The abundance of American wealth has fostered a wasteful society. Our throwaway culture and mindset has now spread globally; in a mere few hundred years, the human race has been transformed into Homo garbagicus, our waste and refuse spread from pole to pole.
On the local level, Sonoma and Sonoma Valley reflect the global garbage crisis. We call it a crisis because producing garbage is systemic, affects other segments of society and represents a possibly catastrophic failure of modern civilization. Economic growth at the expense of the environment is not sustainable, no matter how elegantly or cleverly it’s framed or justified. As a society, we’ll never break our wasteful habits concerning garbage generation until we finally admit we have a serious problem.
Human societies were once close to having zero-waste; everything was used. Garbage arrived with the advent of civilization. Garbage was often dirty and ever present, but until chemically engineered industrial products like plastic and aluminum cans, garbage was basically organic. Modern industrial garbage does not decompose easily, if at all; it’s often toxic, leaches poison into local water, and costs a fortune to clean up. Radioactive waste is the most expensive garbage in world history.
For the citizen who wants to play a part in cutting our garbage habit, it’s not always easy. Want to recycle cans, and plastic bottles, let alone claim the deposit you paid when you bought it? Though state law requires large retailers to accept recycled containers; locally it’s not happening.
That blue can for recycling, unfortunately, does not hold the answer for a variety of reasons – economic, sanitary and jurisdictional. Various government agencies claim sovereignty over garbage and at present Sonoma County is loading its waste into big-rigs and trucking it to an out-of-the-county landfill. This is an example of the way garbage disposal systemically affects greenhouse gas emissions: trucking it around has a big carbon footprint.
Each incorporated city and the County of Sonoma determines how garbage will be collected in their area of jurisdiction. Now that garbage is such a huge business, however, a process of corporate consolidation through buying and operating “waste disposal firms” is complicating such government decisions and generating lawsuits.
As this issue’s Sun In-Depth Report indicates, breaking the garbage habit is tough. Single-use plastic packaging is ubiquitous. Recycling plastic, unfortunately, follows the curves of the “boom-and-bust” cycle of the price of oil; at the moment, it’s “bust.”
Our garbage – fossil-fuel emissions, household, industrial and radioactive waste, sewage, discarded pharmaceuticals and the like – may well be our downfall. As is commonly true, we hastily rush to embrace new and novel things without regard to their long-term, foreseeably negative consequences.
Ultimately, our desire for instant gratification is to blame. Plastic facilitates our satisfaction. The same is true for aluminum cans and for that matter, food served so fast and in such large volume that much of it ends up in a garbage can. America wastes 25 percent of its food!
Today America is deeply addicted to a wasteful lifestyle; we’re hooked and making meaningful change will be difficult and bring feelings of deprivation and loss. Those difficult feelings are symptoms we must share, the consequence of our collective and individual responsibility for making such a mess.