What is waste? Otherwise known as trash, junk, garbage, rubbish, or debris, waste is the stuff we don’t want. Waste may include leftover food, old furniture, dirty diapers, or anything else that leaves our house in a plastic trash bag. It can be discarded or recycled, depending on the material. While waste was once something useful or meaningful, it has now become obsolete in our busy lives. So, what’s the problem? We had it, we liked it, and now we don’t—just get rid of it already. Although it sounds simple enough, the ever-looming question of precisely what to do with waste never really goes away.
Where does waste come from? It is a human concept that exists outside of nature because the world into which we were born does not really have such things. Anything found on the earth, including our bodies, is eventually returned to the earth naturally after a certain amount of time. Recycling is really something created by nature. After an animal is born, it eats, procreates, dies, and then it returns to the soil. This is a perfect example of a life being recycled to regenerate the growth of a tree or the propagation of a species. The circle of life just sort of handles itself and keeps the planet sustainable and functional.
However, the current problem of human waste we now face is not a natural system, and it has consequently created a host of new trash-related problems. Manmade materials and processes that focus on economic value, convenience, and efficiency have led us to a land of production that far outweighs what we actually need. Not only do these systems not follow a natural process, but they often consume pieces of the environment in a highly destructive way. Once they have consumed something like wood from trees to then make particle board for inexpensive furnishings, that material is sold in the form of a bunk bed for little Johnny. When he outgrows that bed, he may pass it along to a cousin or sell it at a yard sale, but more likely it will end up in landfill where it will meet nature once again. Sadly, it is no longer just wood that could easily be absorbed into the landscape. It contains composite materials such as synthetic resin, adhesives, and plastic microfibers. Rightfully so, nature can no longer accept it, and it is now labeled as waste.
People will continue to have children, and more bunk beds will be ordered and made. As a result, the process will continue. It is a lucrative system that feeds on itself but that offers no solution or end game. Regardless of what we know about solutions, one thing is for sure—there is only so much space on the planet, and there will come a time when this consumeristic attitude will pose a threat to human existence. In essence, the Earth is losing the capacity to provide raw materials for the future and does not have the ability to absorb those materials created by humans. Valuable resources such as money and energy are lost when disposal is needed, and a great burden is placed on the ecosystem. So, what’s the main problem? The sheer volume of waste being generated each day, all the while highlighting our inability to deal with it.
What are we doing with waste? Most modern efforts to handle waste focus on collection and disposal. If something cannot be recycled or composted, it has two options for disposal: incineration or landfill. But these options are becoming increasingly expensive, inefficient, and hazardous. Aside from the purely environmental costs, human waste threatens the health of all animals and creates a significant divide between those countries that can afford to handle their garbage and those developing places struggling to keep the sidewalks clear of litter. It’s clear from looking around that not all landfills are created equal, and unless all the countries in the world are generating and managing their waste responsibly, everyone will suffer in the long run. When it comes to waste, we are truly “all in it together.”
What can we do about our waste? First, we need a new plan. Maybe even a bunch of them. Rather than building bigger landfills and designing more powerful collection trucks, we need to think about the problem conceptually. This means switching our emphasis from simply collection and disposal to amending consumerism and limiting waste before it even begins. By focusing on minimizing the complexity of our products, we are also minimizing how much breakdown is needed when they are no longer useful. A bunk bed is still a bunk bed without the particle board. Removing these unnecessary elements of contamination simplifies the problem in many cases and guarantees that nature will someday be able to absorb some of our problems. In this way, the goal is minimization versus management.