It’s Time to Throw Out the Throwaway Economy

From garbage crises in Greece and China to worldwide shortages of grain, meat and oil, our current consumption patterns are on a collision course with the Earth’s geological limits.
By Lester R. Brown, Earth Policy Institute
Aug. 28, 2009
Add to My MSN

Producing products that were meant to be discarded after one use was once seen as a way to sustain economic growth.
DOCONNELL/ISTOCKPHOTO


Content Tools

Related Content

What Disposable or Single-use Products Have You Given Up?

Are we truly making a concerted effort to give up the convenience of single use products or is the p...

Flatulence to Fuel in Brooklyn

A new wastewater treatment plant in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, will use methane gas to produce energy.

Rest in Peace . . . or Get Your Piece?

I’m sitting on the deck of my room at the Northern Queen Inn in Nevada City, California, on a gorgeo...

Celebrate Where We Are

Yesterday I had coffee with Kirk Adkisson, a pastor who’s starting a progressive Presbyterian church...

The stresses in our early 21st-century civilization take many forms — social, economic, environmental and political. One distinctly unhealthy and visible illustration of all four is the swelling flow of garbage associated with a throwaway economy.

Throwaway products were first conceived following World War II as a convenience and as a way of creating jobs and sustaining economic growth. The more goods produced and discarded, the reasoning went, the more jobs there would be.

What sold throwaways was their convenience. For example, rather than washing cloth towels or napkins, consumers welcomed disposable paper versions. Thus, we have substituted facial tissues for handkerchiefs, disposable paper towels for hand towels, disposable table napkins for cloth ones, and throwaway beverage containers for refillable ones. Even the shopping bags we use to carry home throwaway products become part of the garbage flow.

The throwaway economy is on a collision course with the Earth’s geological limits. Aside from running out of landfills near cities, the world is also fast running out of the cheap oil that is used to manufacture and transport throwaway products. Perhaps more fundamentally, there is not enough readily accessible lead, tin, copper, iron ore or bauxite to sustain the throwaway economy beyond another generation or two. Assuming an annual 2 percent growth in extraction, U.S. Geological Survey data on economically recoverable reserves show the world has 17 years of reserves remaining for lead, 19 years for tin, 25 years for copper, 54 years for iron ore, and 68 years for bauxite.

The cost of hauling garbage from cities is rising as nearby landfills fill up and the price of oil climbs. One of the first major cities to exhaust its locally available landfills was New York. When the Fresh Kills landfill, the local destination for New York’s garbage, was permanently closed in March 2001, the city found itself hauling garbage to landfill sites in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and even Virginia — with some of the sites being 300 miles away.

Given the 12,000 tons of garbage produced each day in New York and assuming a load of 20 tons of garbage for each of the tractor-trailers used for the long-distance hauling, some 600 rigs are needed to move garbage from New York City daily. These tractor-trailers form a convoy nearly 9 miles long — impeding traffic, polluting the air, and raising carbon emissions.

Fiscally strapped local communities in other states are willing to take New York’s garbage — if they are paid enough. Some see it as an economic bonanza. State governments, however, are saddled with increased road maintenance costs, traffic congestion, increased air pollution, potential water pollution from landfill leakage, and complaints from nearby communities.

In 2001 Virginia’s governor, Jim Gilmore, wrote to Mayor Rudy Giuliani to complain about the use of Virginia for New York City’s trash. “I understand the problem New York faces,” he noted, “but the home state of Washington, Jefferson and Madison has no intention of becoming New York’s dumping ground.”

Garbage travails are not limited to New York City. Toronto, Canada’s largest city, closed its last remaining landfill on Dec. 31, 2002, and now ships all its 750-thousand-ton-per-year garbage to Wayne County, Mich.

In Athens, the capital of ancient and modern Greece, the one landfill available reached saturation at the end of 2006. With local governments in Greece unwilling to accept Athens’s garbage, the city’s daily output of 6,000 tons began accumulating on the streets, creating a garbage crisis. The country is finally beginning to pay attention to what European Union environment commissioner Stavros Dimas, himself a Greek, calls the waste hierarchy, where priority is given first to the prevention of waste and then to its reuse, recycling and recovery.

One of the more recent garbage crises is unfolding in China, where, like everything else in the country, the amount of garbage generated is growing fast. Xinhua, a Chinese wire service, reports that a survey using an airborne remote sensor detected 7,000 garbage dumps, each larger than 50 square meters in the suburbs of Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai and Chongqing. A large share of China’s garbage is recycled, burned or composted, but an even larger share is dumped in landfills (where they are available) or simply heaped up in unoccupied areas.

These examples of China’s waste problems are disturbing by themselves. But a broader analysis of potential consumption patterns in China in the near future shows why the existing western economic model as a whole will fail.

For almost as long as I can remember, we have been saying that the United States, with 5 percent of the world’s people, consumes a third or more of the Earth’s resources. That was true. It is no longer true. Today China consumes more basic resources than the United States does.

Among the key commodities such as grain, meat, oil, coal and steel, China consumes more of each than the United States except for oil, where the United States still has a wide (though narrowing) lead. China uses a third more grain than the United States. Its meat consumption is nearly double that of the United States. It uses three times as much steel.

These numbers reflect national consumption, but what would happen if consumption per person in China were to catch up to that of the United States? If we assume that China’s economy slows from the 10 percent annual growth of recent years to 8 percent, then before 2030, income per person in China will reach the level it is in the United States today.

If we also assume that the Chinese will spend their income more or less as Americans do today, then we can translate their income into consumption. If, for example, each person in China consumes paper at the current American rate, then in 2030 China’s 1.46 billion people will consume more paper than the world produces today. There go the world’s forests.

If we assume that in 2030 there are three cars for every four people in China, as there now are in the United States, China will have 1.1 billion cars. The world currently has 860 million cars. To provide the needed roads, highways and parking lots, China would have to pave an area comparable to what it now plants in rice.

By 2030 China would need 98 million barrels of oil a day. The world is currently producing 85 million barrels a day and may never produce much more than that. There go the world’s oil reserves.

What China is teaching us is that the western economic model — the fossil-fuel-based, automobile-centered, throwaway economy — is not going to work for China. If it does not work for China, it will not work for India, which by 2030 may have an even larger population than China. Nor will it work for the other 3 billion people in developing countries who are also dreaming the “American dream.” And in an increasingly integrated global economy where we all depend on the same grain, oil and steel, the western economic model will no longer work for the industrial countries either.

The overriding challenge for our generation is to build a new economy — one that is powered largely by renewable sources of energy, that has a much more diversified transport system, and that reuses and recycles everything. We have the technology to build this new economy, an economy that will allow us to sustain economic progress. Can we build it fast enough to avoid a breakdown of social systems?

Copyright © 2009 Earth Policy Institute.


Lester R. Brown is President of Earth Policy Institute and author of Full Planet, Empty Plates. He is recognized worldwide for his global perspective on environmental issues and for his development of Plan B, a plan to save civilization through stabilizing population, cutting carbon emissions, and restoring the earth’s natural support systems. Find him on .


Previous | 1 | 2 | 3 | Next






Post a comment below.

 

PE
1/4/2011 2:13:57 PM
Oh, where to start? Yes, nature plays no games, so a zero-sum game against nature is lost. But the murderous West shows no sign of life-affirming...maybe money-affirming. Repeat the mantra: There is NO waste. It goes somewhere and does harm. Best not let it go anywhere mindlessly. Nothing is flushed away, shipped away, there’s no ‘away.’ I see a note condemning NY reverses itself and condemns China for forcing the poor US to accept its shoddy goods. That very logic is NY’s in re-exporting its ‘waste.’ And the Earthships have been around four decades while piles of tires continue to catch fire and blaze ‘away.’ Humans seem not to learn. Interest in green energy in China? It’s widely criticized in the West for taking over wind and solar markets, both of which the West previously sneered at. So it goes; the West resolutely does little to nothing to curb a mess it took centuries to make, grumping the while about China and India.

James_2
9/5/2009 5:50:50 AM
Since NYC was highlighted in this article, I'll go ahead and add my two cents. NYC has a history of being offensive to its neighboring states and the environment in general in its attempts to get rid of its garbage, sewage and pollution from its overconsumption problems. If they had to deal with it locally, they'd certainly have to take a more responsible approach since they've long since run out of land and natural resources to support their overpopulation problem. The pictures of the floating garbage barge that nobody would take back in the last century is the image that I will always have of NYC until they make a concerted effort to clean up their act. Who could ever forget their raw sewage and hypodermic needles floating up on the beaches of southern NJ? As for China, which was also a focus of this article, if we started taking all of the cheap goods that we import from them that fail within the warranty period, load them on shipping containers and return them to their ports for disposal, their headaches would only just begin. The fingers always seem to point at the US for leading over consumption and environmental degradation. When is the last time that China and India tried to reel in their massive overpopulation problem that will eventually lead to irreversable damage to the environment, a deletion of natural resources, and the potential for global starvation?

Robin Barrett
9/2/2009 3:17:31 PM
In response to Jesse who does not have access to veggies unless they are in shrink wrap and stryofoam............... I heard a presentation of Helen Caldecott from Austalia about 10 years ago. She was one of the founding memebers of Physicians for social responsibility.............she suggested that we remove items from unnecessary packing and leave it at the grocery store..............seems to me a great idea............ robin

Jessie_8
9/1/2009 6:00:18 PM
Great, if terrifying article. Does anyone know if there is any growing interest in China in reducing waste or promoting green energy? I wish there weren't so much waste in food packaging. I went to the store yesterday and looked for anything that might be waste-free. The only things I could find were citrus fruits and bananas... even the broccoli comes in plastic and the corn is pre-shucked and shrink-wrapped on a styrofoam container. I don't live next to any nice organic groceries, I don't have friendly farmers selling their wares nearby, and I live in an apartment so I don't know what else to do. Almost all of my garbage seems to come from what I eat. On the bright side, we have a great system here for refilling and reusing glass and plastic bottles. You pay extra (Pfand) when you buy the bottles and get it back when you return them in the store... there's a machine for this, and it spits out a little receipt which you can cash at the register. I wish we had this in the U.S. Also we have to pay if we want plastic bags, so pretty much everyone brings their own reusable ones.

AJ Schmitz_1
8/31/2009 6:55:42 PM
What is not "thrown away" in our current societies today is life. The concept may sound cruel, but the natural models of population controll established by nature (storms, fire, natural disasters, diseases, etc) have been circumvented by humanitarianism, scientific advances and peace treaties. I am not in any way advocating or reveling in mass destruction or population die-offs; rather, a socialogical/anthropological look at the development of man kind shows that it is, time and again, checked by mother nature. The cavelier attitude toward nature, that we as a species can conquor it, is causing a great deal of disharmony in the systems of nature. The storms are getting stronger, the wave closer to our door-steps, the well run drie and the crops wither in the sun. This is not my concept. nor is it a religious one. take a look at Daniel Quinn's wonderfully interresting novel, Ishmael, which dicusses intelligently, compassionately and clearly the concept that nature is neither benevolent nor malevolent, it just is.

Kimberley_2
8/31/2009 2:45:10 PM
I have to agree with RA Stewart-- today's society is constantly throwing away "old" technology. Cell phone upgrades are a biggie along with other things like televisions and computers. But has anyone considered car seats? I'm not trying to say that our children shouldn't get anything but the best in safety-- please DO NOT misunderstand, but we have become so advanced with our cars that car seats now have an expiration date here in Connecticut. I find this utterly ridiculous because it forces people to stick something in a landfill that could be updated instead of tossed. Plastic sits forever in a landfill, so why not have a way to update an older seat? I grew up without a car seat. They weren't around. I traveled in a portable bassinet on the floor board of the family car and my brother did too until car seats were introduced. Those times are over, but conserving, updating (by reducing waste), recycling, and reusing SHOULD NOT be something of the past.

R.A. Stewart
8/31/2009 1:32:27 PM
Another aspect of the throwaway economy is all the devices that are manufactured not to last and be repairable, to run a few years and be thrown away. How many times have you taken something in for repair or tried to find a part and heard, "It's not worth fixing, just get a new one"? How many times (if you've got a do-it-yourself inclination or just a frugal and stubborn streak) have you tried to fix something yourself and experienced the frustration of working with junk? I'm amazed and appalled--and profoundly discouraged, as it shows how deeply mired our society is in willful ignorance--that no one seems to have put two and two together and recognized what this means to the environment--both the profligate waste of energy and petroleum to make all this mostly-plastic dreck, and the landfill space--and often, the toxic leaks--at the other end of the two- or three-year lifespan when the object is dumped. I try to do my part by buying well-made, repairable things--when I can find them; that often means buying used. But that's not always possible, and in any case what we really need is to rebuild the manufacturing sector that used to make those things and the network of repair people who used to keep them going. If this ever happened, it could be a boost to local economies: you can outsource manufacturing, but repair of anything larger than a pipe or a pocketknife doesn't really work unless it's local.

Thomas G Fruge
8/31/2009 11:18:28 AM
Biodegratable and reusable products is the solution. I watch a website on you tube where they are reusing old tire and bottles and cans to build homes.(Earthships)they are called. they are building them in New Mexico.

Julie Casey
8/31/2009 9:55:09 AM
I've always been a big fan of the three "r's" (reduce, reuse, recycle) because, to me, wasting anything, be it time, energy, or resources, is immoral. But the problem is that our economy, the very economy that has made us the richest nation on the planet, is based on buying more and more stuff. The definition of a recession is that we citizens have spent less this quarter than last quarter (for so many quarters in a row), not that we have less money to spend. The media likes to make a recession seem like we are all in peril, but I think a recession means less of us are wasting and more of us are saving. I believe that is good. I also believe the real reason behind the "cash for clunkers" was to spur the economy and help out the car industries, instead of trying to reduce greenhouse gasses. The energy it takes to make and transport a new car to the dealer puts more CO2 in the air than you can burn in fuel for a few more years. And to scrap those "clunkers" when so many poor and needy people could have used them is immoral. But it sure spurred the economy and gave car manufacturers a boost, didn't it?

ccm989
8/31/2009 8:27:17 AM
I like to think of used stuff as "antiques." I have a house filled with antiques (okay some came from garage sales and flea markets and sometimes I just pick stuff off the curb). Everyone always wonders where I got all this great stuff. On rare occasions, I buy jewelry second hand so all the gold is "clean" and the diamonds "blood free." Sometimes I even buy new clothes -- new to me -- from consignment shops and can get fancy designer labels very cheaply and look great. When I buy books and music I get from the Internet (second hand). Movie CDs come from the public library. Books are also borrowed. Garden plants come from seeds, spliting up perennials and trading with friends. I find the best place to go shopping is in my own attic. I found a set of coffee mugs and placemats up there this winter that someone had given to me and I didn't need at the time. I put them away and now that the old mugs are chipped and broken and the old placemats are torn and badly stained, I've got nice "company presentable" ones for free!

Debbie McSweeney
8/28/2009 4:41:03 PM
As to all the trash I wanted to add something. We recently went to Oregon and as we looked out onto the ocean a friend mentioned the giant swirl of trash in the middle of the Pacific ocean where the currents meet in a giant whirlpool and dead zone. That is where a lot of trash is accumulating. As far as you can see there is plastic on the surface--they say it is now the size of TEXAS!!! How much longer until we wake up?! Are we just going to ignore all of these things because we simply don't see them everyday?! I think we need to seriously relook at plastic of all kinds in our food system and eveywhere else. Have you tried to not have plastic in your life? It is almost impossible. My husband, who is from Ireland says that there people are charged a good bit for plastic sacks at the stores. That is why they bring their own. But here we would put some company out of business so that is why that sort of thing is not done here. It all comes down to business. We can't take away from a business even if it means saving our very lives and enviornment. Something has gone wrong with this idea. We are all at the mercy of the American dream and free interprise--even when its killing our home, altering our food supplies, making the future of our kids a nightmare. People really need to be more aware in their lives about what is actually going on around them. Get out of the run around and look. Look in your own home. Are you doing something because you feel you have to--because everyone else says you should? I haven't had paper towels or napkins in my house in 7 years. I decided that we didn't have them as a kid so we managed alright. It is amazing to me how much trash was illiminated right on the spot! And why is it in our country that if you make more trash or use more water or electricity you get LOWER usage fees??? Are we simply that stupid? I would love to see people pay by the pound for their trash pickup service--you watch how fast they would reduce, reuse a

Dena_1
8/28/2009 1:57:47 PM
What would help immensely would be for everyone to get over the notion that used stuff is icky. I recently had some mattresses that I purchased for an antique bed I use in a spare room. They were slept on a total of twice-not counting that they were covered with an allergy resistant covering, a memory foam pad (I know, I know but these were really cheap mattresses and I reuse the foam pads over and over again), sheets, etc. I doubt seriously that any body parts were able to closely touch them. I was given a new mattress set and wanted to give these away. Everyone I called refused, including the local crisis assistance ministry that will usually take anything. I was told because they were "used" the health dept wouldn't allow them to take them. My county participates in recycling only on a very limited basis, which means mainly only milk and soda bottles. I finally located a family in my community that had lost everything in a fire and was grateful to have them. We have immune systems to protect us from everyday germs. Advertising marketers and the media would love to convince you that the only safe product is one that is treated with enough chemicals to render it hazardous material when it comes time to dispose of it. Talk to any Depression era survivors and they will tell you that most of them survived and thrived even though they were wearing hand me downs and cast offs. I've never read or heard about any epidemics that were caused by someone sitting or lying on used furniture, wearing clothes from Goodwill or eating foods bought off the clearance rack. Actually, our children today might be healthier if we allowed them to come in contact with dirt and germs. There is such a thing as TOO clean believe it or not. And I know the old saying of "cleaniness is next to Godliness" but Jesus wore the same sandals and clothes everyday of his 33 years and he didn't die from germs.








Subscribe Today - Pay Now & Save 66% Off the Cover Price

First Name: *
Last Name: *
Address: *
City: *
State/Province: *
Zip/Postal Code:*
Country:
Email:*
(* indicates a required item)
Canadian subs: 1 year, (includes postage & GST). Foreign subs: 1 year, . U.S. funds.
Canadian Subscribers - Click Here
Non US and Canadian Subscribers - Click Here

Lighten the Strain on the Earth and Your Budget

MOTHER EARTH NEWS is the guide to living — as one reader stated — “with little money and abundant happiness.” Every issue is an invaluable guide to leading a more sustainable life, covering ideas from fighting rising energy costs and protecting the environment to avoiding unnecessary spending on processed food. You’ll find tips for slashing heating bills; growing fresh, natural produce at home; and more. MOTHER EARTH NEWS helps you cut costs without sacrificing modern luxuries.

At MOTHER EARTH NEWS, we are dedicated to conserving our planet’s natural resources while helping you conserve your financial resources. That’s why we want you to save money and trees by subscribing through our earth-friendly automatic renewal savings plan. By paying with a credit card, you save an additional $5 and get 6 issues of MOTHER EARTH NEWS for only $12.00 (USA only).

You may also use the Bill Me option and pay $17.00 for 6 issues.