A look inside your own trashcan will reveal much about the way you live and about a growing problem in Western society. Here's what you can do about it.
YOU CAN learn a great deal about a society by studying its garbage. In fact, an entire science is devoted to that very endeavor — archaeology. Archaeologists dig through the trash and debris of ancient civilizations. By analyzing the refuse and rubble of antiquity they gain valuable insights into past societies. The same techniques can be employed in the study of society today. Garbage is the product of our way of life. It is a mirror of society. It can tell us much about the way we live. And the story it tells is a shocking commentary on modern, affluent Western society!
The Effluence of Affluence
The city dump probably has more to tell us about our modern civilization than any library or museum. Some high school instructors have begun organizing field trips for their students to local dumping grounds. Armed with picks and shovels, the students examine for themselves the cast-off effluence of our affluent society — and the ecological consequences of it. Even some universities are now offering classes in "garbology," the study of garbage. One professor describes garbology as "applied archaeology" — using archaeological techniques to solve a growing problem in contemporary society. Students sort meticulously through people's trash, listing in notebooks what they find and then analyzing the data and writing reports. They operate on the premise that a person, in a sense, is what he throws away. It is, of course, not really necessary to make an unpleasant and possibly hazardous trip to the local dump or landfill to make such inquiries. One can accomplish the same objective closer to home. In fact, at home! You can become a household archaeologist and "excavate" your own trashcans. What you discover may surprise you!
I Dig At Home
The author recently conducted an "excavation" of his own kitchen waste basket. The findings were enlightening. A trash can is, in essence, a miniature tell. "Tell" is an archaeological term used to designate a raised mound composed of the remains of successive settlements, marking the site of an ancient town. In early times, when a village or town was destroyed by manmade or natural causes, the rubble and debris was simply leveled off and new buildings erected on top. This procedure was repeated many times through history, creating a multileveled mound of waste and debris. Archaeologists dig down through these various levels, carefully analyzing the remains in each one. In like manner, household garbage forms levels in the trash can. One layer of garbage is compacted down onto the layer below it. The older garbage is on the bottom; the more recent garbage is nearer the top. An excavation of your own trashcan would thus yield a record of the past few days of your household history.
Into the Unknown
No one likes to think about garbage. Most of us pay little attention to our trash. We automatically toss waste and debris into the can without giving it a second thought. To most of us, therefore, the diversity of the contents of our trash cans would probably come as a shock and a surprise. In lieu of the final "field report" on my own household "dig," a partial list of "finds" follows here:
• 5 chicken bones • 2 used envelopes • 1 empty soft drink can • shells of four eggs • 2 wilted lettuce leaves • orange peels • 2 apple cores • 1 broken drinking glass • 1 used light bulb • 4 used paper towels • assorted pieces of junk mail • 1 cardboard egg carton • 3 plastic bags (from supermarket) • 1 empty laundry detergent box • 1 toothpaste box • numerous scraps of cellophane wrapping • 1 empty salad oil bottle • 2 disposable paper cups • 2 used tea bags • 1 candy bar wrapper • 1 soup can • newspaper classified ads • 1 eight-inch piece of string • coffee grounds • 1 used scouring pad
Your own "excavation" would probably produce similar "finds," with some variations depending on your personal life-style, buying habits and dietary inclinations. The point of this exercise is simply to demonstrate that few of us are really aware of how we live because we are not aware of what we are throwing away. Most of us think of garbage only when it begins to accumulate and needs to be taken out. Once the sanitation worker removes it from the premises, it is of no further concern to us. "Out of sight, out of mind," as the saying goes. Yet sorting through your garbage can make you more aware of what you buy, what you throw away — and what you waste!
Millions of Tons
What is this thing called trash? Household trash and garbage consists primarily of uneaten food and other organic materials (such as chicken bones and orange peels), broken items and things we no longer want, packaging (beer and soda cans, baby food jars, tin cans, boxes, cellophane) and paper products (paper towels, paper napkins, paper plates, paper cups). Beyond the home, trash and garbage includes industrial debris, agricultural wastes, construction remains and debris, junked machinery, automobile hulks, old tires and so on. No society in all of history has produced as much garbage as modern Western society — and most glaringly the United States! In fact, the United States throws away more than many other societies produce! In California's Los Angeles County alone, some 70 million pounds of solid waste is produced each day — some 10 pounds per person! Statistics vary widely, but it can be safely said that Americans throw away hundreds of millions of tons of garbage every year! According to EEC figures, European households throw away 90 million tons of waste every year, and the amount is growing.
Where Does It All Go?
During the Middle Ages, people simply hurled their garbage from upper-story windows into the streets, and let it wash down the gutters at the whims of the rains. Today, in the Western world, more than 95 percent of our solid waste is disposed of in one of three ways: in open dumps, in sanitary landfills or by burning in incinerators. The open dump has been with us for centuries. In rural areas it is still the norm. Its well-known drawbacks are legion. It is a breeding place for rats, flies and other insects and vermin. It stinks. It is an eyesore. It is a fire and health hazard. It pollutes streams and ground water. The sanitary landfill is simply an open dump in an arroyo, canyon, pit or valley covered over by a thin layer of dirt after each day's dumping. Trash is thus sandwiched between layers of earth fill. Though landfills avoid some of the problems of open dumps, they still often pose serious water pollution problems and generate offensive odors. Moreover, sites officially considered to be "sanitary landfills" are at times inadequately tended and become little more than dumps with a fancy name. The majority of municipal incinerator facilities are also inadequate. Most do not have the proper air pollution control equipment. Consequently, they simply change a solid waste problem into an air pollution problem! Despite laws designed to prevent it, much human and industrial waste continues to be dumped into river systems — killing fish and rendering the water unusable for drinking and irrigation. Thus, the great bulk of our trash and garbage is disposed of on our land, in our streams and oceans and, through burning, in our atmosphere.
How Long Can It Go On?
"So what?" many might ask. "Just so it's out of my house. I don't particularly care where it goes!" The problem is that many cities throughout the Western world are running out of places to dump their trash — and can't find new ones. Moreover, disposal costs are rising dramatically. The situation is becoming critical! Scientists say it is impossible for mankind to continue present rates of consumption and waste. We are beginning to learn that nature has its limits! The delicate balance of nature is being severely upset! City planners, urban engineers and environmentalists are increasingly warning about the "solid waste avalanche." We may soon, they declare, find ourselves buried alive in our own debris! The "garbage squeeze" is on! Yet few of us give any thought to the consequences. For many years we have heard about smoggy skies and dirty water, but the solid waste problem has been largely overlooked. Solid waste is now being called the "forgotten third pollution." If present trends continue, it will not be long before it will be impossible to forget it! There are many culprits to be blamed for this shocking state of affairs. One of the worst offenders is excessive packaging.
The Packaging Problem
A package is defined as anything that protects, transports and identifies. This includes cans, glass and plastic bottles, boxes, cardboard cartons, crates, barrels and so on. Discarded packaging materials account for upwards of 20 percent of municipal waste. It has been estimated that nearly 90 percent of all packaging is tossed on the trash heap! Packaging is big business in the Western world! Attention-getting packages have become a major form of advertising. Some packaging is deemed necessary for the prevention of theft as well as for advertising purposes. A half-dozen wood screws, for example, might be sold encased in plastic, which is in turn glued to a large piece of cardboard. This makes it difficult for a shoplifter to pocket the item. How far we have come since the general store days, when loose screws could be purchased from a bin, box or barrel! Cans and bottles constitute a major form of packaging. More than 70 billion cans are thrown away each year! Cans and bottles make up well over 50 percent of the total volume of all litter. It used to be that nearly all beer and soft drinks were sold in returnable bottles. Today, it is virtually impossible to find beverages in returnable bottles. Supermarkets don't like returnables because of storage and handling problems. Consumers don't want to be bothered by having to haul bottles back to the store. The decline of the returnable bottle has been a major factor in the garbage glut.
The root of the problem is the "happiness through consumption" approach to life prevalent in Western society. Status and success are measured in terms of the consumption of goods and services. And with their consumption, consumers demand convenience. We want to consume with the least effort and bother. Simply put, the problem is attitude! The solution to the problem will thus involve radical changes in attitude. If we are to avoid impending calamity, significant recycling of solid waste materials on a national scale must become a reality without delay. Today, virtually none of our municipal waste gets recycled. Multiple millions of tons of steel, wood and glass lie buried in our landfills and dumps. A few years ago it was estimated that California alone buries the energy equivalent of 22 million barrels of oil each year — more today! Under harsher circumstances, materials would be salvaged straightway. In World War II, both consumers and industry diligently recycled. There was little choice. There were important national goals and objectives at stake, and all segments of society felt a responsibility. Under present circumstances, however, humans will not voluntarily limit consumption of disposable goods or recycle those used. In lieu of a willing change in attitude on the part of consumers and industry alike, it would probably be necessary for human governments to enact laws to promote recycling. This could include laws banning throwaway bottles and laws requiring household separation of glass, metal, food and paper trash to facilitate wide scale municipal recycling. Most authorities see no other alternative. Recycling centers would have to be dramatically increased in number to make them more convenient. But to be more effective, recycling centers would have to be almost as frequent as local post offices. Yet many communities do not have even one recycling center! Incentives to encourage research and development in methods of separating refuse and turning it back into productive use are also sorely needed, say experts. As it now stands, separating the multiple millions of tons of solid wastes and garbage into clean and reusable segments is difficult and prohibitively expensive. Some interesting systems have already been developed for the collection and productive use of trash. One system — in use in parts of Sweden, Western Europe and the United States — involves the pipeline collection of trash. Trash is dropped into a chute and whisked away at high speed through underground vacuum tubes into a modern, pollution free incinerator plant. The heat generated is used to produce hot water and space heating for the households supplying the trash. Other technologies for dealing with waste are on the drawing boards or in limited experimental use, including various types of crushers, pulverizers, magnetic separators and the like. But the days of efficient wide-scale collection and recycling is still in the future. At present, new technologies simply cost more than burying trash.
Meanwhile, what is your responsibility, now, as a human being? Each of us has an individual responsibility, regardless of what the majority might be doing. You can set an example to your neighbors. Declare war on waste! Firstly, become a dedicated recyclist! Begin with your daily newspaper. Newspapers and other paper products account for upwards of half of all household trash — by far the largest single component in solid waste. Newsprint collection centers are found in most cities. Save your old newspapers and drop them off periodically. If your city or town does not have such a service, write to your newspaper about it. Buy deposit bottles whenever possible. And if you buy beverages in nonreturnable aluminum cans, save them! Crush them (they take up less space that way), then return them to aluminum recycling centers. You will be paid for them by the pound. Start a compost heap in your backyard. Organic materials such as egg shells, meat by-products, fruit and vegetable waste and other food scraps should be returned to the soil. Check with a knowledgeable friend or get a book on composting from your library. And be sure to check with city authorities regarding any local regulations. Don't waste food. Give more attention to the proper quantity to prepare for yourself and your family. And take some time to educate yourself about foods. People with a knowledge of food waste the least. Many homemakers, for example toss out food suspecting it is spoiled when it is not. Many families take pains to save pennies at the store on their food bills, then waste dollars worth of food when they get home! Follow the adage: "Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without." Don't automatically junk old toys, clothing or furniture. Always ask, "Can someone use this?" Contribute reusable and repairable items to charitable groups. Don't litter. Teach your children not to litter. And pick up litter when you come across it. Make this a habit! Leave your environment just a little neater than you found it. This means your neighborhood, your school, your place of employment — wherever you happen to be! Refuse to buy products that are needlessly and excessively packaged and wrapped. Write letters of complaint to the manufacturers. Apply some pressure! Your opinion counts! If you purchase a shoddy product that wears out prematurely, let the manufacturer know about it! Many products are designed with "built-in obsolescence" — from automobile tires to shoes to children's toys. Manufacturers could make a major contribution toward solving the trash problem by making things better so they don't wear out as quickly. Often all that is required is a better design, a better formula or different materials — not necessarily higher-priced materials. In summary, develop "garbage consciousness." Heightened awareness as a consumer can save you money as well as make a personal contribution to the environment.
Speaking realistically, individual recycling and conservation efforts have made little difference when viewed in terms of the Big Picture. But don't use this as an excuse to follow the crowd and to pollute as much as the next person! You must begin by harnessing your own human nature — a nature geared to take and use, with little thought to the detrimental effects to others. You will ultimately be judged by what you yourself do — your attitude and your way of life — not by the actions of those around you. Unless we individually and collectively mend our ways and reorder our priorities, we are in for serious trouble in the years just ahead! We live in a finite world. God has set laws to keep nature in balance. We are breaking them! Consequently, more than ever before, "the whole creation groans and travails in pain" (Romans 8:22). If we continue to squander our resources, we will soon have to face the consequences — a crisis of staggering dimensions that will plunge the world into an unbelievable environmental nightmare! The outlook is not good. But there is still hope! The earth, its atmosphere, rivers and oceans will be cleansed and purified! We have a definite promise by the God who made the universe. For a look beyond today's bad news at the world under God's rule, when all men and women will be forced to face reality and to discover happiness, read our free book, The Wonderful World Tomorrow - What It Will Be Like. Find out how you can qualify now to help set the earth aright in the World Tomorrow, now just ahead!