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What is it about humans and waste?

Adapted with permission from "What Is It About: Reflections and Exploration in Wonder and Bemusement," a collection of 50 essays by Arthur B. Weissman, formerly president and CEO of Green Seal. See here for more information.

What is it about human beings across history and societies that causes them to create so much waste in all their endeavors?

Certainly, ignorance and disregard for the effects of waste underlie our wasteful practices. Society separates us from both the resources we extract and the waste we produce: paper comes from the store and garbage goes out the door in a bag or can. Few see or think about the forests that are cut or the landfills that build up and often leak around us.

This leads to an attitude of indifference. Only when we are forced to "pay" for the garbage through tipping fees or limited collections, or to recycle by mandatory policies, do we alter our habits. The ease of disposal in urban areas also provides little incentive to reduce waste; rural dwellers responsible for hauling their waste to the town dump may be more sensitive to the sheer quantities they produce.

Behind the indifference may also lurk arrogance, that we are entitled to use all the resources we consume and can therefore disregard the waste that may result. Until we started facing shortages in the 20th century, our prevailing attitude was a lack of inhibition about exploiting natural resources. This was backed by Western religious rationalizations derived from humanity’s place at the top of the biological pecking order; husbandry and stewardship, also technically part of this religious teaching, figured much less prominently.

And so, in the New World, just as much earlier in the ancient one, we virtually razed the New England landscape for pasturage and crops; clear-cut the abundant hardwood forests of the upper Midwest for lumber and to make charcoal for iron processing; and nearly decimated wading birds for their plumage for millinery. Other instances of our arrogant, senseless decimation include the wanton slaughter of buffalo from trains and the mass slaughter leading to extinction of passenger pigeons for sport.

Programs to create and protect parks and forested lands emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but consumption of natural resources and production of domestic and industrial waste continued apace in the rest of the United States. With growing awareness of the effects of urbanization and industrialization, additional laws later in the 20th century sought to limit the most harmful types of waste (pollution), such as through the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts and the hazardous waste law (RCRA), as well as our impacts on other species and their habitats, primarily through the Endangered Species Act.

Behind the indifference may also lurk arrogance, that we are entitled to use all the resources we consume and can therefore disregard the waste that may result.
Recurring attacks on the ESA since its passage in 1973 demonstrate, however, that concern for other species and the resources they require is not paramount in many people’s minds compared to the primacy of human needs. In fact, humans now consume more natural resources each year than the Earth replenishes. The sense of mastery over nature thus fuels our continued excessive use of resources and production of enormous quantities of waste.

The contrarian might argue that in order to progress materially, society must consume at an aggressive pace and technology be allowed to develop, even if waste inevitably results.

Opponents of stringent laws to protect natural resources and the environment often argue that they limit the economic growth necessary to bring all of society to a reasonable material level. One might argue about the material level necessary for living comfortably today, but the more germane question here is whether any modern, developed society requires waste as a necessary by-product.

The answer is yes and no. Today, with the technologies immediately available, we do not have the ability to reuse or recycle everything we use, nor to consume only what we really need. Progress is being made along the former lines with design for the environment, industrial ecology, and the like, but we still hit a wall at about 70 percent for recycling of municipal solid waste. We also continue to struggle with energy inefficiency in transportation, domestic and industrial applications, although all three have seen significant improvements over recent decades. In the production and consumption of food, recent studies show that about 40 percent of food winds up wasted under current systems.

But waste is not necessary to make society more developed and materially comfortable if we applied the proper attitude and technologies from the beginning. After all, the same sense of limits and husbandry that "primitive" cultures have toward their resources could be incorporated throughout more "advanced" technological societies. Arguably, these "inhibitions" would not hold us back from development and might even save us much time as well as resources, as we wouldn’t have to backtrack to clean up the mess and poison we created. It may be pointless to argue thus about the past, but it suggests a way forward that could drastically lessen our waste.

We come finally to the question of a solution. Is there any hope for solving our waste? And, if so, what form is a solution likely to take?

Whether society can become totally self-sufficient from a resource perspective is not clear, but with a lot of work, we can hopefully come within the limits of Earth’s renewable resources.
Of course, there is hope: The progress we have made in reducing waste (if not consumption) through recycling and better design of products and production processes indicates that it is possible, both humanly and technically. Whether society can become totally self-sufficient from a resource perspective is not clear, but with a lot of work, we can hopefully come within the limits of Earth’s renewable resources. After all, this is not just a hope, but a necessity for us to survive in the long term.

The particular solutions to achieve this state have been well delineated over recent decades with the development of the green economy, industrial ecology, net-zero energy and the like. The more challenging issue is getting society to embrace these approaches. Government has a critical role to foster and enforce these approaches, while industry and individuals will follow suit as economics inevitably incorporates the additional cost of waste and excess consumption (as resources become increasingly scarce). The attitude of the individual — going back to the sense of mastery and entitlement — may be hardest to change.

Yet, economic and financial incentives will also make less wasteful practices more attractive and create a virtuous circle that, over time, should change attitudes toward waste and consumption. What was once considered a necessary corollary to material improvement will eventually be seen as detrimental and a sign of wasteful inefficiency.

Time is on our side here, but only if we embrace necessary change. That means pushing back on efforts to maintain the wasteful status quo, educating cheerfully and, most importantly, building into the economy the means to reuse all possible resources and minimize the consumption of additional resources.

Eventually, we will all revel in the clean economy these actions produce. It will be a "house" that is comfortable for us to live in again.

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