The Value of Waste Reduction
John L. Turner
Ok, you’re at a barbecue this summer and another guest asks what you think is the best way to manage all the garbage that the party will generate (I know, pretty unlikely party conversation, but bear with me). As you search for a quick rejoinder your mind is spinning fast: you’ve learned from numerous press accounts about leaking landfills, with their groundwater-contaminating plumes and smelly methane emissions, that landfilling garbage — throwing all waste into a pit in the ground rather than reusing any of it or gaining energy from it through incineration — is a decidedly bad idea.
Then its hits you, the answer must be: Recycling, of course! So you spurt it out, making clear to mention that you recycle your garbage at home by separating glass, metal, paper, and cardboard. You look for the approving nod of the head from your fellow party guest or some other type of affirming signal. But no, they rudely shake their head in a disapproving fashion. They answer: “While this party will generate garbage, the best solid waste strategy is to throw a party that doesn’t generate garbage to begin with”. This smart aleck has touched upon what solid waste policy makers have long known: waste reduction, the idea of not generating garbage in the first place, is the best idea to deal with garbage. After all, if there’s no garbage created there’s nothing to manage, treat, or dispose of. And, importantly, there’s no adverse environmental impact from trash that doesn’t exist.
Two recent examples come to mind. On January 1, 2018, legislation enacted by Suffolk County took effect which placed a 5-cent fee on disposable paper and plastic grocery bags. The purpose of the law was to provide a financial incentive to county consumers to reduce their bag consumption (and the associated environmental impacts stemming from their manufacture and distribution) by using reusable bags or no bags at all. The result? An 81.7% reduction in the number of plastic bags and a 78.8% reduction in paper bags used and thrown away. In actual numbers that’s approximately 1.1 billion (yes that’s billion with a “b”) less bags.
The other example has to do with straws. Currently, when you go to a restaurant and order water or a soda it typically includes a straw whether you asked for it or not. With the recent adoption of Suffolk County “Request Only” legislation straws will now be provided to customers only upon request (and those that are provided will be made of paper). If this prevents one out of every two customers from using a straw that cuts the number of straws thrown away in half. In Suffolk County, as a result of this legislation, an estimated 2,160,000 straws are used daily, so the above example means that more than 1 million straws will not be used and thrown away each and every day in Suffolk County. The figures for Nassau County are very similar.
What’s the value of these two measures? Their obvious impact is in reducing the amount of garbage generated. As mentioned above, there are no environmental impacts from garbage that’s not generated! (And good news to taxpayers: there’s no financial cost to municipalities in managing garbage that’s not created!)
The environmental value of waste reduction illustrates a fundamental point that few of us ever (or rarely) think about: Virtually everything we consume or use has some impact on the natural resources that collectively comprise our life-sustaining environment during its manufacture, use, and disposal. The impact may be huge, medium, or tiny, but it’s there. It may be water quality impacts that result from the manufacture of paper bags or air quality impacts from the creation of plastic bags. Or it may stem from hundreds of other products.
For the plastic bag and straw examples, the impacts are both front-end and back-end. For example, it takes polluting petroleum to manufacture plastic bags and straws and more of it to ship it to distribution points such as supermarkets and restaurants. At the back end, involving the disposal stage, many bags and straws end up in the environment where they break down into micro-plastics, which pollute soil, marine sediments, and are ingested by wildlife and humans alike!
It’s easy to reduce the amount of garbage you generate if you think about it. Do you need to put that half gallon of milk with a built-in jug handle into a plastic bag? Can you bring your washable coffee mug to your local morning coffee vendor instead of using a new paper or styrofoam cup every day? How about doing away with wrapping paper for presents, opting instead for a reusable gift bag. And what about the barbecue? Perhaps the hosts could offer reusable plates, glasses and cutlery instead of relying on paper or plastic. Or mix pitchers of lemonade for children instead of handing out juice boxes. Or ensure that the vegetable waste, including all those watermelon rinds, end up in the backyard compost pile.
Ways to reduce the amount of garbage you generate are only limited by your imagination You, your community, and the planet will be the better for your efforts.