Talking Trash With Annie Leonard

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Photo By Dorothy Hong
Annie Leonard's "Story of Stuff" web video promotes simple living.

Annie Leonard’s 20-minute web video “Story of Stuff” went viral in 2007 with more than 6.5 million hits, re-awakening Americans’ idea of simple living. Her provocative, fast-paced video highlights the effects of overconsumption at home and overseas and encourages people to consider where “away” is the next time they throw something there. Leonard has turned her video’s success into an online environmental justice movement, The Story of Stuff Project, where she serves as director. Leonard also just penned a book of the same title, slated for release in March 2010 by Free Press of Simon and Schuster. With more than 20 years of work in environmental health and justice, including work with Greenpeace International, Leonard’s expertise is well-regarded; she was named one of Time magazine’s “Heroes of the Environment” last year. 

What inspired you to make “The Story of Stuff” video?

I grew up in Seattle, at that time a green and luscious city. My family would go camping every summer. This was in the days before DVD players in the back seats of family cars numbed young passengers, and I’d look out the window, studying the landscape for the whole drive. Each year, I noticed that the stores and strip malls reached a bit further and the forests started a bit later than the previous year. I wondered where all those forests were going. I wondered how I could stop them from going away entirely.

It turned out to be fortuitous that I went to college in New York City, even though at the time it seemed an odd place to go for environmental studies. My college campus was on 116th Street and my dorm room was on 110th Street. Every morning I would groggily walk those six blocks, staring at the piles of garbage that line the city’s streets every dawn. Ten hours later, I’d walk back to my dorm, staring at the empty sidewalks. 

I became increasingly intrigued with this microcosm of materials flow. My curiosity got the best of me; I started looking into the trash each morning to see what was in those never-ending piles. It was mostly paper. Paper! That is where my beloved forests were ending up. In the U.S., 42 percent of industrial wood harvest is used to make paper. About 40 percent of the stuff in municipal garbage is paper, all of which is recyclable or compostable if it hasn’t been treated with too many toxic chemicals. By simply recycling, rather than trashing, this paper, we could reduce our garbage by 40 percent, which would also drastically reduce pressure to cut forests and help with climate change. 

Once I realized that those morning trash piles were nearly half paper–were once forests–I was determined to find out where they were going. So I took a trip to the infamous Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island. Coving 4.6 square miles, Fresh Kills is one of the largest dumps in the world. When it was officially closed in 2001, some say its volume was greater than that of the Great Wall of China; its peaks 25 meters taller than the Stature of Liberty. I had never seen anything like it. I stood at its edge in absolute awe. As far as I could see in every direction were couches, refrigerators, boxes, apple cores, used clothes, stuff. You know how a gory car crash scene makes us want to turn away and stare at the same time? That is what it was like. I just couldn’t comprehend this massive mountain of materials, reduced to muck, by some system obviously out of control. I knew this was terribly wrong. I didn’t understand both how we could have developed a system based on such rapid destruction of the earth’s resources and how it could be so well hidden. So I vowed to investigate it further and share what I learned along the way. 

After college, I went to work for environmental organizations in Washington, D.C. For my first 10 years, I worked on an international campaign to stop rich countries from exporting waste to the world’s poorer countries. I spent a decade traveling the world, visiting the factories where our stuff is made and the dumps where our stuff is dumped. I met communities that had lost their water supplies, their health, and their livelihood because of polluting industries. I realized that our consumption habits in the U.S. are fueling widespread environmental, health and social problems all over the world. I wanted to find a way to share this information; to expose the hidden costs of our consumption addiction–here and abroad. But I didn’t want to produce yet another scolding guilt-inducing rant. I wanted to inspire people to pay attention and get involved in making positive change, not leave them feeling afraid and guilty as much environmental information tends to do. 

I wanted to say, “Hey, we’ve got a problem here. We’re trashing the planet. We’re trashing each other. And we’re not even having that much fun. Come on, let’s work together and build a different kind of world for us and our children.” 

I’d been doing a lot of public speaking at schools, activists’ conferences and other gatherings. I often did a live presentation of the Story of Stuff which seemed to engage audiences. I noted the irony in flying all over the world to give this talk, spending time in airplanes rather than with my daughter, so I decided to make a video to share it more broadly with less personal and environmental impact. I joined up with the fabulous Free Range Studios in Berkeley, California, and we made the Story of Stuff film.

We launched it free online in December 2007 and so far the website has been viewed 7 million times by people in over 200 countries and territories all over the world. We have also had thousands of requests for DVDs to show the film in schools, churches, community groups and conferences to raise awareness and inspire discussion on these topics. I am really happy that the film has proved to be such a good conversation starter about the broader impacts of our consumption patterns–both overseas and within our own communities. 

What’s the best way to educate people about environmental issues?

I like Saul Alinsky’s famous advice to “talk to people where they’re at, not where you’re at.” I recommend first listening to people, finding out what their concerns are and then starting a conversation that relates environmental issues to their life and their concerns. This way, each of us can better understand our connections to environmental issues, rather than perceiving them as some abstract distant thing that affects polar bears and residents of low-lying islands. One of the good things about such an all-pervasive problem is that there are infinite entry points to the issue; we need to find the entry points that are relevant and rewarding for each of us.

Tell us about your book, Story of Stuff.

The book will look more deeply at the issues covered in the film, from extraction through consumption and disposal. The book also shares some stories and insights I’ve gathered during more than a decade of traveling around the world looking at the factories where our stuff is made and the dumps where our stuff is dumped. I share stories from visiting slums in Haiti and gas survivors in Bhopal. I want to bring the hidden impacts of all our production and consumption patterns out into the open. I strive to show the connections between a range of environmental and social issues. Most importantly, I provide plenty of signs of hope and examples of how we could do things differently. There are many things we can do to change the way we treat both natural resources and our global neighbors; to make things less toxic and better share the wealth of the planet; to live more sustainability and more justly.   

What’s the most important green item people can bring into their homes?

In the U.S., we tend to evaluate whether or not we have enough based on what others have. There’s lots of evidence that the more TV one watches, the more of those ad-packed fashion magazines one reads and the more one compares themselves to higher-consumptive neighbors and co-workers, the less adequate we feel with the stuff we have. It is a destructive pattern yet most of us subject ourselves to it at some level. So, I think the most important green item we can bring into our homes is an internal yardstick of satisfaction. If we can learn to evaluate our stuff based on some internal sense of sufficiency, rather than the latest commercials we watched, we would be easier on ourselves and on the planet.

But if you’re asking about actual stuff one can bring home, buying less, buying local and buying secondhand can help the planet (and our budgets, which helps reduce our stress). The two “green” items I most enjoy, and which are within the budgets of everyone, are my clothesline and my worm bin. These are inexpensive, simple things–even easily made rather than bought–that help green my daily life.

I love my clothesline, not just because it allowed me to avoid replacing my ancient dryer when it broke last year, but because it reaches across my luscious green garden which I too often don’t take the time to enjoy in my hectic life. My clothesline requires me to stand in my garden, stretching my arms up towards the sky (and the line) twice a day. Ten minutes in the morning and 10 minutes at night; these are often the calmest moments of my day. I need all the help I can get slowing down and if I can do it while also sun-drying my clothes, all the better. For me, line-drying my clothes is like a mental health therapy.

I also love my worm bins. If worms aren’t your thing, a regular compost bin will do. The many values of composting dwarf its simple backyard farmer or hippie image. Keeping organics out of landfills reduces climate change because rotting organics creates methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. Rotting organics also creates leachate, a witches’ brew liquid that runs through the landfill, picking up toxins from the trash. In contrast, composting organics turns those otherwise nuisance materials into a valuable soil amendments, which replace commercial fertilizers and make our gardens blossom–all the better in which to hang up our laundry! 

We know it’s best to reduce, reuse and salvage. What green products do you buy new, and how do you choose them?

My first preference when I need something is borrowing it. My neighbors and I share everything from cars to gardening tools to sporting equipment. I like sharing since it requires that we talk to each other too, which helps build our social fabric and community strength. 

If it is something I do want or need to own myself, or my turn to provide something to share, I try to buy secondhand items, not just because I get what I need without adding to the upstream waste, but also because I can afford higher-quality items that last longer.

But yes just like everyone, I do buy some stuff new. I buy books that I want to take notes in so can’t borrow from the library. I buy my daughter games. I guy gifts for friends and my favorite stuff for around the house. For personal-care and other household items, I check GoodGuide before buying. I like GoodGuide because it compiles a huge amount of information about a product and its parent company in an easy-to-access format. It lets me skim for quick decision-making and provides in-depth details should I want them. I have enormous trust for the person who created it–a Berkeley professor and long time friend, Dara O’Rourke. 

You spent 10+ years traveling the world tracking the cycle of stuff. What was the most surprising thing you saw?

I had the amazing good fortune to visit more than 40 countries in the course of this work. I have visited Central America; Western and Eastern Europe; Southern Africa; the Caribbean and Asia. For three years, I lived in South Asia. During my travels, I investigated the factories where our stuff is made and the dumps where it is dumped. I met workers and activists and community residents. I attended conferences and strategy meetings. I visited infamous sites like Bhopal, India, the site of the largest chemical industrial disaster in history and Gonaives, Haiti, where ash from a U.S. municipal waste incinerator was disguised as fertilizer and dumped on a beach. 

I think the most surprising thing I saw was the many positive examples of people organizing their homes, their economies and their politics in different ways. When we grow up in one society, we can too often mistake the dominant way as the best or, even worse, the only way. So it is tremendously illuminating to get out and to see how others live. I’ve seen a wide range of government policies, innovative land use planning, respect for the commons, restrictions on the commercialization of culture which have led to very different result than the toxin-laden, consumer-driven model we currently have in the U.S. For me, this is amazingly inspiring. It shows me–over and over–that we could do things differently. It is not set in stone that we have to trash the planet and endure massive social inequality; these realities are the result of specific choices made by government and business leaders over time. And we can make different choices–choices which better serve the planet and its many communities.

Tell us about your “stuff-free” Berkeley bungalow home. 

Ha! My little Berkeley house is far from stuff-free! Like most people in our country, I battle to keep clutter out but it is like it keeps seeping in through the window cracks. Most of us in the U.S. have an abundance of stuff and, too often, a shortage of the things that bring real happiness and security: leisure, time with our family, recreation, and community time. The sooner we can make the shift from focusing on accumulating newer, better, more stuff to accumulating more friends, more hobbies, more leisure, the healthier our communities and the planet will be.

I live in a small bungalow in Berkeley. I share the house with my 10-year-old daughter and our roommate. By U.S. standards, it is small but by global standards, it is plenty big for the three of us and whatever international activist friends are passing through town that week. 

The house is full of my daughter’s art projects, our roommate’s cherished antique Scandinavian pottery, and beautiful old wood arts and crafts furniture, collected from relatives and garage sales over the years. While the house is simple, we feel we live an incredibly rich life because of our community.

Over the past 15 years, my close friends and I have bought six houses on the same block. We have taken down the fences and share big yards. Our backdoors are open so we can borrow milk or sugar in the middle of a baking project. We share gardening tools, grills, outdoor tables, a swing set and tree house. We dine together outside in the summer and inside in the rain. We watch out for each other, cheer each other on during good times and provide comfort during the rough patches. Paul Hawken said that working for the environment is not a way to get rich; it is a way to be rich. I feel the same about living in community. Our houses are not grand but our community is.

Three of the people in our gang are phenomenal gardeners; I am not. I am a garden consumer. I love the flowers and can’t understand how each week an entirely different set of colors dominates the garden. A couple years ago, a headhunter called me asking if I would apply for a very desirable job in Washington, D.C. I explained that it sounded great, but I live in a Monet painting with my 10 best friends. I am not going anywhere.

All of us in our community are striving to reduce the environmental impact of our homes. I have installed solar panels on my house, which provide 150 percent of my energy needs. I use the extra to power the used Neighborhood Electric Vehicle (a ZENN) which my daughter and I use for all our local transportation. I also let my next-door neighbor plug her pottery kiln into the solar system since it is such a big energy suck. We have a graywater system that pumps our washing machine discharge through a beautiful multi-tires planter, filtering it before releasing into our garden. We’re experimenting with different models for this and plan to add the shower next.

What’s the biggest environmental myth you’d like to quash?

The biggest environmental myth I’d like to quash is that the challenges facing the planet today can be overcome through changes at the individual lifestyles level. Yes, of course, it is helpful and responsible and good to conserve energy at home, to ride a bike instead of drive, to carry a cloth bag to the store, even to buy the least toxic and least exploitive products available. But even if we could convince every single person to always do the most environmentally responsible option, even when it is often against their economic self interest–which we can’t–it isn’t enough. We simply must get involved with organizations engaging for broader systemic change. For example, instead of spending hours perfecting my personal shopping list to avoid neurotoxins in my consumer products, why not ban them? What are neurotoxins doing in my lipstick, shampoo, and kids’ pajamas anyway? Get them out! Instead of feeling satisfied for taking public transportation, even though it takes longer and costs more than driving to San Francisco, let’s lobby for a redirection of government subsidies away from oil extraction, highway funds and SUVs and for public transportation, bike lanes and pedestrian-friendly urban planning so that everyone chooses public transportation because it is just so much easier and less costly. Let’s change the rules so that doing the environmentally preferable option is the default option. As Paul Hawken says, we have to make choosing the environmentally right option as easy as falling off a log.

You say recycling will never be enough. How do we retrain ourselves to consume less?

First, it is important to remember that many people still need to consume a lot more! Half the world’s population lives on less than $2.50 a day. For many, more stuff–more shelter and food and clothing and medicine–would make life much better. But that’s not the case for those of us in the heavily consuming parts of the globe. For us, we’re constantly told that more stuff will make us happier, more attractive, better parents, more successful, but it’s just not true. Some academics and scientists, especially in the U.S. and Europe, have been studying the science of happiness and the links between happiness and stuff. There’s growing evidence that, after a point, more stuff and more focus on getting even more stuff, doesn’t make us happier. And because working to pay for, shopping for and then  maintaining all that stuff demands so many hours, a focus on stuff actually makes our life less happy by eating up time that could be spent on the things that really do make us happy: time with friends and family, leisure time, time spent in community.

Yes, we have a huge challenge ahead of us–nothing short of redesigning our economic system, industrial base and culture to support sustainability and sharing rather than accumulation of stuff. That is daunting. 

We need to work on reducing consumption at two levels–individually and structurally. On the individual level, the more we can liberate ourselves from the “more is better mindset,” the less time we have to spend on the treadmill of overwork, overconsumption and stress–what I call the work-watch-spend treadmill. Fortunately, we have a huge thing going for us: the very things that will help us rebuild our communities and lessen our toll on the planet are the same things that will make us happier. The perceived inconvenience of things like a smaller house and a shared car instead of privately owned one are far outweighed by the liberation of having less stuff to maintain and pay for. It actually is more fun to spend an afternoon with friends and family than working extra hours to pay off the credit card bill or trolling the mall for the latest gizmo. 

And we can use some of that freed up time to join with our friends and colleagues to make changes in the broader system so that we all consume less without even thinking about it. Right now, there are many things from perverse government subsidies to excessive packaging that encourages us to consume more, even restricts us from consuming less! As we identify and change these policies, regulations and actual systems, then our society will shift to being a less consumptive one because that’s the new default. That’s just the way we’ll do business in the sustainability era. There’s a smorgasbord of policies and approaches from which to choose: restrictions on wasteful packaging, changes in zoning to support small local businesses, stringent energy efficiency and toxin-free standards for everything from consumer goods to buildings and much more. 

I am sitting in a friend’s house in Europe right now. Her refrigerator is half the size of my rather modest U.S. one. She has no dryer, but has well-designed little racks that hang over her doors and radiators on which to hang laundry to dry when it is too rainy for the outside line. Her shower uses a small heat-on-demand system, rather than maintain a giant tank of hot water 24 hours a day. There is no large mall in her neighborhood and instead, she strolls just a couple blocks to the locally owned shops where she gets what she needs–not much since her fridge is small and she’ll pass by again within a day or two. She said she would never want to bother with a car, since local public transportation and long distance trains are so much easier. On average, people in her country consume about half the resources of an average U.S. resident but her quality of life is higher in many ways. It doesn’t feel like hardship–in fact, it feels relaxed. When I join her friends and her for a cup of tea, I notice they discuss holidays and books and community more, worries about how to pay for health care and children’s university education less. While their society isn’t perfect by any means, we could learn from it. We could decide to take better care of our planet and each other and, in doing so, achieve a level of well being that is never going to be accomplished through consuming ever more stuff.