Living in a Throwaway Society
PEOPLE in developed lands throw away mountains of trash. Consider, for example, the annual garbage output of the United States. It has been said that “an equivalent weight of water could fill 68,000 Olympic-size pools.” Some years ago, it was estimated that the residents of New York City alone produced enough garbage each year to bury the city’s huge Central Park under 13 feet [4 m] of refuse!a
Little wonder that the United States has been called “a warning example for the rest of the world” when it comes to being “a consumer and throwaway society.” But that country is not alone. It is estimated that the garbage annually produced by the people of Germany could easily fill a freight train extending from the capital, Berlin, to the coast of Africa, some 1,100 miles [1,800 km] away. And in Britain it was once estimated that the average family of four discards six trees’ worth of paper in a year.
Developing lands are not immune to the garbage glut. A noted newsmagazine reports: “The really bad news is that most of the planet’s 6 billion people are just beginning to follow in the trash-filled footsteps of the U.S. and the rest of the developed world.” Yes, like it or not, most of us today are part of a throwaway society.
Of course, people have always had things to throw away. But canned and packaged foods and goods are more widely available now than they were years ago, so disposable packaging is everywhere. The quantity of newspapers, magazines, advertising leaflets, and other printed material has soared as well.
Our highly industrialized and scientific world has also created new kinds of garbage. The German newspaper Die Welt claims that “approximately nine million autos are scrapped in the European Union annually.” Disposing of them is no simple task. Even more problematic is the question, How do you safely dispose of nuclear or chemical wastes? Back in 1991, the United States reportedly had “mountains of hot garbage and no permanent site for storing it.” A million barrels of deadly substances were said to be sitting in temporary storage with an ever-present “danger of loss, theft and environmental damage from mishandling.” In 1999 alone, some 20,000 sources in the United States produced over 40 million tons of hazardous waste.
Another factor is the world population, which has skyrocketed during the past century. More people, more garbage! And much of the population is oriented toward consumerism. The Worldwatch Institute recently concluded: “We have used more goods and services since 1950 than in all the rest of human history.”
Granted, few of those living in developed lands want to do away with all those “goods and services.” For instance, just think of how convenient it is to go to the store and pick up groceries that are already packaged and then bring them home in paper or plastic bags supplied at the store. If people were suddenly deprived of such modern packaging, they might soon realize how deeply they have come to depend on it. And to the extent that it is more hygienic, such packaging contributes, at least indirectly, to better health.
Despite such advantages, though, is there any need for concern that today’s throwaway society might have gone too far? Evidently there is, for various solutions that have been designed to address the garbage glut have barely made a dent in the avalanche of human refuse. What is worse, the attitudes that underlie today’s throwaway society have even more troubling implications.
a The park covers an area of 843 acres [341 ha], or about 6 percent of the surface area of the borough of Manhattan.
[Picture on page 4]
Safely disposing of hazardous waste presents serious challenges