WASTE: Climate Change, Peak Oil, and the End of Waste


We in rich contries have almost lost the ability to supply our own needs through local manufacturing and agriculture–or even to extend the life of products through reuse, repair and repurposing.  We rely on others, and on a system lubricated by cheap oil, to meet our needs as well as our wants.

In the post-peak-oil period, inevitable interruptions in the flow of the goods we rely on every day will be profoundly destabilizing.

The Normalization of Waste
It’s important at the outset to recognize a paradox about waste. Our culture holds generally negative attitudes toward wastefulness, yet waste is supported with community services that are more universal, more affordable, and more accessible than health care, housing, or education. Consider the ubiquitous street litter bins provided and maintained at public expense. These community amenities make wasting easy and convenient. Similarly, household garbage containers lined up at the curb every week communicate unabashedly that wasting is a publicly sanctioned behavior in our society.

How did wasting become socially normalized to this extent? The answer lies in a well-intentioned effort a century ago to take public action to protect human health and safety. In the booming industrial cities of the late-nineteenth century “heaps of garbage, rubbish and manure cluttered the streets and alleys,” writes waste historian Martin Melosi.1 Imagine teeming cities where horses were the main mode of local transportation. Pigs and fowl were kept in basements of the crowded tenement buildings that housed the growing numbers of the new laboring class. In such conditions, yellow fever, typhoid, cholera, and other diseases emerged quickly and spread rapidly, affecting neighborhoods both rich and poor.

The only waste collection services were informal arrangements with itinerant entrepreneurs such as rag collectors. As time went by and things got worse, Melosi writes, the traditional notion of individual responsibility for refuse disposal gave way to an acceptance of community responsibility. A broad-based civic reform movement demanded that cities provide “municipal housekeeping” to keep the streets clean. In this way, waste management became a core function of our local governments. The streets and alleys were cleansed and, best of all, citizens had the assurance that their waste was safely in the hands of competent professional engineers and public servants.

No one could have predicted what would happen over the next hundred years (figure 28.1). When local governments assumed responsibility for solid waste a century ago, household and commercial waste consisted mainly of inorganics, in the form of coal ash and wood ash from furnaces and stoves.2 Beyond that, waste was mostly food scraps, with a smaller quantity of simple manufactured products made with paper, cloth, and leather. By 1960, the ash had been almost completely eliminated by the introduction of other forms of space heating and cooking appliances, biodegradable wastes had doubled because of suburbanization, and there was already striking evidence of the advent of the throwaway economy. By the year 2005, products and packaging made up 74 percent of our waste and reflected a thirteenfold increase in per capita consumption from one hundred years earlier. The growth in production and consumption is driving waste growth.

Throwaway products and packaging have become a hallmark of modern industrialized economies, eagerly emulated by less industrialized economies. Constant demand for “new” products is actively encouraged, spurred by advertising and planned obsolescence in product design. Historian Susan Strasser has noted that the mass-marketing of consumer goods started as long ago as catalog sales in the nineteenth century, and that advertising campaigns had to be developed to replace established values of thrift with new values of conspicuous consumption.3 Consumerism and planned obsolescence became even more entrenched after World War II when the development of the national highway system increased the mobility of people and goods, encouraging the proliferation of convenient disposable products and packaging. Note in figure 28.1 that between 1960 and 2005 per capita product and packaging discards doubled while the per capita generation of organic discards like food scraps and yard trimmings remained relatively constant (yards and stomachs have natural limits, while desire for new stuff is seemingly limitless). Today we think nothing of consuming and discarding thirteen times more manufactured goods than our great-grandparents did.

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