I was writing a newspaper story a couple years ago about some townspeople who were highly annoyed that their local landfill was going to be expanded -- and it was going to take garbage from another county, no less. They were pretty furious. A landfill is not a pleasant neighbor.
I took a tour of the too-small landfill. The supervisor led me onto a plateau of garbage that was being packed down by a bulldozer and covered over with dirt. That's what happened there every day: more trash, more dirt, bigger plateau. A couple of sections of wire fence were set up like soccer goals to catch the plastic grocery bags and other garbage blown away by the wind, but as you can imagine, that's a losing game. The roads and fields around the landfill were littered with plastic bags.
The supervisor stayed pretty straightforward throughout our interview, and he didn't sound off about the people who were protesting the expansion, but he did let one editorial comment slip out, almost by accident. Or maybe it was on purpose. At any rate, I've never forgotten it.
He looked at the garbage being dumped by a semi, and he said, "For years, people have been told to recycle paper and plastic, paper and plastic. And what do you see here: paper and plastic."
That's all he said about that. The rest of the interview was just-the-facts-ma'am. But he was right. I could see it.
I think about that almost every time I throw anything out because now I know where it's going: to a landfill. It will be gone from my apartment, and I won't ever have to think about it again, but it's adding to the pile, and it's going to keep taking up space for a long, long time. If it's plastic, it's taking up space indefinitely: Plastic breaks down into smaller pieces of plastic. [Ed. note: That story's long. But it ends with some hopeful ideas.]
So I've started doing things that might seem weird but that are making more and more sense to me all the time. For instance, I save peanut butter jars. (I eat a lot of peanut butter, and I buy it in glass jars.) I use them to store dried pasta after the cardboard box won't close up again, hunks of cheddar I've unwrapped, dry rice, half a lemon, leftover soup (once it's cooled off), chocolate chips, almonds -- almost anything that can be stored in plastic Tupperware or in plastic wrap can be stored instead in a peanut butter jar.
My generation grew up knowing we should reduce, reuse, and recycle. We're not angels about it. But the idea is widespread enough that today it feels downright weird to throw out a soda can -- or a peanut butter jar. I'm betting that the next generation or the one after will do something even bigger: They'll make it weird to buy almost anything disposable in the first place.
Til then, if you haven't yet, check out The Story of Stuff, or even take a tour of any landfill near you. That tour didn't turn me into a recycling queen, but it was definitely eye-opening, part of my overall education as a global citizen. It made me think of garbage as our garbage, something that I can help control because I help make it in the first place. Standing there amid plastic bags, books, papers, shoes, and other recognizable things made me realize that I don't have to throw so much stuff away. Incremental changes -- what would 10 percent less garbage look like at your house? -- really add up.
If you can't tour a landfill, check out the wonderful (and at times, appropriately gross) book Garbageland by journalist Elizabeth Royce, a fellow Brooklynite who started wondering one day where her family's garbage goes. (You can even buy the book used or read your library's copy.)
Recycling, or even creating less trash, isn't the definition of sustainability all by itself. But it's a piece of it. And the most sustainable thing about it is that a change you make can inspire a change in the kids, co-workers, and friends in your life, too.
My roommate, wouldn't you know it, has started saving mustard jars.
Liz was co-founder of HumanKind Media. You can read about her here.