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exhalations
Sunday, July 10, 2005
 Garbage Land 
We produce a lot of garbage, in this country and around the world. In the 60's, worrying about garbage and how it was treated was a popular topic for conservation-minded folk. It seems that we've stopped worrying about it or even discussing it, and we continue to generate huge quantities. In the Sunday Washington Post Book World, Jabari Asim reviewed Elizabeth Royte's GARBAGE LAND: On the Secret Trail of Trash. Royte presents some interesting statistics:
...in 2003 every American generated 1.31 tons of garbage. Where did it all go? Less than 27 percent was recycled or composted; 7.7 percent was incinerated; and 65.6 percent was "buried in a hole in the ground.
One of the most important comments she makes relates to how garbage, and most pollution, is treated in our economic system. I recall in a land economics class the term "negative externalities" that was applied to the harm done by industry to the environment. I was puzzled by the concept and asked the professor why these obvious negative consequences were basically ignored. I don't remember his answer, but he seemed to indicate that since it was so difficult to quantify and put a value on these negative effects, they were not included in any economic calculations.
She leaves us with a foreboding premise that even the cynics she has encountered along the trail of trash may grudgingly agree with: "If we don't wake up and make the connection between our economy and the environment (which provides the resources to make all our stuff), the planet will eventually do it for us. And it won't be pretty.
Some of us still worry about trash. We don't use plastic bags, we use paper grocery bags placed in a hard plastic trash can. Most of what we toss is biodegradable. The rest is recycled: plastic bags, all clean paper, plastic bottles, metal, glass. We're the exception, but at least we can sleep a little better at night knowing that we're part of the solution, not the problem. Self-righteous maybe, but when it comes to preserving the environment, I'll always take self-righteous over cynical any day.


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