Disposable Worlds

Anja wants environmentalism to shed its idealistic past. Share your ideas at [email protected].





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Value packs of individually wrapped snack-sized chocolate bars and Chinese noodle soups in styrofoam cups. Pre-packaged time-saving lunches for kids: a serving-size bag of chips, toy-shaped sandwiches in glossy plastic, pink napkins with cartoon designs. Bags of take-out Mexican food wrapped in tinfoil. Colorful coupons popping through thousands of mail slots every day-telling people what is fast and new and cheap. Telling them exactly what they need.

Unfortunately, planets do not come in value packs or disposable models.

We generate almost five pounds of trash a day-each. That adds up to about 1,800 pounds a year, most of which goes straight to the landfills. Landfill: Isn't that an elegant word for waste dump? Sounds like a hole in the land that needs to be filled.

When the New York landfill, ironically named "Freshkills," was closed this year, it was after decades of being the final destination of a yearly 4.3 million tons of New York trash. Without a location as a worthy successor, New York has been forced to start exporting its garbage to neighboring states. Exporting trash is, sadly, not a new concept. Developing countries have taken care of richer countries' refuse for years.

Isn't it strange that, in a time when we can build invisibly small computers, transplant hearts and determine the chemical composition of Mars, we are still dumping garbage in landfills? It seems like an outdated solution to an admittedly difficult problem. In Switzerland, the majority of trash that cannot be recycled is burnt at clean, nonpolluting combustion plants, converting the trash into energy.

Energy. Imagine that-like turning dirt into diamonds.

We cannot afford not to care. If we ruin the planet, future generations will have to live in a perverse science-fiction world where they wear gas masks to school and play in parks of mass-produced plastic trees and bushes. All this has been said so many times before, but somehow it is constantly overshadowed by the laziness embedded in the human mind.

Then why is it so rarely anybody's priority to save what is still left of rain forests, oceans and the ozone layer? Why do so few people recognize the irrationality of the tray full of napkins and boxes and little ketchup packets that are the remnants of a fast-food lunch? Is the Garbage collector the only person who knows what happens to the trash after its nightly disappearance from driveways and sidewalks?

The problem, I think, is twofold. Firstly, some people simply do not care, because overflowing landfills do not affect their day-to-day lives. Secondly, most people who do care don't think they can make a difference. Instead, it somehow seems as if elementary school kids and vegan Greenpeace activists have cornered the market on "environmentalism."

As with remarkably few other problems, there actually is something we can do about it. Whenever you buy overpackaged or disposable products, you are essentially buying trash. By choosing to buy in bulk, bringing plastic bags back to the supermarket or shopping for products that have less packaging, we can easily reduce the amount of waste sent to landfills or incinerators. As a bonus, we also avoid having to consume the natural resources, expend the energy and create the pollution that comes from manufacturing preventable trash in the first place.

Environmental and economic benefits can go hand in hand. Waste prevention is a prime example of this. If people cut down on trash, money previously spent on excess waste collection and management could be spent on research for more long-term solutions to the problem.

And it doesn't take that much effort. It is not a huge sacrifice to buy a whole melon or pineapple instead of the sliced, more expensive version that comes on a styrofoam plate covered with plastic wrap; to buy the kind of toothpaste that comes in a tube without the box; or to invest in a reusable coffee mug.

It is a tiny bit less convenient, that's all. Do we mind being a little inconvenienced? The question is whether we can afford not to be.

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