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Science & NatureGreen TalkWhat does your garbage reveal about you?

What does your garbage reveal about you?

Archeologists are ecstatic when, in the course of excavating a historical site, they come across a centuries-old garbage dump.  From a pile of fossilized refuse and broken bits of pottery, they can learn a lot about the daily activities of the civilization that created it, and even determine trade patterns and policies of the governments of that time. For example, analysis of amphorae (vase-shaped containers) in an ancient dump site in Rome enabled one archeologist to actually trace the evolution of food policy in the Roman Empire. (

This same activity is done on current landfills by scientists known colloquially as garbologists.  If one of them were to analyze your trash, what would s/he say?  Would you be like the average American, who produces 93 tons (about 84,368 kg) of landfill in his/her lifetime (about 938 kg per year)?  If each of the 11,000 residents of Mississippi Mills did that, in 90 years, we’d have produced over one million tons (907,185,000 kg) of garbage. (A typical car has a mass of about 1,600 kg, so in 90 years our Town’s garbage would have the same mass as 566,990 cars.) Yikes!  Where would it all go?  Right now, a lot of Canadian waste is being shipped to Michigan, and accounts for most of the garbage in their landfill sites.

According to Annie Leonard, a former Greenpeace activist and waste obsessive with a great sense of humour (check out her 20-minute youtube video The Story of Stuff at‎), “It (a materials economy) is a linear system and we live on a finite planet. You cannot run a linear system on a finite planet indefinitely. Too often the environment is seen as one small piece of the economy. But it’s not just one little thing, it’s what every single thing in our life depends upon.”

Leonard is well aware of the fact that a certain amount of consumption is necessary for people to meet their basic needs, but objects to the phenomenon of consumerism – buying out of want – being seduced by marketing pressures to buy stuff to fill the emptiness in our lives, or to assert our social status.  She also objects to the planned obsolescence that many companies build into their products, so that they have an increasingly shortened life, are difficult, if not impossible, to repair, and are labelled as unfashionable or obsolete the moment a newer product hits the market.

According to Leonard, part of the problem is that our sense of who we really are has become confused as a result of this over-emphasis on our consumer self, so that we turn to stuff instead of people to fulfill the needs in our lives.  Think of people who spend more time interacting with their cellphones than the people around them, devote many hours each day to playing video games, buy clothes that they can’t afford when they’re upset (witness the saying “When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping”), pore over websites that announce what celebrities are wearing or doing, and try to impress others by always wearing the trendiest clothes, using the most state-of-the-art gadget, or driving the latest vehicle.  These behaviours are impoverishing their personal lives and society, and also impoverishing the planet.

Leonard doesn’t believe the answer is necessarily to “vote with your dollar”, in an effort to address an environmental problem.  In her words:  “If you’re going to vote with your dollar that’s fine, but you need to remember that Exxon has a lot more dollars than you. We need to vote with our votes; re-engage with the political process and change the balance of power so that those who are looking out for the wellbeing of the planet dominate, instead of those who are just looking out for the bottom line.”  Leonard also doesn’t see ethical consumption as a solution, because people then buy one product instead of another, when they shouldn’t be buying the product in the first place. Nor does she see incinerating garbage as the answer to dealing with waste materials.  Her solution?  Zero waste – “because we can’t keep using one and a half planet’s worth of resources indefinitely.”

Let’s return to my original question – What does your garbage reveal about you?  What I would hope to see is an absence of plant matter, because all your fruit and vegetable peelings have been diverted to your compost bin.  There would also be no trace of glass, plastic or metal containers, or of paper, because they’d have been recycled.  I would see very few plastic bags and non-recyclable packaging because you’d avoid them as much as you could.  There would be no disposable diapers and no food waste (except for the odd meat bone and cheese husk).  And of course, there would be no re-usable clothing, footwear, toys, or appliances, because they’d have been taken to a second-hand store. Your yard would be free of rusting cars.  Any construction material left over from your renovation projects would be disposed of appropriately, including paint cans, old cabinets, and metal hardware.  (I hope that our municipality will expand its recycling capabilities to include more construction and demolition waste in the near future.)  Any old electronic appliances, tires, and hazardous waste would have been taken to an appropriate disposal site or recycling facility.  I also wouldn’t find any cheap, broken knick knacks and trinkets because you’d have realized they weren’t worth buying in the first place.

If you and your family (assuming an average of three people per family) put out a 23 kg bag of garbage every week, in 1 year you’ll have produced 1,196 kg of landfill.  (The actual amount of garbage per Mississippi Mills resident (both recyclable waste and landfill) that was produced in 2011 was 384.66 kg per year, or 1,154 kg per household, which indicates that we’re already putting out slightly less landfill than that.) It’s just over one third of what the typical American produces, but perhaps we can do even better! 

Two thousand years from now, wouldn’t we want archeologists to conclude that we cared enough about our planet and future generations to only consume what we needed, and only threw out what was totally unusable?






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