Ask Eartha: Garbage is a terrible thing to waste (column)
June 17, 2016
The Colorado Association for Recycling's annual conference was just held in Grand Junction June 13-14. What were some of the takeaways to help improve recycling in Colorado? — Cody, Breckenridge
Recycling in Colorado (and Summit County) falls behind our national average by nearly 20 points! It's a dismal statistic that should light a fire in Coloradans to do more, but low landfill costs, our diverse geography, and our often staunch cultural views of local control provide challenges when it comes to recycling. So do our national views on waste. As a society, we still see waste as an output of a linear system designed to move products through a consumer-based economy. If we continue to view the system through the extraction, production, distribution, consumption, and disposal lens, we will continue to have a waste problem in America and in Colorado. According to both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Colorado Association for Recycling, one way to drive a paradigm shift in the way we view our waste is to reframe the discussion around sustainable materials management, rather than waste management. While this simple choice of words seems like an exercise in semantics, the ideology behind it is significantly different.
Think of the last time you got a new handheld device. How old was the one you replaced? Did you actually need a new one? Did the manufacturer still support the software or was it obsolete? Since when did our society become so focused on having the newest, latest and greatest? What happened to having pride in your 39-year-old car or household appliance? Today, if a product doesn't work well, look good, or isn't serviced by the manufacturer, we just throw it away (or if you're really conscious, recycle it). This is called planned obsolescence, and it's a technique used by advertisers and manufacturers to ensure a steady market to supply more goods to consumers and to drive more profits. It's time we get back to basics by considering Sustainable Materials Management. Sustainable Materials Management (SMM) is a systemic approach to using and reusing materials more productively over their entire lifecycles. The three main concepts of SMM are:
1. Use materials in the most productive way with an emphasis on reducing use in the first place.
2. Reduce toxic chemicals and environmental impacts throughout the material's life. This means considering everything from the extraction process, production, distribution, consumption and disposal.
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3. Assure that we have sufficient resources to meet today's needs and those of the future.
How is this different than what we do with waste today? Most specifically, we don't care to know how the product was made. If we don't see it happening in our backyards, we're not concerned. However, both the majority of greenhouse gas emissions and the majority of environmental impacts of products happen in the extraction, production and distribution phases. These impacts are enormous! But as consumers, if we're concerned at all, we're only focused on how we can best dispose of the product. Sometimes we donate, recycle or safely dispose of materials through collection programs but rarely do we fix our products, look for ways to reuse materials or consider whether we truly need certain items in the first place. This is the key to SMM.
By considering how a product was made, we can better understand the resource intensity of our current economic model. If everyone in the world consumed resources at the same rate as the average American, we'd need five Earths to provide all the necessary services. News flash! We only have one Earth, so we need to focus on reducing our use in the first place, reusing the materials that we have (without reprocessessing) and then recycling. Recycling can be resource- and energy-intensive, too (think transportation of materials) so it's important to look for ways to reduce consumption and reuse materials before considering recycling. Did you really need that plastic water bottle in the first place?
By reframing the conversation around the disposal of our stuff to look at the entire life cycle of a product, we can gain a more complete view of the environmental and social impacts of our consumer behavior. This is one major tool in the toolkit to help solve climate change, social inequality and environmental degradation. According to experts at the Colorado Association for Recycling's annual conference, we need to be conscious consumers and consider all the impacts of our behavior, both social and environmental. Visit http://www.highcountryconservation.org to learn more about how you can reduce, reuse, and recycle here in Summit County.
Ask Eartha Steward is written by the staff at the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to sustainable food, waste reduction and resource conservation. Submit questions to Eartha at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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