Officially, I work as an event manager. But lately, my job feels more like “waste manager.” Wine tastings, art openings, performances — every event creates trash. I see folks putting food-caked paper plates into the recycling. They toss aluminum cans into the compost. They don’t know what they’re doing, and they don’t care.
But I do. I put up signs with words and pictures, and place plastic cups and compostable paper plates with signs saying “I go in this bin!” And still they don’t heed my warnings. At the end of the night — when I see my signs have failed — I reach into the bins and move waste into its proper place. Then I wash society’s filth off my skin, muttering curses at these “garbage people.”
Deep down, I know putting something in the wrong bin doesn’t make someone a fool. I’m starting to accept that all humans, including me, are garbage people. Our default is to produce waste, and big business has set things up so I hate my fellow humans, instead of the real culprits: manufacturers and governments who ushered in this single-use life. The average American throws out 3.2 kg of garbage a day, but individuals don’t generate that waste alone.
How did we become a disposable society? After World War II revolutionized plastics, they started replacing natural materials like glass, paper, and wood in consumer products. The growing fast-food industry latched onto plastic’s cheap cost, convenience, hygiene, and — most importantly for capitalists — consumerist appeal. Why sell a reusable item when shoppers could throw it away and purchase another? People enjoyed the convenience, and didn’t realize they were kicking a problem down the road.
I’ve been known to care about the containers drinks come in, so let’s look at the history of beverage containers. It’s a good example of how we got here: First, carbonated drinks were only consumed at shops, restaurants, or bars. Then, mass-produced glass bottles meant people could take a Coke or beer to go. But those bottles still got reused. Pabst created the first aluminum beer can in 1935, but production stopped during WWII, as metal was needed for the war effort.
Why sell a reusable item when shoppers could throw it away and purchase another?
Post-war, bottling changed from a local process to a regional and national one, and beverage marketers stamped “No Deposit, No Return” on their bottles like it was a good thing. What happens if there’s no incentive to return bottles? You toss them. In the 1950s, litter from disposable food packaging became a problem. So the state of Vermont banned non-refillable beer bottles in 1953. But that law was repealed only four years later, because of lobbying from the beer industry.
Next in this tale came the first bottle deposit scheme, created in Oregon in 1971. Returning a bottle got you 5¢ back. Plastic bottles would be shredded into flakes, then made into new bottles or polyester. Glass bottles could be washed and reused, or ground down and recycled. But the return amount stayed a measly 5¢ until April 2017! It was upped to 10¢ because redemption rates — once as high as 94% — had dropped below 65%.
Of course, people weren’t returning their bottles. Who cares about 5¢?! If the deposit rate had kept up with inflation, Oregonians would now get around 30¢ per bottle. The dime deposit is working, return rates are going back up. And yet, Big Bottle is still fighting bottle deposit schemes across America. Uggggghhhhh!!!
You might be old enough to remember the “Crying Indian” anti-litter campaign put out by Keep America Beautiful (KAB) in 1971. The campaign’s main TV ad shows an actor costumed to appear Indigneous, who canoes down an increasingly polluted river, and then stands beside a highway. A motorist tosses a bag of trash at the actor’s feet, which prompts a single tear to roll down his face.
This campaign reinforced the message that individuals are hurting the environment. The PSA was supported by mainstream environmental organizations like the Sierra Club and the National Audubon Society. But KAB was created by companies like Coca-Cola, Anheuser-Busch, and Phillip-Morris. This spot — and others created by the group — obfuscated manufacturers’ role in producing waste, by shifting responsibility for proper disposal onto consumers. The whole thing was a lie, including the actor: his background was Italian-American.
Big business passed the buck to the consumer, and I completely fell for it.
The recycling system is one I bought into with my heart and soul as a kid, but lots of evidence suggests it’s failed. With every article about how another Asian country refuses to take North America’s recycling, it becomes clearer to me that recycling isn’t ideal. At this point, even I can understand why some US cities think they’re better off incinerating recyclables.
Big business passed the buck of environmental responsibility on to the consumer, and I completely fell for it. I constantly feel like garbage for never being able to do the right thing, despite my best efforts. What am I to do beside crying and asking people to send comforting cat GIFs?
I do think individual actions can make some difference. Before every purchase, I stop to think: Does this warrant me being a bigger garbage person? Maybe I don’t have the capacity to not be a garbage monster that day. Maybe I need to eat this meal with a plastic fork and knife, because I was so busy taking out my recycling that I forgot to pack my reusable cutlery, and now it’s down to eating this healthy meal with plastic cutlery or drinking that smoothie with a straw, and at least I can wash and reuse this cutlery. GAH!
Before I have a panic attack, I have to remind myself that it’s okay. I often make garbage choices, but I try to keep them to a minimum. Instead of spiralling into a single-use freak-out, here’s what we really need to do:
Lobby legislators to incentivize and facilitate better recycling. Vote for parties and representatives who will believe scientists, fight for Green New Deals, and hold industry accountable. Write to manufacturers ourselves and tell them what we want. Shame them publicly, or boycott their products until they make changes.
View waste as a design flaw, not inevitable.
Vote with our wallets: buy secondhand and from ethical producers, and bank with ethical financial institutions like credit unions. Take our money out of the hands of big business when we can.
Encourage the powers that be to find new life for our garbage. It could be burned to create energy, like Sweden does (while this does create emissions, so does rotting trash in a landfill). Or we could mine landfills, as is also starting to happen in Europe: separating out recyclables, and converting what remains into energy and building materials. Move toward a circular economy and view waste as a design flaw, not inevitable.
Yes, we’re all trash heaps, but we don’t have to be. Our garbage isn’t our fault alone, there are bigger forces at play. We need to work together to get politicians and big business to clean up their acts. Me yelling at people who don’t read signs won’t make them change. But maybe they’d accept an invitation to fight the powers that duped us into a life of convenience? Let’s all rage at garbage businesses and their government enablers, not each other.
A version of this article appears in the Winter/Spring 2020 print edition of Asparagus Magazine. Subscribe today!
Like this story? With a one-time or monthly donation, you can help Asparagus continue publishing the large and small stories of sustainability.
If donating isn’t in the cards today, you can support our efforts by sharing this story, and, if you’re a Medium member, giving it some enthusiastic claps. (If you’re not a member, why not join and follow Asparagus, or sign up for our e-mail newsletter? That way you’ll never miss a story.)