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Backyard Talk

Waste: Then and Now

By Michelle Atkin

“They just don’t make things the way they used to!” I’ve said it before, you’ve said it before, you’ve heard it before, and it is true. Devastatingly, it was not an accident. Product quality started to diminish in the 1950s when the editor of Modern Packaging Inc. said, “The future of plastics is in the trash can.” Products were designed durable, easy to fix, and limited in variation (such as color or style), so opportunities for growth and profit were declining when society focused on preservation, reuse, and frugality. Prior to 1917, a communal tin cup was used for water in train stations and before the 1920s, women used cloth and reusable pads before disposable sanitary pads were available.

Now Dixie Cups and Solo Cups are everywhere. Instead of reusing glassware, the marketing companies of the industrialized world have capitalized on a society of convenience. The disposability of cheap, single-use items have led us to the landfill capacity problems we have today. North Americans use 130 billion disposable paper coffee cups alone, which come from the loss of millions of trees and lead to 253 million pounds of waste. If we were able to exist in a reusable way before, we should be able to again, but the culture has changed and now you have everyone trying to keep up with the Jonses with the latest iPhone even though their old one still works perfectly.

This concept contributes to our ever growing amount of trash and is called planned obsolescence. Instead of building high quality cars, appliances, televisions and toys, inferior materials are often used in critical areas to limit the amount of time a product will be operable. Manufacturers then make repair costs so similar to replacement costs that it often makes more sense from a consumer’s perspective to buy a new product, regardless of how much space the television or refrigerator will take up at the dump.

The fashion cycle is another way customers are driven to buy more despite their perfectly functioning current wardrobe. The decrease in the perceived desirability of unfashionable pieces can be a powerful marketing ploy.

There is hope for the future of the environment with the extended product responsibility approach. This holds producers responsible for the environmental effects over the entire product life cycle – the cost of compliance cannot be shifted to a third party and therefore may be incorporated into product prices. As far as our clothing goes, hopefully reuse can be promoted through donations, yard sales and hand-me-downs.

To learn more about the historical roots of modern waste or what you can do to improve the future outlook, visit:

Backyard Talk

Making Sense of Zero Waste

When most people think of zero waste, they think of a near impossible and impractical goal.

They think that zero waste means not generating any waste or that all the waste that is generated has to be recovered, reused or recycled. Zero waste is much more than these narrow views envision. A new report by the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, On the Road to Zero Waste: Successes and  Lessons from Around the World, provides a realistic view of what zero waste is by providing examples of how it is being applied and offers great hope of what it can be.

The report makes clear that zero waste is both a goal and a plan of action. The goal is to ensure resource recovery and protect scarce natural resources by ending waste disposal practices that use incinerators, dumps and landfills. The plan incorporates waste reduction, composting, recycling and reuse, changes in consumption habits and industrial redesign. The report also points out that zero waste is a “revolution” between waste and people. “It is a new way of thinking that aims to safeguard the health, and improve the lives of everyone who produces, handles, works with, or is affected by waste – in other words all of us.”

Nine success stories from across the globe are profiled in the report. Each of the communities profiled used different zero waste practices that were unique to its culture, economy and political realities, yet each led successfully to the same goal. Each shared several key ingredients – intensive prevention and source separation policies and flexible and decentralized, low-tech waste treatment systems. Each was more cost-effective and generated more employment than systems built around big incinerators and landfills.

The introduction to the report describes a common philosophy behind a comprehensive zero waste plan driven by four core strategies: 1) Setting a new direction away from waste disposal; 2) Supporting comprehensive reuse, recycling and organics treatment programs; 3) Engaging Communities; and 4) Designing for the future.

The new direction moves society away from waste disposal by setting goals and target dates to reduce waste going to landfills, abolishing waste incineration, establishing or raising landfill fees, shifting subsidies away from waste disposal and into discard recovery, and banning disposable products, among other interventions.

Zero waste systems separate waste at its source to ensure high recovery quality and efficiency.  Separate organics collection is critical to ensure a stream of clean, high quality material which in turn enables the creation of useful products (compost and biogas) from the largest fraction of municipal waste. It also improves the recycling rates because materials remain free of contamination.

A critical element of zero waste is involving the local community in determining the direction of the waste management program. The public needs to be involved in the very design of the plan for it to succeed. Residents must actively participate by consuming sustainably, minimizing waste, separating discards, and composting at home.

Once zero waste practices are in place, it becomes easier to identify materials or products that cannot be reused, composted or recycled. This creates opportunities to address industrial design mistakes or inefficiencies so that companies will produce cleaner and more sustainable products. If it cannot be reused, composted or recycled, it should not be produced in the first place.

Zero waste strategies can help societies produce and consume goods while respecting ecological limits and the rights of communities to self determination. It can also help ensure that all discarded materials are safely and sustainably returned to nature or manufacturing.

For a copy of the report, see <>.