Trash. Rubbish. Garbage. All that stuff that we as humans throw out can go by many names. Formally speaking, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) labels everything Americans discard as Municipal Solid Waste (MSW). But no matter what you call it, waste is becoming one of the fundamental environmental issues of today.
Here in the United States, our growing population generates more and more waste every year. In 2006 alone, we threw out over 250 million tons of trash. These mountains of waste are a problem for a number of reasons: the resources consumed to produce all this disposable stuff; the energy and costs of shipping trash to landfills or incinerators; the increasing scarcity of landfill space; and ground-level air pollution caused by burning waste. Our waste even has a significant impact on global warming. The list goes on and on.
But don’t despair—it’s not all bad news. Even here in America, where the reigning “disposable” mindset of our culture encourages citizens to buy, use, and throw away, there are positive signs. More and more Americans, individuals and government alike, are beginning to understand the importance of reducing the amount of true waste (that is, trash that isn’t recycled or reused) we produce. It’s getting easier and easier for everyone—from businesses and institutions to individuals—to lessen their contribution to the waste stream.
You’ve probably heard this since grade school: reduce, reuse, recycle. These are sets of priorities for how individuals should best deal with the waste in their lives. Reduce the amount of eventual waste entering your home, reuse whatever materials you can, and then recycle everything else possible. Only then, after following these three steps, should one resort to actually throwing out that remaining trash that truly is trash.
Of course, all the admirable personal goals of reducing, reusing and recycling are only as effective as the number of people doing them. Our waste stream presents a problem of grand scale. As such, the solution demands a widespread understanding of the issue and broad adoption of better, more efficient practices throughout the population. And with a system like recycling, the more people who do sort their trash and properly dispose of it, the more efficient the process becomes.
Nobody likes to be told what to do, and teaching your friends and neighbors how to better deal with their waste could be a bit intimidating. Most people want to do the right thing, if they know what, in fact, the right thing is, and if it’s easy.