There are some places in the world where there is no word for garbage. The idea that an object could have no purpose, or be brought into being only to be discarded, is so alien that the concept simply does not exist. America is not one of them.
On the contrary, we have become such a disposable society that we are one of the top garbage producers in the world, dumping an estimated 254 million tons a year, less than a third of which is recycled. That's enough rubbish to fill more than 82,000 football fields packed six feet deep. Needless to say, all this waste is wreaking havoc on the environment and depleting our natural resources. But rather than focusing our efforts on reducing consumption and more effective recycling, billions of dollars are spent each year collecting, crushing, burying, burning and exporting the evidence of our destructive ways.
The worst part is that so much of what we throw away would not fit with most people's perception of rubbish. I recently took part in an urban foraging tour in New York. I had intended only to be a casual observer, but when I saw the range of goodies on offer – organic still fresh fruits and vegetables, fancy olive breads, cured meats, bagels, donuts and other delectables, still sealed in non-biodegradable packaging, it seemed an awful shame to let it go to waste. Another dumpster dive led me to more durable goods like books, clothes, toys, furniture and electronic items in near perfect condition. Nothing, it appears, is too good to be discarded here.
Unfortunately only a tiny percentage of the city's refuse is reclaimed by foragers. The rest (which amounts to about 4,385,000 tons a year) is gathered by collection trucks which instantly crush it into compact piles, eliminating the possibility of further salvaging. It is then taken to a transfer station and from there either to an incinerator where it will be burned, releasing cancer causing dioxins into the air, or more likely to a landfill where it will decompose into a hazardous brew that leaches liquid waste into the soil and water and releases landfill gases into the air.
These gases consist mostly of lethal methane, which according to the Environmental Protection Agency is a major contributor to global climate change, being 21-times more effective at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide.
Garbage's contribution to climate change does not stop with the polluting effects of the waste itself, however. As Heather Rogers points out in her book Gone Tomorrow: the Hidden Life of Garbage, the fact that the goods we throw out need to be continuously replaced leads to more pollution-causing processes and a further drain on our resources.
The other travesty of our current waste-disposal system is that almost 60% of our landfill contents are compostable, and a further 30% consists of non-recyclable packaging and disposables which should never have been produced in the first place. But when you start looking into why this is the case, you come head to head with the biggest threat to the environment of all: the pursuit of profit.
Lobbying groups like the National Association of Manufacturers, headquartered in Washington, have fought tooth and nail for decades against any restrictions on the highly profitable production of disposable containers and packaging. And at the other end of the equation, the equally powerful waste-management companies (a multi-billion-dollar industry) work on the simple premise that more trash equals more cash. It is far more profitable and much less labor intensive to dump unsorted garbage in a landfill than it is to separate it for compost or recycling.
And so the pillage of nature continues unabated. Instead of any meaningful effort to reduce, reuse and recycle, we export any waste we can't handle to poorer countries and find ever more ingenious ways to cover up the problem at home.
Many US landfills, including the infamous Fresh Kills in New York, have been capped and sealed and reclaimed as public spaces. While this is definitely good for the neighborhood, burying our sins and hiding them from view is not the answer to our problems and quite possibly has the effect of convincing consumers that it's OK to throw away.
We should keep in mind that no more than a mortician's magic can render a corpse anything other than dead, no amount of top soil or innovative landscaping can render the toxic cocktail beneath anything other than deadly.
Unlike the societies with no word for garbage, America has several – the most common being trash. The dictionary definition of trash is anything "useless, disreputable, worthless, foolish, pointless or nonsensical".
When you think about our current approach to the growing problem of garbage, that pretty much sums it up.