The Origins of Waste: Examining How Consumerism Shapes Our Environment

At the heart of the Pacific Ocean, remote and unimaginably distant from any human civilization, there exists the North Pacific Gyre. One of five major oceanic multi-current systems, the gyre circulates in a clockwise circular pattern, encompassing almost the entirety of the Pacific Ocean. Within this colossal vortex, lies the Great Pacific garbage patch. As its name implies, this further nicknamed “Pacific trash vortex” contains plastic wastes, chemical sludge, and a variety of other wayward debris that might be caught in the gyre’s unstoppable flow. Estimates of the surface area of this phenomenon of human waste have compared it to the state of Texas; plastic and garbage for over 15 million square kilometers, or approximately 8% of the surface area of the Pacific Ocean.

This testament to the extent of human waste, however, is not exclusive to this singular “patch” in the Pacific Ocean. Yet it takes such eye-opening examples of this scale for our attention to be captured; for us to even begin asking the question, “To what do we attribute these massive demonstrations of ecological and environmental disregard?” Meanwhile, the equally concerning landfills which answer to the waste implications of our urban and suburban dwellings — and which we so tirelessly and endlessly attempt to keep at bay — remain in the realm of the blissful ignorance of many, despite such wastelands sometimes being within miles of our own homes.

The Pacific trash vortex

Societal and cultural awareness of the factors that undoubtedly determine our collective impact on the environment can range from our total ignorance and apathy, to our full attention and concern. At the current rate, however, it is already too late for the planet to be able to afford our ignorance and apathy any longer, and the Pacific trash vortex is but one example of this overdue rude awakening. Not to say that we should surrender to a sense of defeat and futility; this mindset is poisonous in its inevitability to leading to the same aforementioned apathy and procrastination. Thus, productively and actively working towards solutions is only enhanced and fueled by conceding the unchangeable and uncompromisable urgency of the environmental dilemma which we face today. Through this approach then, may we begin assessing issues and root causes on local and global levels.

Firstly, one such contributing factor that may be more evident than others is the sheer magnitude of the human population, let alone the exponential growth which we have witnessed it to exhibit in recent decades. The wastes that we observe ravaging the environment are, at the root, created by humans. An unstoppable, sky-rocketing population — now pushing near eight billion people — puts into question the carrying capacity of the earth to maintain our simultaneously intensifying environmental demands. As a result, the growing number of human beings remains a key component of this issue, albeit a complex one that varies by other such sub-factors of the society, culture, economy, and political situation of a given region.

But how can we even begin to perceive this complex relationship between human population, waste production, and the environment? Personally, I can review the waste that I produce through the products that I regularly consume on a daily or weekly basis. I buy coffee once or twice a week, the consumption of which consists of a paper cup, a paperboard sleeve, a plastic lid, and perhaps some paper napkins, a plastic stirrer, and sugar packets. Other products I also often regularly consume besides food products include plastic bottles, printing paper/loose-leaf paper, and other products intended for immediate disposal: napkins, paper towels, toilet paper, straws, plastic utensils. And although I’d like to consider that my awareness of my consuming and my consequent waste products would lead to the lessening of my contribution to environmental waste, this is no excuse, and I am a consumer nonetheless. This truth can be extended from myself, to my family, and to the entirety of most first-world populations as we exist as consumers: we must face the stark realization that our wastes are accumulating at alarming and increasingly irreversible levels due to our oftentimes insatiable consumption.

graph charting population growth rates for the top five most populous countries

On this same note, let us examine another simple illustration, such as take-out food. At my university’s dining hall for example, the take-out container is made out of unrecyclable, non-biodegradable Styrofoam (polystyrene), as is also true of take-out in other such restaurants and eateries. The take-out itself is also perhaps accompanied with napkins and plastic utensils, and other such options for disposable products that are left to one’s own discretion. If you eat out twice a week (ordering take-out from a restaurant), this amounts to 96 Styrofoam container wastes a year. In the context of a large urban hub as New York City, at a population of approximately 8.5 million, this adds up to over 816 million Styrofoam containers having to be processed by local landfills per year. Even if you cut that figure in half, the factor of population remains critical to the scope of human waste and pollution. And even furthermore, this illustration can be extended on the scale of all consumable products, with the entire 300 million population of the United States; then, with the some-eight billion humans on earth. It is evident that the waste we produce on an individual or local level is exponentially magnified by the incomprehensible magnitude of the global population.

Nevertheless, subverting the issue of population, we can refocus our attention on the inevitable factor of any consumerist society: waste. This is as if to differentiate between waste and pollution, as waste is the prerequisite to pollution, so we must view the problem at its source. And we can even further ask for the source of waste itself, which is consumerism, and the attitudes and awareness (or lack thereof) that we have on consuming as a society.

The significant innovation and economic growth that has come out of capitalist and political ideologies in the United States is not without consequence. Rather, it is at the expense of all else, and has encouraged a consumerist attitude that values ignorance, want-over-need mentalities, and Machiavellian environmental disregard. Thus, marketing and advertising and brainwashing can, at times, seem indifferentiable. The result is mindless consumerism and the endless cycle of consumption; whose further implications are waste — widespread and inevitable. This consumerist attitude which is not only ideally unaware of the widespread accumulation of waste and pollution, has also seemingly adopted the concept that what is thrown into a trash can immediately disappears, as if to cease to exist. Hence, such unimaginably absurd and complacent lines of thought have ultimately shaped the world that we live in today.

Having worked in retail, this perspective can also offer a deeper window into the world of production, sale, and consumption. In this cycle, there are also further packaging components that go into the commercial presentation of the product that we often tend to forget about. There are more packaging wastes being produced “behind the scenes,” so to speak. Factories ship out products in bulk, often times with cardboard, or a combination of cardboard and plastic wrapping, on top of the packaging of the individual product itself. Next, retail stores rotate through end stands, promotional signs and banners, weekly and monthly tags, plastic shopping bags, receipt paper, and promotional magazines and coupons and coupon booklets. Staples in the world of consumption, such major grocery stores as Acme may go through a couple thousand (unrecyclable and non-biodegradable) plastic bags each day. Weekly and monthly tags go up by the thousands, and must be almost entirely replaced in their given lifespan, further contributing to paper wastes. And lest we ignore the prodigious amounts of food that are immediately disposed of after their expiration date; some foods having more brief and urgent shelf lives than others, and thus more prone to waste. The demonstrations of waste and excess in these processes are overwhelming enough for a single store. However, this cycle of production, sale, consumption, and waste is invariably true, in not truer, of the multitude of other companies that accommodate the consumerist ethos, which exist by the tens of thousands across first-world countries like the United States.

And yet these are only the waste components that go into making products available to consumers. What consumers consequently do with their waste has primarily been between two options: trash and recycling. Although composting is an option for most food wastes, strictly speaking, these two options are the two most prevalent in society. Recycling, of course, is more exclusive to what materials can actually be recycled. And although recycling education has been effective in its own right at informing consumers of what and how to recycle, and the intrinsic value of recycling, to say that recycling has proven a solution to our excessive and endless production of waste is naïve. What recycling is to waste, taking pills or prescription drugs is to leading an inherently unhealthy lifestyle: although they may be of some relief, they are not addressing the problem at its source, and, invariably, such misconceptions are bound to be fatal. We must face the truth that most product waste ends up in the trash, in garbage bins and dumpsters, and finally in landfills, further spilling over into local environments and ecosystems with damaging toxicity.

Likewise, another aspect of the current levels of accumulated waste which we now observe is purely aesthetic: that we find it appalling. Landfills are wastelands of pungent and repulsive odors (as one can only imagine the implications of believing that the solution to an entire given population’s trash is to put it all in one place). If one does not care for the environment or for minimalist lifestyles, he can at least concede that the world of the landfill is not one which he would like to live in. There is no excuse for anyone to choose to ignore the urgencies of our current environmental dilemma. Even the routine of taking out trash almost always warrants the question, either consciously or unconsciously: “Where does it all go?”

The process of breaking down otherwise non-biodegradable materials in landfills is a long-term strategy, and is proving to be an unstable and unsustainable strategy at that. I have witnessed the local landfill for New Castle County, Delaware demonstrate these same qualities of instability and unsustainability, and whose workers have confirmed this urgency and have yet to have their concerns heard. Yet such landfills exist to serve the local population, most of which remains unaware of the wasteland and environmental disaster “just waiting to happen,” to which they are contributing. Not as if to say that I am any exception to this, my point, once again, is simply that awareness precedes any real change or solution that we may begin to seek. To first be aware that virtually all trash ends up in some form of pollution or environmentally unstable waste-management solution is to be realistic, and not necessarily cynical.

Thus, one solution lies simply in the reduction of waste. This includes working towards reducing consumption of heavily packaged products, shopping for produce and groceries locally, and adopting more minimalist lifestyles that value necessities over excessive and unnecessary wants (although some among us, being more indulgent than conservative consumers than others, may have more difficulty surrendering their lifestyles of extravagance). On top of this, modern innovation that can be applied to circumvent many of these wastes proves to be an optimistic view of the future.

To-Go Ware reusable utensils, one alternative to single-use utensils

We must adopt the habits of critical consumers, assessing what classifies as necessary, how waste can be reduced (and recycled, reused, or composted when possible), and how waste can be avoided in the first place. This is true of such simple changes as buying groceries and cooking at home instead of eating out, avoiding or reducing use of disposable single-use products, and investing money in sustainable, long term alternatives as opposed to unsustainable, short-term solutions.

Such conscious consumerism can also have a profound influence on businesses as well, as consumerism is, in fact, a two-way dynamic, wherein there is a sense of mutual dependency between consumers and businesses. A total boycott would thus prove to be a devastating blow to any business. And observant companies would be subsequently inclined to cater to the increasing market of consumers that are demanding sustainable alternatives. What this means is that when you make a purchase, you are simultaneously making a statement; in the world of consumerism, being critical also means being vocal.

Admittedly, once again, at this large scale, the idea of reducing waste in a world that has unarguably and ubiquitously perpetuated the mentalities of blind consumerism may seem futile. However, starting with the individual, if one adopts a sense of conscious consumerism with environmental awareness in mind, indeed, the little changes in waste reduction can add up to substantial waste reduction across a large population; effectively tackling this oftentimes overwhelming and discouraging dilemma of accumulating wastes in the environment.

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