What happens when you are finished using a product? Where does it go and what impact does that item have on our environment and communities?
American’s are voracious consumers. Many aspects of our culture are centered on consumerism, which Wikipedia defines as “a social and economic order that encourages an acquisition of goods and services in ever-increasing amounts”. While steadily increasing consumption supports economic growth, there are significant consequences of consumption we should all be aware of and make a concerted effort at managing more effectively.
Nearly everything we consume results in some form of waste, waste that needs to be managed. We buy something, use it for varying periods of time, throw it in the trash bin, and then forget about it. But all that waste has to go somewhere.
Researchers estimate that nearly one million plastic bottles are sold every minute, 1.3 billion bottles every day, and nearly 482 billion bottles a year. In the past ten years, around 4 trillion waters bottles were sold, which is enough to create a 2.4 km tall mountain. Shockingly little of that plastic is actually recycled. Euromonitor estimates that less than 50% of bottles globally are collected for recycling and only 7% of that plastic is turned into new bottles. In other words, a dismally small amount of plastic bottles are actually recycled and turned into something new.
The bottles that aren’t recycled end up in landfills (or head to waste-to-energy plants in communities that have invested in them), are scattered about the land as trash, or end up in the ocean. NOAA estimates that a plastic bottle takes 450 years (the same as a diaper) to decompose, while other plastic products may take as long as 1,000 years. This is a problem because oceans, wilderness, and landfills are being overwhelmed by materials that will survive at least ten generations, if not longer.
The problem is far larger than just bottles. Single use products abound and are hugely problematic. About 63 million single use coffee cups are discarded every day in the US, totaling 23 billion cups per year. While many cups are made from post-consumer recycled materials, the cups themselves are not typically recyclable, meaning they are just another form of waste.
The EPA estimates that the average American produced 4.51 pounds of solid waste every day in 2017, an increase of 67 percent since 1960 when the average was 2.68 pounds per person. In 2017, Americans produced a total of 267.8 million tons of municipal solid waste, a three-fold increase in just under 60 years. Over 52 percent (or 139 million tons) of waste in 2017 went to landfills, with the rest recycled, composted, or diverted to waste-to-energy plants. Landfills are a less than ideal resting place for waste because they can leach pollutants into soil and water sources, and also contribute to climate change (landfills contributed to 14 percent of methane emissions in the US in 2017).
This isn’t just an American problem; it is a global issue. The World Bank estimates that globally humans produce over 2 billion tons of municipal solid waste each year, which will grow to 3.4 billion tons by 2050, a rate “more than double population growth over the same period”. This is a rapidly growing challenge that we all need to deal with.
So what can we do? The most obvious and impactful answer is to significantly reduce our consumption, both as individuals and also as a culture. The less we buy, the less waste we produce. When we do buy products we can consider how the products are made and how they are packaged.
Packaging, another form of single use material, is a large contributor to the waste problem and represents nearly 30% of all solid waste in the US. Single use products and materials proliferate in part because the cost of the items only reflects the cost of materials, production, and distribution. The end of use costs (e.g., disposal, landfill management, environmental impacts) are completely absent in the cost to purchase. The end of use costs are instead transferred to communities to absorb as they manage recycling and waste programs. By spreading the costs amongst a larger group of people, companies remove their responsibility for the end of life consequences that their products create (e.g., waste and pollution) and hide the real costs.
Another method is to hold companies accountable. In 2016, Coca Cola was responsible for 110 billion of the over 480 billion bottles sold globally. Using plastic packaging (bottles or otherwise) is a choice. For their part, Coca Cola has set aggressive targets for sustainable packaging for products sold in Western Europe and they are part of a joint venture to produce bottles “made entirely from renewable materials and … fully biodegradable”. But not all companies are focused on reducing their impacts or finding solutions to the problem.
We can send a message to those companies who have not made a change. How we spend our money influences what gets produced – we vote every day with the money we spend. As more consumers direct their money to companies that focus on sustainability, more companies will begin making changes in their packaging. Regulations can and should be used when market forces aren’t enough to shift commercial behavior or more rapid change is required.
As consumers, we should also think about how long we will use a product and how products will impact the environment when we are done using them. Look for products that have less packaging, that are made from recycled materials, that are recyclable, and/or that can be composted. We can also buy more used merchandise, repair items that are broken rather than buying a new one (even when it costs more to repair the item than to buy something new), and use products longer before upgrading them.
As consumers, an easy way to make an impact is to look for companies that are Certified B Corporations® (B CorpsTM). This takes a large majority of the guess work out of the buying process. And as businesses, we need to do more to minimize the impact our products have on the environment.
Overwhelmed? No worries, we’ve got this! For the good.