I continue my contribution to the series “The Moral Is” (see my previous essays in the archives) on Valley Public Radio with another essay to be broadcast during this morning’s Valley Edition between 9-10 AM (rebroadcast at 7PM). Tune in online here if you get the chance. The audio will later be available in the archives, and I will post a link here when it does. In the meantime, I am posting the text of my essay (slightly expanded and linkified) below.
I wrote this essay during Thanksgiving weekend, that celebration of American cornucopia which is now increasingly marred by the ever-earlier manufactured rush of Christmas shopping, with Black Friday this year starting on Thursday, i.e., on Thanksgiving! As Jon Stewart later noted, Christmas is now eating other holidays, egged on by a marketing push in an economy wedded to ever-increasing consumption of goods, damn the environmental consequences.
Interestingly, a short while after I sent my essay in to the series editor, the Fresno City Council voted (closely, 4-3, after a heated debate) in favor of a measure pushed by Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin to outsource the city’s garbage collection to a private company, ostensibly to save money and get revenue from the company to balance the city budget. Ironically, a few days later, National Geographic lauded Fresno as “a city serious about recycling”, since it now keeps 73% of its trash out of landfills, making Fresno number 1 in the nation for recycling. Shortly after that, the garbage outsourcing measure passed a second round of voting by the same margin, so the city is one step closer to losing its nationally leading recycling program. I haven’t seen much discussion in the local media about what happens to the excellent recycling program, nor how the city plans to make sure that the private contractor will maintain quality of service. We will see how it all shakes out, I suppose, but the outlook is not very good, and the city leadership’s shortsightedness is disappointing if predictable.
All of this adds to the context within which I happened to write this essay, intending to make broader points about our garbage-spewing consumer culture. So here is my essay:
Can you imagine ever running out of garbage?
Maybe it has something to do with the second law of thermodynamics, the one about how entropy or the amount of disorder in a system will always increase. Or maybe it is this time of year, between Black Friday and Christmas / Boxing Day, when we are constantly exhorted to go out and buy things, things we may or may not need, but things we should want, because they are bright and shiny and cool, and offer momentary happiness in sharing gifts, or because this is how we are supposed to help businesses stay in the black, and help the economy! Accompanying all this jolly holiday consumption, of course, is a growing mound of garbage from all the packaging and the gift-wrapping, and the unwanted or rejected gifts that end up, eventually, in our landfills. It is hard to imagine us running out of garbage!
These days we are running out of many of the earth’s natural resources, ranging from oil and other fossil fuels, to drinking water, to even the fertility of our soils. In this time of scarcity, if there is one thing that we are in no danger of exhausting, surely it is our supply of garbage. So how can we run out of the stuff? And what would that even mean?
Well, as it happens, the country of Sweden is running low on garbage lately, so much so that they import it from neighboring Norway—and get paid for taking it off Norway’s hands! So efficient have the Swedes become at recycling and composting all of their household waste that only 4% of it ends up in landfills. As a result, they simply aren’t producing enough trash any more!
Wait! Not enough trash? Not enough for what?
For generating energy, of course!
According to a recent NPR story, Sweden runs one of the most successful waste-to-energy programs in the world, generating one-fifth of the nation’s district heating, and powering a quarter million homes. But now, because its citizens have become so conscientious about minding their own household waste, Sweden has to turn to other countries for garbage. Isn’t that a nicer problem to have than the litany of more depressing environmental challenges we face these days?
Why don’t we all do this? Kill two birds with one stone: reduce the amount of waste going into landfills and reduce our need for fossil fuels in the process.
Indeed, Fresno County is now entertaining proposals for a new garbage-fueled power plant. And, Fresno is already recognized as a national leader for its recycling programs. It also has the distinction of being the birthplace of the modern landfill: the pioneering design of the Fresno Municipal Sanitary Landfill, a National Historic Landmark, set the standard for municipal waste management in 20th century America. Now Fresno can lead us again as the 21st century standard-bearer, by turning our trash into energy!
Nature’s recycling crew at work, because in natural ecosystems, everything is recycled
In nature, there was never such a thing as garbage until humans came along, because any waste produced by one species is consumed by another in the circle of life. Our industrial civilization, paradoxically efficient and wasteful, broke the circle, and this may be the first time that a single species has generated too much waste for ecosystems to handle.
We must close the circle again, and soon, before our planet is dead and covered in giant trash heaps.
Skyscraping towers of garbage on a desolate earth, as seen in Wall•E
A planet running short of garbage? Why, that’s how ours was not too long ago, and how it can be again if we put our ingenuity to solving the problems we have created.
For The Moral Is, this is Madhusudan Katti