Is There a Solution?
WHAT should you do with an unwanted item? “Just throw it away” seems a simple, obvious answer. However, waste disposal is not always so simple. Throw it where? An Italian environmental association estimates that a glass bottle thrown into the sea will take 1,000 years to decompose. In contrast, paper tissues will decompose in only three months. A cigarette butt pollutes the sea for up to 5 years; plastic bags, 10 to 20 years; nylon articles, 30 to 40 years; cans, 500 years; and polystyrene, 1,000 years.
The flow of such refuse has increased enormously. Nowadays the marketplace has plenty to sell, and the advertising world wants us to believe that we need it all. The British newspaper The Guardian says succinctly: “Advertisers help us to answer needs we never knew we had.” Indeed, we are tempted into buying the latest on the market, lest we miss out on something new. And, of course, in advertising terminology “new” means “better and superior,” whereas “old” means “inferior and outdated.”
Thus, we are often urged to buy something new rather than repair something old. It is argued that replacing old things is more practical and economical than repairing them. At times, that is true. Often, however, throwing away the old and replacing it with the new is expensive and unnecessary.
Many products today are designed to be thrown away. They may be difficult to repair—a point to keep in mind when making purchases. A German consumer magazine noted: “The life span of individual products continues to get shorter. What was ‘in’ yesterday is ‘out’ today and frequently lands in the rubbish. Thus, valuable raw materials daily end up as worthless garbage!”
Does all this unrestrained buying really benefit the consumer? In reality, the beneficiaries are businesses intent on filling their cash registers. The Swiss weekly Die Weltwoche argues: “An economic collapse would be guaranteed if everyone were to use his furniture and his auto for life or even for twice as long as he now does.” An economic collapse is hardly the answer, since this would also put consumers out of work. What, then, are some solutions to the garbage glut?
Throw Away, Recycle, or Reduce?
Some industrialized countries take the easy way out by simply dumping their wastes in developing countries. A report indicates, for example, that “at one notorious site in Nigeria, 3,500 tonnes of toxic chemicals were found to be leaking from over 8,000 rusting and corroding drums, poisoning both soil and groundwater.” Such a method of waste disposal seems to be neither a workable solution nor an admirable way to treat others.
What about recycling unwanted items for further use instead of just throwing them away? Of course, such programs require that consumers separate their refuse into different categories, something already required by law in some localities. Officials may ask that garbage be sorted into such categories as paper, cardboard, metal, glass, and organic wastes. Glass, in turn, may have to be sorted according to color.
Recycling clearly has its advantages. The book 5000 Days to Save the Planet notes that recycling aluminum “saves huge amounts of energy” and can “cut down on the environmental damage caused by strip-mining bauxite.” The book elaborates: “For the same amount of paper produced, recycling uses up only half as much energy, and a tenth of the water. . . . Many waste products can be recovered, recycled and re-used. . . . Even where industries cannot re-use their own wastes, they can sometimes recycle them for others to use . . . In Holland, a waste exchange network has been operating successfully since the early 1970s.”
Rather than searching for ways to dispose of refuse, other authorities are placing more emphasis upon preventing waste in the first place. The aforementioned book warns that “action is urgently needed” if mankind is “to move away from a throwaway economy . . . towards a conserver society that minimizes wastes and reduces its consumption of resources.”
However, those wanting to “move away from a throwaway economy” would have to be willing to use the goods they purchase for as long as possible, throwing them away only when they are beyond repair. Items that are unwanted but still usable must be passed on to others who will use them. The Darmstadt office of the German Öko-Institut (Institute for Applied Ecology) figures that a household adhering consistently to the principle “Use instead of consume” would produce up to 75 percent less garbage than the average household.
But will enough households adhere to such principles? It seems unlikely. Mankind’s garbage problem is merely a symptom of larger issues. In today’s throwaway society, more and more people have adopted what we might call a throwaway mentality. Let us examine that attitude—and a few of the extremes to which it can lead.
The Dangers of a Throwaway Mentality
A throwaway mentality can easily go beyond minor wastefulness. It can make people unappreciative and thoughtless, so that they casually waste large amounts of untouched food and other resources. Those who are self-centered and governed by fads and trivial likes and dislikes may constantly feel compelled to replace good clothes, furniture, and other items with new ones.
However, the throwaway mentality may extend to more than just things. A German project devoted to the utilization of discarded household goods recently noted: “The way we treat the living room suite, which no longer suits us and is thrown away after five years to be replaced by a new one, is being copied in the way we treat humans. The question is how long our society can tolerate this.” The report explains: “As soon as a person is unable to perform at top efficiency, he is replaced. After all, there are plenty of workers available!”
In his book Earth in the Balance, former U.S. Vice President Al Gore asked the pertinent question: “If we have come to see the things we use as disposable, have we similarly transformed the way we think about our fellow human beings? . . . Have we, in the process, lost an appreciation for the uniqueness of each one?”
People who lose appreciation and respect for others will probably find it easier—and less blameworthy—to cast off friends or marriage mates. Commenting on this way of thinking, the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung argues: “Twice a year we buy new clothes, every four years a new car, and every ten years a new living room suite; every year we look for a new vacation spot; we change homes, occupations, businesses—so why not our marriage mate?”
Some people today seem willing to throw away almost anything once it becomes burdensome. In one European country, for example, an estimated 100,000 cats and 96,000 dogs were abandoned during 1999 by their owners. An animal activist there says that her fellow citizens “don’t consider owning a pet a long-term commitment. They’ll buy a puppy in September, abandon it [a year later when they go on vacation] in August.” Worse still, the throwaway mentality extends to human life itself.
A Lack of Respect for Life
Many today seem to think that their own life has little real value. How so? For example, a European magazine recently noted that the readiness of young people to take risks has increased in recent years. This can be seen in their increased willingness to participate in extreme sports. For the sake of a few moments of thrills, they are willing to risk throwing away life itself! Profit-hungry businessmen eagerly take advantage of this trend. A German politician noted that promoters of extreme sports “often consider making money more important than human health and life.”
And what about throwing away unborn human life? The World Health Organization estimates that “worldwide some 75 million children conceived annually are not actually wanted by anyone. For many women abortion is the only solution.” Even after birth, infants are in danger. According to the Brazilian newspaper O Estado de S. Paulo, “cases of babies abandoned on the streets are on the increase.” Is this also true in your locality?
All around us in today’s world, we see evidence that human life is often viewed as cheap, worthless, something to be thrown away almost casually. We see this trend in the violence of popular entertainment, with “heroes” slaughtering scores of “bad guys” in a single film or TV program. We see it in the ongoing waves of violent crime sweeping the earth, with thieves killing their victims over a bit of petty change—or for no reason at all. And we see it in the news in the sickening reports of terrorist acts, ethnic cleansings, and outright genocides, all involving the hard-hearted, wholesale slaughter of humans—precious lives thrown away like garbage.
We may not be able to avoid living in a throwaway society, but we can avoid adopting a throwaway mentality. The next article will discuss what can help us to cope with today’s throwaway society as well as the undesirable attitudes that come with it.
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In many places recycling is mandatory
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Do changing fads compel you to throw away good clothes and buy new ones?
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The unborn should be cherished, not thrown away
Index Stock Photography Inc./BSIP Agency
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Life is too precious to risk throwing it away for the sake of thrills