Minimizing waste, through either cradle to cradle and/or local economies, is crucial for improving our environment and our quality of life.
Our waste problems stem from the Consumer Culture in which we live.
The idea of ‘throwing away’ has been around for a very long time. When you think of waste, you think of waste as the ‘something’ after some thing has been consumed – mainly trash and fecal matter. These wastes can pose big issues for human society. If not treated properly and removed from our living area, filth and squalor ensues, potentially creating devastating diseases and conditions. The middle ages saw the Bubonic Plague, among other diseases, rise up from the filth of European cities. In fact, our obsession with trash and throwing things away stems from an evolutionary phobia of creating filth, because 1000 years ago, what we didn’t throw away did actually kill us. Accordingly, society has done a great job of saving itself from another waste-borne epidemic by creating efficient and effective waste management.
At the heart of modern waste management is the landfill dump – a place far, far away that most first world citizens only hear about in stories. You just throw it out/away and it’s gone. This system is effective, but not sustainable. Our land resources are ever shrinking and so should not be allocated to holding old products that we can’t or don’t want to use anymore. Also, we continue to waste enormously useful resources in the products themselves that we throw away – not just the land the dumps occupy.
That’s post-consumer waste, but what about pre-consumer waste?
Often in our consumer state of mind, we neglect to consider what waste goes into creating the products we consume, and then throw away. In recent years, through recycling, composting, and conservation initiatives, we have done a good job of considering the post-consumer side, but not the pre-consumer side of waste. What goes into our products is often more harmful than what happens to them post-use. We waste so many resources (both environmental and human) in the production process. Many of the issues we know about. However, when the product is ready for our consumption, we often become blind to its production.
Why do we fail to acknowledge the inputs?
I attribute this disconnect to our passive Consumer Culture.
Ignorance is bliss, and ignorance is profit. Much more so than post-consumer waste, pre-consumer waste seems evermore daunting and impossible to fix. Producers create products that we love to use. Some products give us convenience, some efficiency, some beauty, and some give us connection to others. What’s more, supporting these products are advertising and peer pressures that drive consumption. Following the trends of the media, family, neighbors, we feel the need to have more shoes, the newest cell phone, more movies, more appliances, (the list goes on). Sure, everyone loves something new – a new item, vision, or thought – anything new – stimulates our brain. However, these new items are often a low quality at unjustly low costs, with built-in obsolescence to incentivize buying the ‘newer’ item next year.
In our modern Consumer Culture, we don’t care where it’s from or where it goes when we’re finished with it – we only care about what is in front of us.
This culture’s effects are far-reaching. We absorb information without interacting with it. We consume together instead of create together. Many families and friends spend ‘time together’ in front of a television, watching a movie, or playing a videogame. We drive in isolated automobiles instead of using public transit or walking. Long ago are the days of using physical maps to find your way, much less asking people for directions. We now plug an address into an automated GPS and follow the route. In our modern culture, creative interaction has lost out to quick, joint consumption. We are creatures consuming in the present, and neglecting to consider its cause and effect.
In reality, what we consume should be tied to where its from and where its going, not just because the stages are intrinsically connected, but because acknowledging a product’s entire life cycle can strength our relationship with the product and make us want to consume it even more.
Imagine consuming a product that you know:
a) was produced by an industry which employs workers who take pride in their product
b) did not harm the environment and in some cases helped heal our planet
c) was produced in a way that harnessed its byproducts to help create other useful products
d) was sold to you locally for a fair price
e) is a high-quality, long-lasting product
f) can be upcycled or decomposed into another high-quality, useful product to empower another industry after its current stage is finished.
Would these characteristics of a product be appealing? Notice too, that step (f) returns back to step (a) seamlessly.
You see, ignorance is bliss and profit, but knowledge is, too. Knowledge that your consumption is inherently good and contributing to a more fair, more efficient, and more complete society can be powerfully addicting and rewarding. I believe that if we take entire product loops and life cycles into consideration, leveraging efficient and benevolent production, our consumer culture can proactively benefit and not cause detriment to our society.