How Using Less May Lead to More Trash in Our Backyard

I only caught a portion of a report on NPR last week so I am afraid I can’t properly credit the speaker who first mentioned the idea of less consumption leading to more local trash. But it’s such an interesting concept I had to write about it.

Most of us don’t think about what happens to the packaging our stuff comes in. Many of us just throw it away or recycle it. When it’s recycled, cardboard and other waste paper often ends up being processed and bailed at the recycling facility for export to countries that, oddly enough, can’t get enough of this stuff. Places like China and Japan, where they make lots of stuff but don’t have a lot of trees to make into paper and cardboard to put the stuff in.

So China makes stuff, sends it to us in boxes, we buy the stuff, recycle the boxes, that go back to China, to make packaging for more stuff, and the cycle goes on and on.

But apparently, we’re not buying enough new stuff from them and the waste paper we’re sending to the Far East is piling up in their shipping ports and the bottom has fallen out of the recycled paper business. So China et al. may not want our waste paper products any more, or at least not in the quantities we’ve been sending it them in the past.

Meanwhile, all of the stuff from China and company that was already in the pipeline to the U.S. will eventually be sold and the paper and cardboard sent off to recycling centers without a market to sell it to. So where will it go? You guessed it, into landfills, perhaps even the one in your city or neighborhood. It could be worse, at least this paper and cardboard is biodegradable. But it takes up a lot of room in landfills, room that we’re rapidly running out.

So then, is the lesson to buy more to keep the cycle of consumption and waste recycling going? I think not. The lesson is to consider the entire life cycle of what we purchase, including the stuff it comes in. For example, less packaging, less to throw away or recycle. No packaging? Well, good luck unless you’re buying used in which case someone else has already dealt with the packaging.

Here’s an interesting video in Chinese with English subtitles about the problem of over packaging as seen from the Chinese perspective.

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