In 1983, a National Geographic article raised the alarm about garbage getting out of control. At 15,000 sanitary landfills, it seemed that the land was getting too overwhelmed with refuse and that alternative garbage disposal methods had to be found.
In order to understand why garbage is a bigger problem than most people can comprehend, we need to look at what garbage meant in the older days versus nowadays, especially when the term “disposable” is periodically redefined. To put things in perspective, imagine that just one landfill near Las Vegas holds approximately 50 million tons of waste.
In the age of cradle-to-grave products, garbage meant unusable products that could no longer be mended or reused in any way. Most of it was also made from materials that would decompose without creating a lot of fumes or without leaching bad chemicals into the ground.
Nowadays, cheap products – price-wise but not resource-wise – make people opt for replacing broken items rather than mending them. Meanwhile, new, updated versions of everything from phones to computers to vacuum cleaners and cars are turning most items into disposable products.
Electronic waste creates a big worry on its own. According to a website called StEP Initiative, it is estimated that by 2017, approximately 65.4 million tons of electronic waste will be generated in the world.
The numbers are dizzying, and while recycling is a viable alternative, it cannot keep up with the amount of garbage generated daily around the world.
The most lucrative solution to the mess is an obvious one: reducing consumption. There is already enough garbage to give a massive headache to all who are concerned about it. Yet statistics are anything but reassuring. In electronics, more is being produced and more is being bought.
Facts concerning various depositing sites abound yet, as always, the sensationalism of high numbers is short-lived. How could consumerism make peace with the reality of garbage? Resisting offers, rejecting Black Friday and Boxing Day sales? Perhaps. In an age when love and appreciation are measured in new gadgets and palpable gifts, it is often convenient to forget that most of them originate from non-renewable resources gouged out of pristine lands, and precious metals mined by poor people.
This circle closes on further tragedy as third-world countries receive hundreds of cargos of discarded electronic waste that has to be dismantled, forcing people who have few options to begin with to be exposed to toxic chemicals coming from an over-consuming world.
It is a fact that it takes less energy to extract metals from recyclable sources than it takes from raw resources, and it takes less energy and resources in general to create recycled goods. Yet the problem is still not solved, as electronics contain both metals and plastic.
Even if all the metal in electronic waste could be recycled, the plastic would still lie in landfills for hundreds of years to come within the continually growing mountains of garbage that the world produces. An estimate from two years ago puts the number at 2.6 trillion pounds.
The developed world will have to rethink its strategies for consuming, garbage producing and disposal. The solution will have to start with taking responsibility for the garbage we each produce, as individuals and as countries.
Real change will only come when the priority will be not to sell more but less, because less will be more when it comes to saving the world.