Our “economy of abundance” has convinced us that “a disposable, convenient, wasteful thing is a virtue rather than a problem”—but all those things we throw away are a big problem, Edward Humes, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash, told an audience at Bellarmine University on Oct. 28.
“The No. 1 thing we throw out and [that] gets buried in landfills are our disposable containers and packaging,” he said. “All the stuff you think is getting recycled is actually the single biggest component of our waste stream going to landfill.” A plastic grocery bag, for example, has a “waste life” of 500 years compared to a “use life” of five minutes, he said.
He also said that up to 40 percent of food is wasted somewhere between the farm and the dinner table. “Just eliminating 5 percent of that waste can feed 4 million people. That’s how epic our food waste is.”
Taking small actions, including recycling, could make a big difference in the amount of waste produced, he said. “And the thing about recycling is it means jobs, and economic returns, or revenue for fundraisers at colleges—all kinds of economic reasons why recycling is an opportunity.”
Marymount California University, a small, Catholic liberal arts college in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., cut its waste considerably after Humes analyzed its trash. By switching to washable, reusable takeout containers, for instance, it cut the cost both of buying and of disposing of containers.
Beth Bell, coordinator of the Rachel Carson Learning Community and Bellarmine environmental science professor, said Bellarmine could also do more to reduce waste. “We throw away trash and we never think about the pile up that’s happening at the landfill,” she said. “Most students don’t know where the landfill is.”
By Matthew Kondrat, design editor for The Concord