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In a World with Too Much Stuff, Solutions Are Everywhere

Photo: MarthaStewart.com

December 9, 2015

It’s the holidays, and for many of us this means scrambling to find gifts for our loved ones. But what happens to all that gift wrap, boxes – that ‘stuff’? We asked our friends at The Story of Stuff Project to share their advice for how to celebrate the holidays while being mindful about how ‘stuff’ impacts our planet. Along the way, they share stories of environmental activists pioneering waste management solutions in their communities:

By Shana DeClercq, The Story of Stuff Project

Waste is Stuff in the Wrong Place–And It’s A System in Crisis

We have a problem with stuff. We use too much, too much of it is toxic and, historically, we haven’t shared it very well. But that’s not the way things have to be.

Let’s start by talking trash. Of all the trash people in the U.S. threw away in 2012, 30 percent, or 75 million tons, was containers and packaging (pdf). Let that sink in for a minute. In just one year, we generated 75 million tons of stuff that was designed to be used just once before being thrown away. And the holiday season is the peak time of year for single-use plastic waste. Holiday turkeys, bottled drinks, iPhones, TVs, and power tools—wrapped in plastic, polystyrene and cardboard—arrive in our homes with no plan for what happens next to the packaging materials they came in, let alone a long-term plan for what will happen to our stuff when we’re done with it.

The reality, as my friend Alex Freid likes to say, is that what we call “trash” is really just resources in wrong place. Alex says, “When the only option is a dumpster, everything looks like trash.” This kind of linear system that starts with by extracting resources from forests and mountaintops, and ends with burning trash, is a system in crisis. We simply cannot continue to operate as though we had infinite resources, when we live on a finite planet.

Here’s a picture of what this broken system looks like:

Our Broken Materials Economy

This is a great time of year to start thinking about stuff. Because this is the time of year that companies push us to buy, buy, buy. And you know what happens when we do? Folks in the U.S. bought over 7.5 million new TVs for the 2013 Super Bowl. Meanwhile, a recent study found that people in the U.S. get rid of 142,000 computers and over 416,000 mobile devices every day.  

Even with Black Friday deals everywhere, no amount of price cuts can truly account for the real human and ecological cost of all this stuff. Consider this: At every step in the materials economy shown above, people and communities are affected. From the mining operations that deliver the precious metals to power our appliances to the factory workers exposed and abused during production, it’s the same story: Toxics going in to a product mean that eventually, toxics will also be released into the environment and absorbed by our bodies.

Solutions Are Everywhere

The great thing about this story is that there’s hope: people are building solutions in towns, cities and countries all over the world.

You could look at the entire materials economy (or “Story of Stuff”) and find solutions at every step along the way. Starting with the extraction phase – there’s the Fair Phone, a repairable phone made of conflict-free minerals. Then moving to the Production phase: a broad coalition just won new legislation in California to ban plastic microbeads from cosmetics. What about consumption? There’s a whole world of people choosing simpler, less-stuff filled lives (with blogs like Becoming Minimalist and Be More with Less). Not to mention plastic-free crusaders like Beth Terry, who are living proof we don’t need plastic waste in our lives (and truly, all plastic is ultimately waste).

Then there’s disposal.

Globally, thinkers and doers are working to erase this step entirely, working to build a zero-waste world.

Disposal New

Like 2013 Goldman Environmental Prize winner Rossano Ercolini. He started small, by educating his students every day about where resources go—but soon ignited a movement to stop the construction of a toxic incinerator in Cappanori, Italy. He went on to jump-start the Zero Waste movement across the country. And now, there are over 300 Zero Waste municipalities across Europe, meaning that ­they have committed to reducing waste generation and improving waste separation collection.

Rossano Ercolini shows off an example of creative recycling: a clock made from computer hardware. (Photo: Marco Spagnesi)

Meanwhile, in Bogotá, with urban growth outpacing the capacity of municipal dumps, the government turned to large companies who profited from the harmful methane gas produced by trash. For decades, informal recyclers, also known as ‘waste pickers’ in the city had been an important part of the waste management solution in the city. So in 2010 Nohra Padilla – a recycler herself – stepped in and organized Colombia’s marginalized waste pickers to make recycling a legitimate part of waste management. Recyclers, once disregarded, are now formally recognized stakeholders in Bogotá’s waste management planning process. The new Association of Recyclers of Bogotá operates two recycling centers, with plans to expand operations to what will be the largest recycling center run by informal recyclers in Latin America.

Nohra Padilla was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize for her fearless leadership in 2013. (Photo: Goldman Environmental Prize)

Both Ercolini and Padilla are attending the Paris climate negotiations, together advocating for Zero Waste as a solution to mitigate the effects of climate change.

And you know who else is helping to build that Zero Waste future? A few sustainably-minded companies, from Patagonia’s Worn Wear program to Levi’s jeans recycling, are leading the way with repair and recycling programs as a first step toward completely closed-loop lifecycles for the materials they sell.

And then we have all the great ideas popping up around community-based reuse, starting with the original Craigslist website to new apps like Yerdle, Peerby, and Tradr that help us find ways to sell, borrow, lend, give, take, swap, upcycle and share our stuff. From bookmobiles, to tool lending libraries, to kitchen libraries, a real sharing economy is growing and glowing. All that sharing means less single-use products sent to the dump.

We Need YOU! It’s Going to Take Everyone To Build Our Zero Waste Future

You don’t have to march in the streets to fight for less waste, for cleaner air, for climate solutions. As we say in The Story of Change, to make real change, we need not just activists, but everyone. We need nurturers, communicators, investigators and builders flexing their citizen muscles.

Here are some ways everyone can join in:

Take the Pledge to Simplify the Holidays. Stand up against holiday shopping madness: upload a photo to show us what it looks like when you choose more fun and less stuff. Take a hike—and pledge to protect the world around you.  Another way you can help? Join our #UnbottleWater campaign. Together, we’ll advocate for an end to plastic bottled water waste, and for clean, safe, accessible tap water for everyone, everywhere.

Because this planet—its lakes and waterways, its ore-filled mountains, its fields and its cities—is ours to share. Let’s stop buying, using up, and dumping stuff and starting the lives we dream of: lives filled with sharing, family, and thriving communities.

Let’s stop obsessing about more. Let’s choose better instead.

We leave you with these great words from Rossano Ercolini:

My advice about our purchases during the holidays? We need to consider RESPONSIBILITY. We can be happy without waste. The fewer kilometers you travel to shop, the happier this season will be for you. So look for great local stores – especially those that provide refill systems without plastic packaging. Choose presents from reused items. Use your creativity to design new products from old ones! Look for food or natural detergents (or shampoo or soaps) with no disposable packaging, because they are useful in our lives. And always remember that you can be happy without spending your days consuming. Enjoy your relationships and make new friends and…choose love!

Better - Story of Stuff: 'In a World with Too Much Stuff, Solutions Are Everywhere'

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