Our throwaway economy is largely to blame for our environmental woes, as Lester Brown points out for Grist. First introduced after World War II to stimulate growth and create more jobs, throwaway products offered consumers convenience. Soon, disposable paper towels replaced hand towels, tissues replaced handkerchiefs, and plastic diapers replaced cloth ones, eventually building up an overwhelming amount of garbage. Throwaway products create a multitude of problems, including maxed-out landfills, air pollution and depletion of limited resources. Instead of hunting for new places to stash our trash, we should focus on consuming less altogether. But in the midst of an economic crisis, can we transition to a sustainable economy?
“The overriding challenge for our generation is to build a new economy—one that is powered largely by renewable sources of energy, that has a much more diversified transport system, and that reuses and recycles everything,” writes Brown.
Materialism is part of our culture, alongside baseball, hamburgers and free speech. It won’t be easy for Americans to break their consumption habits. According to Wiretap, Americans use more paper and create more waste than any other country. The video below, The Secret Life of Paper, explains how paper contributes to global warming, how to reduce paper waste, and the environmental and economic benefits of recycling.
Meanwhile, Tracey Bianchi of Sojourners remains optimistic that the next generation will grow up to be more environmentally conscious. Bianchi’s young son referred to an empty water bottle on the ground as “recycling” rather than trash. To the younger generation, protecting the environment is not an adjustment but a normal way of life.
“Small things like this give me hope. They make me think that indeed, we can change things. And they make me nervous for the day when my son is old enough to demand an excuse as to why my generation lived like sloppy gluttons. The way I demand my parents account for the racism of the ’50s, the way my parents demanded their parents account for two world wars, the way that generation demanded an explanation for slavery,” writes Bianchi.
Although most people are familiar with the 3 Rs of conservation (reduce, reuse, recycle), Public News Service’s Dick Layman notes that “there is more to recycling than meets the eye.” Many other green cycles reduce waste. Pre-cycling refers to not buying things you don’t need; free-cycling is giving things away instead of disposing of them; up-cycling is when useful items are created from recycled materials; down-cycling is when you reuse an item for a less important function and e-cycling is when you recycle electronics.
But perhaps the biggest environmental culprit in our throwaway economy is bottled water. The Michigan Messenger’s Eartha Jane Melzer reports that bottled water sales for the Nestle corporation are thankfully on the decline. Even a small slip in consumption can make a big difference: A whopping 70% of consumers say they drink bottled water, according to a study conducted by Mintel. What kind of environmental impact does bottled water have? According to Food & Water Watch, it takes over 17 million barrels of oil (which is enough to fuel 1 million cars for a year) to produce all of the plastic water bottles sold in the United States each year. And, even worse, about 86% of the bottles end up in the trash instead of recycling.
Despite these grim statistics, America’s top water importer, Fiji, has remained immune to environmental criticism. Anna Lenzer of Mother Jones questions how Fiji Water embodies chic and green ideals, but is backed by a military dictatorship who can’t provide its own people with clean water. For more information about Fiji Water’s troubles, check out Mother Jones‘ special report, Spin the Bottle.
Immediate action is necessary to combat climate change, and there are many small things that we can do to reduce our waste, such as paying bills online. More people today use re-usable grocery bags instead of plastic or paper ones, buy eco-friendly products and use recycling when given the option. And even though the next generation is being taught to be less wasteful, that is no excuse for a wasteful lifestyle today. We have to lead by example and create a responsible economy to go hand in hand with a sustainable environment.
Finally, we’d like to recognize Senator Ted Kennedy’s (D-Mass.) accomplishments for the environment. He fought for energy efficiency standards, land and ocean preservation, pollution reduction, and oil company accountability. And while many are concerned about the impact of Kennedy’s death on healthcare reform, Jonathan Hiskes of Grist worries how his passing will affect climate change legislation. As a strong advocate for the environment, Kennedy’s vote was crucial to pass a climate bill in the Senate, and his support and vision will surely be missed.
This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the environment and is free to reprint. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of 50 leading independent media outlets.
By Raquel Brown, TMC MediaWire Blogger