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posted on 06.29.09

Designers design things and companies make those things and energy and resources are consumed.  Everyone is concerned about the waste and pollution created in these activities.  But we need stuff, right?  What can we do?  And how did we get to this level of seemingly runaway consumption?  Following is an example from the recent history of the modern packaging industry that offers some possible answers.

There was a time when fast food didn't exist.  People ate food from plates and drank from glasses that were washed and reused.  If they were on the go a bottle of soda could be enjoyed and almost everywhere businesses would recycle the glass containers.  Not many things were packaged so there wasn't so much to throw away.   Then in 1938, the steel can was invented and following the war the aluminum can arrived in 1953.  You could have a drink and throw away the package.  What a boon for the makers of the package- a nearly infinite market, a sort of ecological Ponzi scheme in which the last generation pays the whole price of consumption for all past generations.  And a small state in the northeast, Vermont, saw the writing on the wall or more accurately, the trash by the road and the cans in the landfill, and decided there ought to be a law making disposable containers illegal.  Why make a whole bunch of garbage when we have this perfectly good glass recycling program.  The law passed and the threat of similar laws awakened the public relations machine of the Aluminum Can Council.  They came up with a way to make a lot of extra garbage, make it our fault and redirect attention from the magnitude of hidden waste.   "Littering" came into use as a pejorative term tied to the concept of pollution.  By 1971 the now famous commercial of the "crying Indian" saddened by the 'pollution' of strewn trash sealed the link in our minds with the tagline: "People start pollution.  People can stop it."

That early simplistic and manipulative view of pollution being mainly a problem of your littering still prevails.  Except pollution is a result of all processes and activites that produce a nonessential byproduct or waste.  There is an increasing trend to analyze and understand the entire waste stream. Industries are realizing that wasted material is wasted money.  A few large creative industries are moving into a leadership position in these areas.  But I'm getting ahead of myself.  Let's start with: How did this happen?

First a film, "The Story of Stuff" that presents a systemic and political argument for the simple question of why so much stuff in the U.S.?  This short film has sometimes been controversial.  The Missoula School Board banned the film from being shown in school after a parent complained that no view was provided to  balance the content of this film.  This seems to me to be the same as requiring all classes on nutrition to take time to sermonize on the virtues of chili fries.  You be the judge.

(Link to 'The Story of Stuff' film)

Producing goods creates byproducts to be disposed of and eventually everything made becomes garbage.  A book, Gone Tomorrow, The Hidden Life of Garbage by Heather Rogers focusing specifically on the history and current study of garbage.  I saw the author give a presentation on this material at The Center for Land Use Interpretation.  The subject is fascinating because of the scale and simultaneous invisibility of American garbage and Ms. Rogers is an enthusiastic and involving speaker.  See her if you have the opportunity.

from the C.L.U.I. website

CLUI Thematic Program: Waste Stream
Heather Rogers Talks Trash at CLUI

THE CLUI PROVIDED ANOTHER INSTALLMENT in its thematic program about the waste stream, with a presentation by Heather Rogers, author of Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage, last spring.

Rogers is an independent filmmaker and writer whose widely praised book is a history and analysis of the main channels of the waste stream - hauling, dumping, landfilling - and the reasons why we generate so much of it, in the first place.

Garbage is a fairly new invention, connected with mass production of things made out of paper, plastic, metal, and glass. In the last 30 years, Americans have doubled the amount of trash we collectively generate, and now packaging - not even really a product itself - takes up around 30% of landfill space. Rogers suggests that recycling makes us feel better about our waste generating habits, while instead we should be feeling worse, and compelled to do something.

Understanding garbage enables us to understand ourselves. As Newton’s third law states, “for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” And so, the other side of consumerism could be said to be excretionism, which is something we all participate in, though we would sooner not think about it. This realm is not always pleasant of course, which is exactly why it is so…rich.

As the great garbologist Bill Rathje observed, modern dumps are the midden mounds of contemporary culture. In his work at Fresh Kills landfill in New York, the largest dump in the nation, he found that the stratigraphy of this archeology was aided by the fact that the historical layers inside the mound were dated to the day, by still legible editions of the New York Times. He found that trash disintegrates a lot slower than we thought. It is here to stay.

Rathje’s work sampling and analyzing the past 50 years of America entombed at Fresh Kills, along with the work of the Garbage Project at the University of Arizona, which sampled local waste streams and made demographic and social extrapolations based on their findings, is microcosmic.

Heather Rogers’ work is macrocosmic. She is a garbologist (which, I’m sorry Heather, you become after you write a book about garbage, whether you like it or not) who strives to see the big picture. Under her gaze is the system of flow, the networks and nodes that refuse passes through on its way to some hypothetical disappearance.

And as we illustrate in numerous projects here at the Center, there is no away. The Gone Tomorrow in the title of her book is the perpetual horizon of the near future that we never can reach, as we are always here today.

Rogers showed her film and addressed a packed house at CLUI Los Angeles, providing insight into the world of waste. Her presentation was supported by the Center’s Independent Interpreter Program, where we periodically invite someone who is doing interesting work in and about the landscape to present their work to a general audience at the CLUI.



So where does this lead us?  We are a consumer society that needs to keep making stuff.  We make more and more stuff which leads to more garbage.  Just separating our personal garbage into recycling bins is a figurative drop in the bucket.  The Aluminum Can Council did their job well.  The average American throws out a few pounds of trash per day but the total waste production in the United States is 34 times that amount.  If individuals recycled every scrap of trash there would still be almost 8 billion tons of waste generated from industry.  And yes that's billion with a 'b' and tons with a 't' of trash.  As an experiment to demonstrate that trash production in our country is a well kept secret, try googling to find these statistics.   Almost all environmental and government websites list statistics for Municipal Solid Waste (our problem) and leave out the much greater total waste production.

A vice president at the largest carpet manufacturing company in America, Shaw Contract Group, read a book suggesting a way to reduce industrial waste and optimize profit at the same time.  What more tempting combination could there be?  He implemented the ideas set out in the book Cradle To Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things by William McDonough and Michael Braungart.  His experiment demonstrated that business benefits from being responsible about the waste it creates.  Everyone wins.

from the 'Cradle to Cradle' website:

William McDonough's book, written with his colleague, the German chemist Michael Braungart, is a manifesto calling for the transformation of human industry through ecologically intelligent design. Through historical sketches on the roots of the industrial revolution; commentary on science, nature and society; descriptions of key design principles; and compelling examples of innovative products and business strategies already reshaping the marketplace, McDonough and Braungart make the case that an industrial system that "takes, makes and wastes" can become a creator of goods and services that generate ecological, social and economic value.

In Cradle to Cradle, McDonough and Braungart argue that the conflict between industry and the environment is not an indictment of commerce but an outgrowth of purely opportunistic design. The design of products and manufacturing systems growing out of the Industrial Revolution reflected the spirit of the day-and yielded a host of unintended yet tragic consequences.

Today, with our growing knowledge of the living earth, design can reflect a new spirit. In fact, the authors write, when designers employ the intelligence of natural systems—the effectiveness of nutrient cycling, the abundance of the sun's energy—they can create products, industrial systems, buildings, even regional plans that allow nature and commerce to fruitfully co-exist.

The story of Shaw demonstrates a significant shift in the U.S. regarding business versus environmentalists.  Leadership in ecological accountability has come from two creative industries that are answerable for a great amount of waste production and energy use.  The field of architecture with the L.E.E.D certification program and design and product manufacturing with Cradle to Cradle (C2C) certification have created and implemented standards to meet strict guidelines for energy saving and socially responsible design.  I think the significance of this cannot be overstated.  Everyone I know does their best to recycle and save energy as an individual but the much greater contribution will come from businesses in America taking responsibility for their environmental footprint.

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