Balancing Consumer Culture and Our Environment

A long-term, sustainable solution to waste will require fundamental changes to our consumer culture and economy.

| February 2015

Outsmart Waste (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2014), by Tom Szaky, explores why the garbage crisis exists and explains how we can solve it by eliminating the very idea of garbage. To outsmart waste, Szaky says, we first have to understand it, then change how we create it and finally rethink what we do with it. The following excerpt from the introduction, teaches us that waste need not be the final stage.

“Garbage” is a uniquely human concept that does not exist in nature. In nature the output, or waste, of one organism is the useful input for other organisms. Feces from a fox can become food for a berry bush, whose fruit can later become the food for a bird that may end up as supper for the fox whose droppings started it all. This natural harmony is rooted in the principle that the outputs of organisms tend to bring significant, if not fundamental, benefits to other organisms.

With the creation of synthetic materials, humans have broken this natural harmony. While plastics and other man-made materials have allowed us to innovate and create products cheaply, when they hit the end of their useful life they become useless outputs that nature doesn’t know what to do with. Not only are many of these new products relatively cheap to buy but many of us typically don’t even have to have the actual resources to buy them; gaining debt (through credit cards and other loans) is perhaps the easiest it has ever been.

Of course, there are ways to better realign ourselves with the harmony of nature. Buying products differently—buying consciously, buying durable, buying used, or simply not buying at all—is a straightforward way that individual consumption can have a smaller impact on nature.

It is quite difficult, however, to lead a life in which we do not buy anything or buy only our bare essentials (food and a few scraps of fabric to cover our bodies). I have started down the path of rethinking what I buy and have found it to be an uphill battle. Like most people, I enjoy acquiring things; the feeling when I open a box with something new to possess inside it is still thrilling, and that fleeting thrill is encouraged by a global culture of rampant consumerism. Just think of how many stores and advertisements we pass by on a daily basis that encourage more and more consumption—all seeming to scream, “You’ll gain happiness by buying me!”

We see fish with bellies full of plastic and birds making nests from cigarette butts, and the problem only compounds with our tendency to overconsume. Easy and cheap access to many goods, a dramatic increase in global population, and a throwaway consumer culture have resulted in a global garbage crisis.

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