Waste is a human invention. Nature has no waste. In nature everything is recycled. A fallen tree is shelter for animals and food for insects and fungi. Everything decomposes and becomes soil or nutrients for plants, bacteria, and fungi. Dead organisms become food for other organisms. All this material transfer happens in closed circular patterns called cycles. There is no garbage, landfills, or toxic Superfund sites.


Humans are the only animal that fouls its own nest. We are the only ones creating toxic materials that do not exist in nature or cannot be broken down and reused. Many of the materials we make can last hundreds of years or longer. Some, like nuclear waste, can last tens of thousands of years. Much of this garbage is poisoning the water, air, and land we need to survive.


Waste is a big problem economically. Trash costs money as well as making a mess of the environment. Landfills are expensive especially when we have to clean them up after years of dumping our trash in a hole. Reclaiming polluted land and water is much more expensive than the cost of technologies to prevent pollution. Wasteful manufacturing processes cost more than efficient use of resources. Better resource use can significantly improve a company’s financial performance. Environmental protection and more efficient energy use spawn whole new industries and new jobs creating the holy grail of capitalism –economic growth. It is simply not true that environmental protection is bad for the economy.


Despite all the good reasons to be more efficient, use less, and waste not, Americans persist in being very wasteful. Americans live in a land of plenty. This abundance fosters wasteful habits and allows us to use more resources than any other people. You probably have seen the typical statistics:


  • We have 5% of the world’s population but consumes 30% of the world’s resources
  • We generate 30% of the world’s waste.
  • We consume twice as much as we did 50 years ago.
  • We use twice as much fossil fuel per person as the the British and 2 ½ times more than the Japanese
  • We throw away 7 pounds of garbage per person every day – 2,555 pounds a year
  • Thirty percent of our garbage is packaging with no use or value to consumers
  • The average U.S. house size has doubled since the 1970s but family size has decreased
  • The average American creates 13 times the environmental damage as someone in Brazil, uses 35 times the resources of a typical person in India, and consumes 53 times more stuff than the average person in China


Many of our wasteful habits are not as obvious as the trash we throw in the landfill. One dictionary definition of “waste” is to “use or expend carelessly, extravagantly, or to no purpose.” Using resources to produce stuff for no useful purpose is pure waste and our economy is full of examples. Our economy has many hidden, unproductive activities that are not beneficial to us or the long-term economy. It is what I call “churning.” It is activity that consumes time, resources, energy, and money but produces nothing of real value.


The whole world of fashion is an example. Not being blessed with fur or feathers, people need clothes to protect them from sun, cold, mosquitoes, and, for many of us, the embarrassment of displaying our flabby physiques. But fashion says we can’t just cover our nakedness with something appropriate, comfortable, and inexpensive. Fashion requires we throw out last year’s rags because the color is not “in” or the lapel is too wide, or the hem is not the right length. The fashion changes periodically so it can later change back again serving no useful purpose. But whole industries would crumble without the endless churning of everyone keeping up with the latest style.


The auto industry is another example. They are constantly redesigning their vehicle body styles with cosmetic changes. These provide no functional improvement to comfort, safety, usability, or efficiency. The cost of retooling for these useless changes is significant. Hypocritically, the industry has always used cost as a reason to oppose sensible improvements in fuel efficiency and safety. For decades, most improvements in fuel economy and safety have been driven by foreign competition. Foreign auto makers led in developing hybrid and electric cars. American companies have been playing catch up. Big gas guzzlers are more profitable.


There is a lot of hidden waste in electronics. We all know about the constant upgrades and new technology that sends the latest gadget to the landfill every six months. The mountains of electronic waste are toxic and difficult to recycle. But there is a more insidious form of waste. Because computer chips can do lots of things, manufacturers create lots of things for them to do which nobody wants, needs, or uses. Think of all the numerous functions on a watch, cell phone, or digital camera. Do you ever use that stop watch function? When was the last time you did more than point and shoot with a camera?


Microwaves have a dozen temperature settings and we use ONE to zap the left overs. These are small insignificant costs, but they reflect a greater hidden cost for society. Some smart, creative people spent a lot of time to develop this stuff that nobody uses. These computer engineers could be solving more important problems like finding ways to standardize component parts so our electronics could be easily upgraded or recycled without throwing away the whole thing. Creating stuff we don’t need or use – just because we can – is the epitome of waste.


Junk mail is another waste. Nobody reads the 4 million tons a year of junk mail that fill our mailboxes. This type of mass marketing generates about 3% return at best which is pathetically inefficient. I suspect the same is true for online and other advertising. How many billboards do you read going down the highway at 70 mph?


George Washington University sociologist Amitai Etzioni writes about the impact of stuff and consumerism on our lives. He says,


“The truth is we have very limited real needs. When you realize this and liberate yourself from the need to have the latest gadget or fashion you find out you don’t need very much to live…This can have a stunning and very liberating impact on people.”


Get liberated. Get off the trash train and get yourself free from stuff.