Fighting our National Waste ‘Torrent’: One Cup at a Time by Wanda Urbanska

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By Wanda Urbanska

Increasingly, Americans are challenging the prevailing throwaway mentality that has led to filled-to-capacity landfills and environmental degradation by lifestyle and other changes. Currently the average American throws out about 4.5 pounds of waste daily. Though the volume of waste has diminished somewhat during the recent economic downturn, we continue to contribute mountains of furniture, clothing, Styrofoam dishes, packaging, food waste, electronics, building materials, chemicals and other waste into what is euphemistically called our “waste stream.” It should be called a “waste torrent,” says Seattle eco-activist Karin de Weille.

Julia Butterfly Hill – famous for her two-year “tree sit” in an ancient California redwood to protest old-growth clear cutting in the late 1990s – does not mince words. “When you say you’re going to throw something away,” she once remarked, “where’s away?”

“Away” is an illusion, as everything we toss causes multiple impacts in our tightly bound ecosystem. Plastic bags break down over time into petro-polymers that contaminate soil and water, and often end up being ingested by plankton and fish, which in turn enter our food chain. Like the famous trash barge that could find no port, all trash has to end up somewhere. Waste – certainly waste of this proportion – is a relatively new concept in human history; an equivalent word does not even exist, according to Butterfly Hill, in native languages.  

Butterfly Hill’s beliefs put her on the cusp of a movement leading people toward durability. Increasingly, throwaway items are finding themselves becoming unfashionable, even downright offensive. You have only to look at high-end fashion, with its abundant use of recycled materials, as well as the proliferation of reusable bags and totes to know that recycled and repurposed items have become de rigueur.

Twin targets on the front lines of the anti-disposability campaign are the ubiquitous plastic shopping bag and the single use coffee cup. In Washington DC, the disposable plastic bag – that symbol of toxicity, transience and petroleum dependency – has plummeted in usage since the city’s 2010 imposition of a five-cent tax for each bag customers take home. (The tax revenue is earmarked for environmental cleanup.) Other cities, among them San Francisco and Los Angeles, have banned disposable plastic bags entirely.

In conjunction with this year’s Seattle Green Festival, Karin de Weille invited participants to refrain from the use of throwaway coffee cups for twenty-one days. “It takes three weeks to change a habit,” she says. If people can hang in there this long, she says, a different neural pathway can be created. “The first week is the hardest, just remembering your cup,” one of 73 who signed the pledge reported. “Once you get through one solid week, you're golden.”

In the big picture, the so-called convenience of a disposable cup is deceptive. “All this waste is not convenient; global warming is not convenient,” de Weille says.

If you want to sign on, challenge yourself to bring your reusable mug with you at all times. It will help to stash an extra in your car or in a desk drawer at work. Another hint: make getting your morning java contingent on having your mug in hand.

Retailers are learning that they, too, can encourage earth-friendly behavioral change. In Greensboro, North Carolina, for instance, the Tate Street Coffee House has devised a system that rewards customers who bring their own mugs. Those with reusable mugs pay the lowest price, plus are able to zip through an express line, thus saving time and money. Likewise major chains are seeing that going green is good for the bottom line. CVS/pharmacy, for instance, recently instituted its Green Bag Tag program in which customers receive a 25-cent rebate each time they pack purchases in their own reusable bag. “I’m a frugal person,” says one Northern Virginia resident. “With this incentive, I never forget to bring in my bag.”

As our current era of disposability gives way to the era of durability, as zero-waste living becomes the new go-to goal, the world of fashion, home furnishing and design is reflecting this seismic shift in values. In her new book, “Simply Imperfect: Revisiting the Wabi-Sabi House (New Society: 2011), Robyn Griggs Lawrence says that “disposable plastic goods can never make the grade. Wabi-sabi is all about finding beauty in the ordinary, surrounding ourselves with and using soulful things. Wabi-sabi suggests you ditch the disposables and treat yourself to quality.”


Ask your librarian to identify local resources. Check out the following as well:

The Environmental Defense Fund

Zero waste supermarket

No Impact Project

de Weille’s campaign

Sustainability is Sexy



Sustainability advocate Wanda Urbanska is author of The Heart of Simple Living: 7 Paths to a Better Life (Krause: 2010) and the forthcoming Builders of Hope: A Social Entrepreneur’s Solution for Rebuilding America (Blair: October 2011). Simple Living with Wanda Urbanska can be viewed on Hulu.


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