In recent decades, the world has changed its consumption model. Everything is more global, faster, more intense and the cost is prioritized over anything else. We have more products within reach, a better standard of living than previous generations, and more purchasing power. We consume more, even if we don’t need it. And that has consequences because the model is designed not only so that we do not stop consuming but so that we consume more: we generate tons of waste that the system is not capable of processing.
The Slovenian philosopher Slajov Žižek reflected on this in 2008 in the documentary Examined Life. Filmed in front of a mountain of garbage, in a landfill, Žižek says that “a part of our daily perception of reality is based on believing that this (points to a mountain of garbage) disappears from our world. The problem is that shit doesn’t go away.” Organic waste rots, but the problem is not that, but everything else, especially plastic.
This week, two volunteer-driven organizations, the Last Beach Cleanup and Beyond Plastics, released a report with food for thought. The work analyzed the pollution resulting from our consumption system and, particularly, from the use of plastic and its impact on the environment. The work focuses on the United States and exposes the myth of recycling.
According to this report, more than 80 percent of the plastic we use ends up in landfills; about 13 percent is incinerated; and only 5-6 percent is recycled. It doesn’t matter if the plastic is recyclable or not: only 5-6 percent is recycled. The rest ends up in landfills, and millions of tons end up in our oceans every year.
Žižek’s reflection is very pertinent in the face of these data. Part of our daily perception of reality is that this rubbish, this waste, disappears from our world… «the problem is that (…) it does not disappear».
Gustau Alegret is a journalist, working in Washington for the international news channel NTN24.
There is no doubt that the consumption model makes it difficult to avoid waste at today’s levels, particularly plastic. Almost everything we buy comes wrapped in materials that are difficult to sort and recycle; and even if they are, we do not recycle them. We throw them in a garbage that “disappears from our world.”
Often the first response we have when faced with the reality of the waste we produce is to demand that companies not use plastic; and politicians who change laws. Both are necessary, of course. But the change begins with us, with our behavior and with small gestures.
In the coffee that we buy in a bar or store to take away, do you really need that little white cap that they offer us? If we drink it at the bar, can we ask for it to be in a ceramic cup or glass? Do we have to separate the vegetables or fruit that we choose in the supermarket into different bags or can we group them in a single bag; Or better yet, bring one from home? The drink or soft drink, can it be from a glass bottle? Can we carry a folding bag in the car or in our bag to use when we need it to avoid being given a new one every time we buy something? And like these, there are thousands of other small examples, but we have to ask for them, demand them and force ourselves to change.
Žižek reflected on garbage and environmentalism in the face of mountains of waste more than 10 years ago. Since then, per capita garbage data has continued to rise. Also social awareness, but not at the level that should stop or transform this model of consumption of our time.
Trash doesn’t go away. City councils could organize and encourage their citizens to visit, at least once a year, the landfills and destination of the garbage we generate. That would help us open our eyes.
We only have one planet and this rate of pollution to which we are subjecting it cannot be indefinite. The change starts with us.