Redefining Waste

For the most part, I’m a live-and-let-live kind of girl but there is something going on in my community that really turns my stomach, and I’m writing today with the hope that it will keep me from chaining myself to the dumpster down the street.

Dramatic? Yes, but I have to do something.

Week after week, I drive the two miles between my house and the lot behind our community’s rec center where those of us without curbside pickup take our trash. There are bins to recycle cardboard, paper, plastic, glass, aluminum and tin, and a non-profit organization has a trailer there where we can drop off donations. There are four huge bins for assorted types of waste destined for the landfill.

In my small town, it could not be any easier to let go of that which no longer serves us in a way that honors the earth. And still, every week, when I arrive with my car full of stuff we’re done with, I pull in behind someone hurling a truck full of recyclable and donatable goods straight into the landfill-bound bins.

After four years of this same experience over and over again, I feel ready to come undone. Why aren’t we all doing everything in our power to keep all but true waste out of the landfill?

Recently, I confessed to the guy who runs that whole operation that I find it so upsetting. He said it happens all day, every day, and that he hates that he can’t do anything about it. He can’t force people to drive the extra 30 feet to drop their cardboard into the recycling bins. (And sometimes it is already broken down.) He can’t ask them to donate that perfectly good sink to a local non-profit organization. He can’t refuse them, and frankly, I’m not sure that chaining myself to trash bins would cultivate much more than traffic and frustration.

Next: What will it take for this situation to change?

What will it take for this situation to change?

Quite simply, we have to redefine waste.

In my clutter clearing classes, I ask my students to release as responsibly as possible. The truth is, I want my neighbors to do the same. I want the landfill to be reserved for those things that we haven’t yet figured out how to reuse and recycle because that is the essence of true waste.

The rest of it can be reused or recycled, and putting it in the landfill is a waste of money, land, and precious resources that can never again be utilized by its owner or anyone else. By depositing non-waste in the landfill we prematurely remove it from the general flow of stuff in our society. It’s like sending people to the cemetery before they are dead. In many cases, long before they are dead!

Books can be read again and again, and when people are no longer willing to read them, they can be recycled. People who get fancy new electronics, clothes, and kitchenware (and everything else we purchase) can release their old ones back into the general flow of stuff (that runs through neighborhoods and communities throughout the land) by selling them, giving them away, or donating them to an organization that resells at a low price or distributes them to people who cannot otherwise afford to purchase new. New towels turn our old towels into cleaning towels, or if they are still in great shape, we can ask around to see if anyone can use a linen upgrade. Also, animal shelters everywhere are eager to receive our old towels.

When we are ready to release an item that no longer serves us, we can’t assume that means it’s ready for the landfill. Living more sustainably demands that we redefine waste.

Next: So, what if I ask you nicely?

So, what if I ask you nicely?

Yes, I’m writing to propose a shift in our collective definition of waste, or that which ends up in the landfill.

I’m not the first. This is not a new idea. In fact, I’ve been living this way for years. (In part, thanks to my grandparents who were recycling paper and cans twenty-five years ago.) My family of four, plus cats and fish, produce one bag of landfill-bound trash about every six days. We reuse what we can, find good homes for the stuff we’re done with, and recycle what can be. The rest is, for my family, true waste. We are not, by any stretch of the imagination, living some environmentally extreme existence. It’s just that easy to release responsibly once you shift your thinking about what landfills are for.

And if you already live this way, forgive me for stating the obvious, and please join me in sharing this invitation. The truth is, I barely understand the statistics in the reports published by the EPA. But, I want something to change and on the environmental consciousness totem pole, I’m somewhere below even the most rookie “expert” and above “sends everything to landfill”. This rather simplistic plea is the best I have to offer.

So, here I am asking for an admittedly unlikely shift in the way the collective ‘we’ defines waste. I’m even asking nicely, like I learned in preschool. Can we, pretty please with sugar on top, redefine waste and shift our habits accordingly?

Next: What if asking nicely isn’t enough?

What if asking nicely isn’t enough?

While trying to sort out my thoughts on waste, I felt compelled to talk to someone who knows more about these matters than I do. I asked around, scored the jackpot of local referrals, and ended up talking to a terribly cool dude named Johnny Shields. He and his wife Tara own The Green Wagon East Nashville and he is a graduate of the Institute for Sustainable Practice at Lipscomb University. After introductions, our conversation started something like this (loosely paraphrased for your amusement):

Me: I’m proposing a shift in the way we define waste. Ultimately, that’s what we want, right?
Cool dude: Yes.
Me: Can we do it?
Cool dude: No.

Because I knew the odds were stacked against me, I wasn’t crushed by his reality check. He doesn’t believe it is likely that the collective we will make the shift. Certainly, we can but we probably won’t. When I asked what it would take, some of what I learned suggests that we might want to make a change because I asked nicely.

1. It won’t need to be “more convenient” as in curbside recycling pick up for everyone. It will need to be “more convenient” as in free to recycle and compost and, therefore, more expensive to send stuff to the landfill. That’s right, people will be inspired to act more thoughtfully when it becomes a financial hardship to dispose of trash.

2. If consumers have to pay more for waste, they will start making more packaging-conscious purchases. This will create pressure for manufacturers to package with more environmental awareness.

3. The “freedom” mentality is hurting the environment. We, at least in the United States, have this misplaced arrogance about being free to do whatever the heck we want. That’s not real. We aren’t free to do harm to others, and living so incredibly wastefully is toxic to the land, water, air, and people who share this planet with us.

Side note: I’ve always wondered where people think “away” is when they are throwing stuff away. There is no away, it’s a hole in the ground right down the road from all of us and the stuff we send there takes shocking numbers of years to decompose (like 600 years for fishing line).

Here is the summary of my reality check (and ironically the only thing that may make me asking nicely sound like a good idea):

This is changing.
It’s not changing fast enough.
We are doing harm to the planet and the people who live on it.
We are better than this.
If we don’t do better, the government is going to force us to.

I’ll be honest, I didn’t think it would come down to this when I started exploring this topic, but look around. There is evidence everywhere that what I’m proposing is true. We are consumers, and the manufacturers bow at our knees. We are the decision makers, and it’s up to us to decide where our stuff goes when we are done with it. We have the power to make a difference, right now, by putting those cardboard boxes in the recycling bins instead of sending them to the landfill.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could, just this once, fix something we screwed up before the government forced us to?


Yvonne Egan
Yvonne Egan5 years ago

Unfortunately some people don't care about the future so long as everythings o.k. for them today

Carmen S.
Carmen S5 years ago

Great article, Christy, really wish more people would pay attention and do more to reduce the amount of waste.

Kimberlee W.
Kimberlee W5 years ago

You know Christy, I know your pain and I feel it every day in little ways.

Everyone considers me an assH--- and a pain in the ass. Especially when i pack on the guilt
Don't care, don't give a shit.
It comes down to manners and if I don't see them, I call people out on it.
We used to be a mannered society. We watched out for each other not just because it was good for the community; it was polite. Politeness states that we return graciousness with like graciousness.
AT some point in the past 50 yrs., being an individual and being freedom-loving to a point of disrespecting others in our attempts to "be ourselves" (and in my youth, I was guilty) has become a practice of one-ups-manship.
Perhaps Civics and Civil Manners should become as important in our public school curriculum as reading, writing and arithmetic?

Mac C.
mac C5 years ago

It's hard to face that some people are not responsible-- and it's so easy to be when it comes to this. Thanks for the article and message.

Kath R.
Kath P5 years ago

My community has an award winning recycling program in place. works!

leslie c.
leslie c5 years ago

Where I currently live recycling has been made
easier & I encourage every county & city in the
country to adopt this program. We are allowed
to put all our recyclables in one big bin & Waste
Disposal picks them up along w/ the trash twice
a week via curbside. It has made my life much
easier & saved me endless time. More importantly,
because it has simplified things for people, it
encourages them to recycle more items, more often.
Of course things like batteries, old computers, stuff
like that is exempt but hey, how lazy can you be not
to deal with those things separately?

heather g.
heather g5 years ago

If you are truly asking for advice, I would advise that you need to get you local newspaper and most definitely, your local municipality involved. Work with them so that the media help you spread the word.

Speak about what you and others are doing in your town - apparently a study was conducted which revealed that this method worked because people didn't want to stand out by not participating with what friends and neighbours regarded as 'the right thing to do'.

Sometimes you can work with a neighbouring town or even the garbage removal company. Try and get everyone on board eg, large stores, and ask them how they can contribute to a greener town.

Unfortunately, you will always find a large section of people who are not community minded and who, even if spoken to nicely, selfishly don't care.... Energise yourself by working with positive people for change and don't concentrate on negative people.

Vicky Pitchford
Vicky P5 years ago

Sue, it depends on the apartment, in Toronto we recycle cardboard, plastic, everything except waste stuff like batteries, etc, you have to drop that stuff off yourself.

Kim W.
Kim W5 years ago

Here in our little Missouri town with a population of 1012 we have our very own recycle bins thanks to a very enterprising woman. You can take many things there for no cost. On the other hand there is a fee for the local land fill. It doesn't stop the abuse of it, it just pays for recycling there. In fact another enterprising woman, decided to make methane fuel from the waste and is going forward in some very innovative ways. We are a certified organic grass fed beef farm, and are doing our part, and trying daily, hourly to encourage all we can those around us to be more in tune. We have a saying here. Speak with your dollar. If you don't buy it they will stop making it. If enough people speak out changes can and do happen. Never lose faith, in the greater good, and the struggle to attain goodness. We have been so very blessed, and now throw into the mix, my dear friend, already a nurse, and she has just opened a thrift store, with a food pantry, with many opportunities for the community to benefit. We are starting a farmers market there, since it is on a busy road, but just another one of the places, that tend to make others irritated since they have to slow down to 35 on their From? Now we will tempt them, and hopefully, will make more changes, in our slow, purposeful and determined way. May we all try this, may we all succeed, one person at a time, one acre at a time.

Sue H.
.5 years ago

Where I live in Canada we can recycle almost anything. But living in an apartment building complex we cannot recycle cardboard!! Also with all the green space on the grounds we cannot recycle food scraps and these two things really annoy me. We have bins for glass, cans, plastic and paper so we can make quite a difference. But being able to recycle cardboard and food scraps would be much better as there is so much of it. We can recycle broken e-waste for free if we take it to the container, along with batteries, light bulbs and anything that worked on either electricity or batteries. I also use the local free-cycle websites.