The Waste Problem
Updated: Feb 2
In the Living Connected project, I talk about everything we have as being a gift of creation. It’s easy to see the plants we eat and the water we drink as a gift, but I receive funny looks when I call waste a gift. The Merriam-Webster online dictionary has many definitions of waste. The one relevant to Living Connected is, “refuse, such as garbage and rubbish, from places of human or animal habitation.” By definition, refuse is the worthless or useless part of something.
This idea of worthless or useless gets to the heart of what waste is. It’s not an inherent characteristic of an item. Instead, you and I decide something is waste when we declare it worthless or useless to us.
Take for example a plastic spoon or fork. They’re made of carbon-based polymers. Until recently, the carbon source for plastics has been crude oil; however, a few are now being made with plant-based carbon sources. So, when holding a plastic spoon or fork, you’re essentially holding either oil or a plant. Recognizing that every item in our life has its source in creation, is how we start to see waste as a gift.
When we’re done using the plastic fork or spoon, and we call it waste, its inherent property is still a gift of creation. We’re just saying it’s of no worth or use to us. The movie Toy Story 4 plays on the idea of waste being what we say it is, when a child creates Forky, a beloved companion, out of a plastic spork and other items from a waste bin.
Peter Brown and Geoffrey Garver in their book Right Relationship: Building a Whole Earth Economy, say it in another way. They call waste an asset that’s out of place. Unfortunately, we live in an economic system that leaves us each day with many assets for which we have no ready use. They are of no value to us, so we place them in the trash or recycling bin. As a country, we’re doing this more and more.
In the last 60 years, the amount of waste discarded per person has nearly doubled, according to data compiled by the US Environmental Protection Agency. On average, we each throw out 4.9 pounds of waste per day, compared to 2.7 pounds per day in 1960. Paper products and food are the two most common items in our waste, at over 23 and 21 percent of the waste, respectively. They’re followed by plastics and yard trimmings, each at just over 12 percent of the waste.
In the U.S., the method of waste disposal is typically determined by cost. Incineration is more common in New England and other areas where land is expensive. Burning trash to generate energy sounds like a good idea, but it has many problems.
Think of all the different types of things in a trash bin. They combust at different temperatures, burn in different ways, and make it challenging to get an efficient burn. There also are a wide variety of potential pollutants in the emissions and the leftover ash. Maybe most troubling is that 80% of the incinerators are located in communities where the residents have a low income, are people of color, or both.
Landfills are the most economic form of waste disposal in a large portion of the country. Like a strip mine, landfills permanently alter the landscape. They’re constructed by removing the existing ecosystem and re-directing waterways around the area. At the end, instead of a pit, the landfill leaves a large hill, on which little can grow because of the impervious cover material.
As with incinerators, landfills and associated waste handling facilities are more likely to be in communities of color. A comparison of waste facility permits and census data in North Carolina showed communities with more than 50% people of color are 2.8 times more likely to have a waste facility in their community.
Waste disposal is the end of the linear system our culture currently uses to supply our needs and wants. The system starts with the gifts we receive from creation, called natural resources. From them we manufacture all the material goods we have. When we have no further use of an item, we declare it waste and dispose of it. Regardless of whether it goes to a landfill or is incinerated, the resources used to manufacture it no longer exist for the well-being of other people, future generations, or the creatures who share this planet with us.
The linear system depends on an infinite supply of resources, but we live on a finite planet. When some people take more than they need, other people and the life of ecosystems suffer. We see this suffering in the injustices of economic inequity, habitat destruction, and species extinctions.
I invite you to consider that our concept of waste, based on use and value to ourselves, is at odds with the belief that everything in the world is God’s creation. Psalm 24 opens with the statement, “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it.” In Psalm 148, we hear different parts of creation praising God by being what God made them to be, not because they are useful to people. In the first creation story in the book of Genesis, God calls everything good, even before people are created. The same creation story tells us we are made in God’s image and are to rule over creation, with the implication to rule as God, the creator, would rule.
Think about the love, time, and care we put into something we create with our own hands. We care for the item differently than something we buy from the store. Handmade gifts with no marketable value become cherished possessions because of their inherent worth and the relationship they represent. It’s unlikely we’ll discard them as waste.
Scripture tells us God is the source of everything we have and everything we end up calling waste, but it says little about the concept of waste itself. I suspect it’s because most scripture was written for marginalized and oppressed people. Their concern was in having enough, and there was seldom excess to waste.
We see this in the story of Jesus feeding the multitudes with only five loaves of bread and two fish. We know everyone had enough to meet their need, because afterwards they collected 12 baskets of leftovers. The baskets reveal the size of the miracle, but they also attest to the people’s perspective. They viewed every morsel as valuable. There was no waste. In an opposite way, the amount of waste we generate today says something about us and our view of what we’ve been given.
In contrast to our linear system, the natural systems of creation are circular. There is no waste. The water we drink is one part of a larger water cycle. The carbon in our building materials is one part of a larger carbon cycle. In ecosystems, everything dies, decomposes, or decays, and then becomes the matter for new life and new materials. On Ash Wednesday, we’re reminded our body and its physical needs are part of this earthly cycle, when we’re told, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
Even on a planetary scale, tectonic plates of solid rock are subducted, become molten, and erupt as lava to form new land. Mountains erode, and their remains become beaches, eventually to be buried again, metamorphosed, and uplifted as future mountains. Everything in creation, except what we call waste, is in a continuous cycle of transformation from one form to another.
We live in a circle of life, but somewhere along the way, we started operating linearly. The incompatibility of these two systems leads to our current problem with waste.
For more about the problem with waste and ways you can be part of the solution, register for one of the Living Connected: Waste workshops offered this month.