More talk and more action needed to establish better waste rituals

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My father, an Old Country immigrant, had a habit I like to call a ritual. He left the dishwashing to my sisters and the drying to me, but after every meal he routinely escaped to the garden in back with a handful of leftovers––potato peels, eggshells, apple cores, bean tips, and other debris dirt likes to eat––and there he’d dig a little hole with his spade and bury the stuff.

It is a sin to waste, he routinely said with a sad little shake of his head. Not only that: The buried stuff would turn into lovely tomatoes, eggplant, and beans next year.

He’s gone now, so he won’t have to put up with my wasteful ways. One of them is that I keep forgetting to use the reusable cloth bag in the back seat of my car. Again and again I find myself in the grocery store checkout line with the clerk asking me if I want paper or plastic. I always say paper, quietly bewildered by my failure to remember to reach into the back seat for the reusable bag, while feeling morally superior to those lugging their groceries away in plastic bags.

The plastic bags disappear, while adding up. By the millions, billions. They’re thin but tougher than nails, refusing to rust away when we have no further use for them. They’re an invisible and weighty waste problem that, unlike my father’s handful of leftovers, don’t usefully go away.

What would my father––and millions, even billions––of malnourished people do with the mountains of waste we generate? According to the Society of St. Andrew, an organization dedicated to feeding America’s hungry, more than twelve billion (12,000,000,000) pounds of food will be wasted in the first two months of 2013. If we multiply those two months worth of waste by ten remaining months we achieve a gross tonnage difficult to find room for in our minds. Of all food harvested in the U.S. less than 50% gets eaten. This, and we have obesity issues.

Waste’s ability to reproduce makes waste a significant growth industry. The EPA reminds us that “food leftovers are the single largest component of the waste stream by weight in the United States.” A National Resource Defense Council study (2012) shows that, “Getting food to our tables eats up 10 percent of the total U.S. energy budget, uses 50% of U.S. land, and swallows 80 percent of fresh water consumed in the U.S.” And here’s another turn of the screw: It costs about one billion dollars per year to get rid of food we don’t eat. As talk about the impact of government spending on future generations heats up I wonder if we’re feeding our children to the waste we don’t eat.

Think of what a field day my father’s eggplants, tomatoes, and beans would have with all these leftovers.

He had a hard time throwing anything away. He’d find a neat little place in the basement or garage for pieces of pipe and wire, for old boards, engine parts, and used bricks, for coffee cans full of nuts and bolts and bent nails, and for empty coffee cans, etc. etc, etc. When he needed to fix something he knew where to find the part that fit. Meanwhile, the EPA tells us that Americans generate about 250 million tons of Municipal Solid Waste, or 4.43 pounds of MSW per person per day.

Researchers at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory also add their bit to the waste Americans pile up. LLNL flow charts show that “more than half (58%) of the total energy produced in the U.S. is wasted due to inefficiencies, such as waste heat from power plants, vehicles, and light bulbs…And while residential, commercial and industrial sectors waste about 20% of their energy, the transportation sector wastes a full 75%, making it 25% energy efficient.”

It’s a lot harder, in short, for oil to move cars made of steel than it is to move humans made of flesh and bones. The cars we ride in get a free ride at our expense, and they steer clear of the troubles caused by oil in the Mideast.

We vaguely know these grim facts, if not the actual numbers that are so huge we lose our minds in them. We know enough to turn off the lights, turn the thermostat down, walk or bike or carpool, eat smaller portions, recycle, bury leftovers into a compost pile, and lug our groceries home in a reusable bag.

But in my case there’s a disconnect between what I know and what I do. I leave lights on, I drive when I could walk or bike, and I keep forgetting that reusable bag in the back seat of my car.

I wonder if I’m typical. I talk to myself about preventing waste, but my mumbling gets lost in all the noise I hear about “growth” and “jobs.” In our national conversations about climate change and environmentalism I seldom hear the word “conservation” used, especially by “conservatives” whose arguments for fossil fuel growth are underwritten by fossil fuel industries. The case for “growth” and “jobs” is routinely made synonymous with “prosperity,” but I seldom hear it linked to the expansion of waste. Nor are “growth” and “jobs” linked to the shrinkage of resources on a planet quietly experiencing population explosion. What I don’t hear much about is also what I don’t want to hear or do much about.

I’m not sure I forget that reusable bag in the back seat of my car because I’m losing my mind. I think that bag is not on my mind enough. When I talk to myself I usually can’t remember what I said an hour ago. When everyone’s talking about the same thing it’s hard to ignore what’s being said. People like me need to tune into a new conversation about food, energy use and waste––call it a national conversation, one with the word conservation routinely used in it. Kids should learn to spell the word in their cradles, and older folks should utter it as they begin turning into eggplants, tomatoes, and beans too. Why do all the drilling, fracking, and pipelining to increase fossil fuel energy by 20% in the next ten years when we could reduce it, and much of the waste fossil fuels produce, by 20% in the next five? I don’t think it would trouble us much to walk, bike, carpool, turn off some lights, watch less TV, drink from faucets rather than bottles and cans, and carry our groceries out in reusable bags.

The big industries that lobby for business as usual––and more “growth”––have indeed created habits that provide Americans an outstanding materialistic way of life, along with sporadic outbursts of religiosity. But are these industries “growing” us to a breaking point, without making waste one of their deadly sins? How can the economy “grow” without turning our neighborhoods into gaseous landfills? The Chinese are wearing gas masks as they stroll down the avenues spewing out toxic fumes the winds are exporting to the U.S.

We need more talk––talk full of smart ideas and urgency––about waste’s impact on prosperity. Can we more comprehensively figure the long-term and widespread costs of waste into our business calculations? How much more stuff do we need, and what can we do better without? Can we cut down on waste and increase prosperity by de-materializing our economy? Can we create both jobs and new wealth by professionalizing the relatively non-toxic and good work done by alternative health and human services providers, by educators and artists, by fix-it-up gurus, and by caretakers of culture and the environment? Would more people actually be happier in this leaner economy? Would it save future generations of our children from the disasters business as usual profiteers are warning us about?

Certainly it would help if politicians and celebrities would speak out about this issue in a big way, but they’re unlikely to do so until they hear a lot of us talking about it first.

I know I talk too much to myself, and it’s one reason I so easily slip into the habit of lugging my groceries home in a paper bag. Every time I do that I almost realize that I’ve failed to translate my mind’s preferences into the behaviors of everyday ritual. I’ve thought about buying more reusable bags and spreading them around the car so they’re impossible to ignore, but that somehow rubs me wrong. I need a reusable ritual, not more bags. Proper rituals, which conjure widespread commitment to norms that have special, even sacred, significance, are vital to the survival of a society. If I saw others routinely walking to the front door of the grocery store with reusable bags in hand, I’d be much more inclined to reach for mine in the back seat of my car. And I’d change other habits too, probably getting some good exercise riding the six blocks to the grocery store on my bike instead of in my car.