Waste Not, America

Penny S. Bonda, FASID

Waste Not, America


The median size of a new supermarket increased from 24,038 square feet in 1972 to more than 44,000 square feet in 2000. The average new home in 1973 was 1,525 square feet; by 2001 it was 2,103. Televisions have gone from an average of 23.5 inches in 1997 to 26.75 inches in 2002, while Viking's largest range now measures 72 inches versus just 48 inches in 1987. Callaway introduced the Big Bertha golf club in 1991, measuring 191 cubic centimeters. Today the Big Bertha II is sized at 380. The largest available serving of McDonald's french fries weighed four ounces in 1980; by 2000 you could chow down the 7.1 ounce portion. In 1985 the largest new cruise ship weighed 46,052 tons. Last year's newest model has almost doubled to 88,500 tons. The average weight of a left tackle on the 1974 winning Super Bowl team was 260 pounds; today's bruisers weigh in at 340 pounds. Finally, the most requested size for a breast implant has risen from a B to a D cup in the last 20 years.

Get the picture? Everything is getting bigger, from us (60 percent of American adults are overweight) to the number of SUVs on our streets. Sales of these gas-guzzling, parking space-hogging, view-blocking vehicles, originally designed for "off-road" activities, have grown tenfold since 1980 and most often carry nothing more rugged than groceries and kids.

So what's the problem? Well, the bigger stuff is, the more stuff it takes to build and operate, and in the case of the aforementioned SUV, the more pollution it's allowed to spew. According to U.S. Department of Energy figures, the 2003 Ford Expedition averages 13 mpg city, 18 mpg highway compared to the mid-size Honda Accord's 24 mpg city and 33 mpg highway. Cars with better gas mileage emit less greenhouse gases; greenhouse gas emissions contribute to global warming. (FYI: hybrids like the Honda Insight and Toyota Prius do much better with 52 to 57 mpg for city driving and 45 to 56 mpg highways.

Automobiles are not the only culprits when it comes to burgeoning size and over-consumption. The holiday season just past generated more than 25 million tons of trash, far more than any comparable month-long period. According to a Use Less Stuff report in The Washington Post, the 2.6 billion Christmas cards sold each year in the U.S. could fill a football field 10 stories high. If everyone sent one less card, 50,000 cubic yards of paper could be saved. Americans will throw out 38,000 miles of ribbon alone at Christmas, enough to tie a big fat bow around the Earth. The town of Columbia, MO, has for eight years running held its Use Less Stuff Holiday Campaign to "establish the importance of source reduction in addressing the problem of the nation's waste. Recycling gets a lot of attention, and yet, as important as it is, it is not as important as using less stuff. If we are to significantly reduce pollution and waste, we must emphasize source reduction. And everyone, in some small way, needs to do his or her part."

There used to be a Use Less Stuff report published with tips on how to do just that. Two suggestions: consolidate your purchases into one bag rather than getting a new bag at each store and reuse packing cartons and shipping materials such as peanuts, wood shavings, shredded newspaper and bubble wrap. These are common sense things that would make a huge difference if everyone did them. If each household cancelled just 10 mail-order catalogs it would reduce their trash by 3.5 pounds per year. This engaging report has ceased publication, but the information is still available on-line at www.use-less-stuff.com.

The problem, of course, is waste. We have too much stuff and not enough places to put it when we're done with it. Americans generate four pounds of trash per person per day and a popularly quoted statistic states that 90 percent of everything made in America is thrown away within one year. Whether that frightening figure is true or not is beside the point because the point to be made here is that THERE IS NO AWAY! Trash, unless it is recycled or reused, goes to either an incinerator or, more likely, a landfill. Neither is a good choice.

According to an article in How Stuff Works.com, "trash put in a landfill will stay there for a very long time. Inside a landfill, there is little oxygen and little moisture. Under these conditions, trash does not break down very rapidly. In fact, when old landfills have been excavated or sampled, 40-year-old newspapers have been found with easily readable print. Landfills are not designed to break down trash, merely to bury it. When a landfill closes, the site, especially the groundwater, must be monitored and maintained for up to 30 years!"

Incineration of wastes, we learn from Toxic Alert, "is a concept that really involves what might be called 'adult magical thinking'—that somehow, when you burn something, it 'goes away.' We know from physical laws, however, that matter does not 'go away'—it merely changes state. Even if incineration worked perfectly, heavy metals and radioactive materials are not destroyed—they are vaporized and emitted by the smokestack or stay behind in the incinerator ash, making that ash itself toxic waste. The volume has been reduced (and in some cases this does not even happen), but the poisons remain."

It would appear then that the answer lies at the top of the waste pyramid, beginning with
eliminate. We simply have to use less stuff—in our homes, offices and as design practitioners. This column is loaded with statistics, so many that they may not strongly resonate. But statistics are only a metric whereas individual responsibility is a moral choice that each of us has the opportunity to make. Every time we supersize our homes, cars, hamburgers or trash cans, we are sending a message of greed. There is a huge difference between self-indulgence and the enjoyment of abundance that America provides. Relish in that abundance, but for heaven's sake, don't throw it away.

Wired Magazine, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), U.S. Department of Energy (DOE); The Washington Post, The New York Times, How Stuff Works, Toxic Alert