Carolina University and offers her eco-views at her blog, mygreenglasses.com. Contact her at jen@mygreenglasses.com.

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