My grandfather, now in his late 80s, grew up on a Texas farm during the Great Depression. He buys plenty of clothes, food, and electronic goods. He is on so many mailing lists that sometimes the postman sets a stack of mail next to his driveway to supplement the mail crammed into his mailbox. He consumes just as much as any other American.
Did I mention he only throws away a gallon Ziploc baggie of trash a week?
This ridiculous fact is not the result of massive storage closets or magic. It’s simply a result of his culture. All of human history until the 1900s was characterized by want. There was simply never enough for everyone; because of this, nothing was ever “trash”. Did your child outgrow his shirt? Pass it on to a relative if it’s in decent condition; use it as a rag if it’s not. Are there vegetable scraps from dinner? Compost them or feed them to the hogs. Historically, Grandpa’s meticulous brand of reusing and recycling is completely normal; it’s our lifestyles that are out of whack.
And the American lifestyle really is out of whack. According to the New Economics Foundation, if everyone in the world consumed at the rate we do, it would take more than five earths to sustain them all. And we might need those earths sooner than you’d think! The American lifestyle of waste seems to be just what developing countries like China and India, which contain more than 8 times as many people as the US, are moving towards.
So what to do? Obviously, the first step is to consume less, something even Grandpa could work on (remember that mailbox). Next, reuse. Get things that are built to last, and when you are done with them, pass them on to others! Finally, recycle. Nowadays, nearly all paper, metals, glass, and plastics can be recycled in big cities; if you’re not sure, check the item for a recycle symbol. Look into composting too! We don’t need to match Grandpa’s ridiculous level of waste minimizing. However, if we can minimize our own levels of consumption and trash, we just might be able to figure out a way for one earth to sustain a first-world way of life for everyone – all 7 billion of us.