What’s the Problem with all this Stuff?
The source of the stuff
Stuff is everywhere. Some stuff is essential for life such as food, clothing and shelter. Some stuff simply makes life nicer. Regardless, all “stuff” comes from raw materials supplied by nature, like minerals, fossil fuels, and plants. Everything purchased and consumed must first be extracted and manufactured. When things are no longer needed, they are left for disposal. This system, from extraction to disposal, is a linear system which is problematic in a world where resources are limited.
Figure 1: Linear waste system
Problems with a linear disposal system
Linear systems have negative impacts on our natural environment. One-third of the resource base on Earth has been consumed within the past three decades!1 This linear process consumes raw materials, and leaves us with industrial, often hazardous, waste and consumer end-of-life waste. The result is a damaged environment.
Solving the problem
The solution in the 20th century was waste management. Zero Waste is the solution for the 21st century.
Zero waste challenges the typical waste disposal system currently at use in the United States. Zero waste provides us with a sustainable system which allows us to recover resources that would otherwise be consumed and discarded into a landfill or incinerator.
Why zero waste?
Some resources are non-renewable. Countless convenience items are made for disposal in the linear waste disposal system as we know it. Materials we consume are directed from their conception through a linear system. This system cannot continue on a finite planet. Sure, we divert some of the material when we recycle, but much of the waste is landfilled. Not to mention that when producing goods, for every 1 ton of waste disposed in Missouri landfills, 71 tons of wastes are created “upstream” through extraction, processing and transportation.
The zero waste system
Zero waste is a sustainable system. This doesn’t really mean “zero” waste, but rather any situation in which 10% or less of all waste is sent to landfills. Sound impossible? It’s not. Businesses like Epson, Honda, and Pillsbury have already achieved it at some of their sites and cities like Austin, Los Angeles, and Seattle have committed to reaching it too. Zero waste may seem difficult, but through a multifaceted approach that includes reducing, reusing, recycling, and composting, you can reach a waste diversion rate of 90% or more!
Figure 2: Zero waste system
Zero waste and Saint Louis County
As of 2010, Saint Louis County has achieved a 55.5% waste diversion rate. This means that of all the waste generated, 55.5% was diverted from landfill disposal. Our goal was 50% and we are pleased to have met and exceeded that goal.
Zero waste means a waste diversion rate of 90% or greater. In addition to maximizing reducing, reusing and recycling, achieving 90% diversion requires increased composting of organics such as food and soiled papers. The Solid Waste Program is planning strategies to set the next Saint Louis County waste diversion goal, but in the short term, the current infrastructure for composting, though growing, is not on pace to manage the volumes necessary to achieve 90% diversion. In the interim, the County is researching beneficial reuse and working to maximize our region’s existing recycling and composting potential.
Leonard, Annie. Story of Stuff. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010. E-book.
Goudie, Andrew and Viles, Heather. Landscapes and Geomorphology: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. Print.
Easy Ways to Reduce
Reducing waste is an easy way to positively impact the environment.
Reduce disposable waste
Think about disposable things you use that cannot be recycled. Seek alternatives to prevent (reduce) the need for each item.
|Instead of using:
|Disposable plates and utensils
||Dishes and silverware
||Bottles made from metal or glass
|Plastic grocery bags
||Cloth towels and rags
||Reusable bags or aluminum foil
Don’t make waste in the first place
- When purchasing, less packaging is the best way to go. If you buy in bulk, you will also reduce packaging.
- Take only what you need; this applies to items such as napkins, paper towels, and freebies you won’t use.
- Sometimes our eyes are bigger than our stomachs. Be conscious of this when eating out or when grocery shopping.
Try “thanks, but no bag”
Retail cashiers are quick to place your new purchases into plastic bags. When you buy only one item or just a handful, there’s no need for a bag. Bring along reusable bags for longer shopping lists.
A growing movement challenges consumers to find things they need from second-hand stores, reuse websites, garage sales and friends. The idea is to avoid buying new items (except food, toiletries, and medicine) for a one-year period.
Skip generations or upgrades
Each time a new electronic item is purchased, an old one usually needs to be discarded. Manufacturing electronics takes lots of natural resources and leaves us. If you can manage to upgrade or skip a “generation”, you may be surprised at the savings.