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.

  • Disposable water bottle
    Producing products that were meant to be discarded after one use was once seen as a way to sustain economic growth.

  • Disposable water bottle

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.

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.

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



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