U.S. citizens send five pounds of trash per person per day into landfills, according to a recent study by Yale University’s Center for Industrial Ecology.
Yale’s analysis determined that 262 million tons of garbage was disposed of in the U.S. in 2012, the latest data available, compared to estimates by the Environmental Protection Agency of 122 million tons – a 115 percent difference.
This is problematic not only as an indication of a “throwaway culture,” but also due to the environmental implications.
“The decomposition of municipal waste in landfills is recognized as one of the largest sources of global anthropogenic methane emissions,” the report stated.
Methane emitted from landfills accounts for 18 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. While recapture methods exist, they are not as effective as they could be.
These trends transcend the U.S., the Yale report noted. “The collective, consistent global trend towards steady or perhaps increasing rates of landfilling clearly demonstrates that the waste sector warrants additional scrutiny to identify GHG emission reduction opportunities at landfills. In lower- and lower-middle-income developing nations … waste generation is expected to increase 185 percent and 158 percent, respectively, over current rates by 2025.”
More troubling is the response of Thomas Kinnaman, professor of economics at Bucknell University, who told the Associated Press, “The findings don’t matter much because landfills have plenty of room to expand.”
Kinnaman has missed the point, assuming the problem to be a matter of space rather than a pervasive lifestyle that produces excessive garbage.
This is short-term thinking that fails to consider how our present actions will impact future generations.
His comment is on par with someone responding to their doctor advising a lifestyle change to avoid an early death by saying, “I’m still young and can stop these behaviors anytime, so I’ll wait a few more years before taking your advice.”
EthicsDaily.com has long emphasized the biblical imperative to care for creation, which executive editor Robert Parham summarized as “loving our neighbors across time.” These resources are available at TheGreenBible.org.
This persistent focus might cause faithful readers to tire of the topic sometimes, yet reports like this lead me to believe that the message must continue to be championed.
The Yale report reveals a widespread failure to heed warnings about the negative impacts of our collective lifestyles.
The report not only reveals the U.S.’s “throwaway culture,” but also a widespread lack of recycling.
Kinnaman is correct that we have space to expand or establish new landfills, but what about 50 or 100 years from now? Is the legacy we wish to leave behind the creation of large hills and small mountains built by our waste?
These questions are too rarely considered. When they are raised, my experience has been that folks express the belief that they don’t need to change because eventually someone will find a way to address the problem.
Pope Francis, in his first U.S. address at the White House on Sept. 23, focused on creation care, specifically countering the tendency to leave environmental challenges for future generations to address.
“Climate change is a problem which can no longer be left to a future generation,” he said. “When it comes to caring for our common home, we are living at a critical moment in history. We still have time to make the change needed to bring about a sustainable and integral development.”
These speeches build on his papal encyclical on ecology, released in June 2015, in which he set forth the biblical and theological basis for Christians to care for creation.
So how should Christians respond to the Yale report?
Calling for and supporting government action is essential – and initiatives like those in Sweden where garbage is being used to provide energy offer possible solutions.
But a focus on government action can leave individuals with the false impression that there is nothing they can do and that individual and family lifestyles don’t need to change.
Being conscientious about household waste is a tangible, practical way to curb the growth of landfills. Here are four practices that are easy to implement, cost effective and eco-friendly:
This results in less landfill waste, while also providing high quality soil that can be used in gardens, flowerbeds and yards. This saves you money on buying bags of soil from the store and reduces plastic bags entering the landfill.
We’ve been inundated with calls to recycle for decades now, but the Yale report indicates that familiarity has bred contempt for this most basic response.
Services are available in most major cities, many of which have initiated curbside “single stream” options where sorting isn’t needed.
It doesn’t get much easier than throwing all of your recyclables into one bin and wheeling it out to the curb.
Even rural areas have recycling centers where items can be dropped off. This requires advance planning, but from my experience it can easily become part of your weekly routine.
3. Conscientious shopping.
My wife and I try to purchase items with recyclable containers. Whenever possible, we buy fresh produce and scoop from bulk bins for coffee, mixed nuts and so on, which can be placed into reusable bags.
4. Using washable not disposable items.
With our newborn son, we decided to use washable diapers supplemented with disposables. We throw away two to three diapers a day rather than the nine to 10 we would have, saving us money and reducing trash.
This principle could be applied to shopping bags, napkins, washable mugs (rather than disposable coffee cups) and so on.
These are neither novel nor difficult practices, but they do make a difference. They are practical ways to curb waste and “love our neighbors across time.”