Garbage is capitalism’s ugly problem

Published 9:06 am Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Column: Jennifer Vogt-Erickson, My Point of View

Have you ever walked into a grocery store or a big-box franchise and thought about how much stuff under its bright fluorescent lights will someday end up in the dark, fetid recesses of a landfill? The paradox of those cheap, disposable items lining the shelves is that many of them will last virtually forever. How often do we think, “What will happen to this when I’m done with it?” instead of merely, “What do I need this for now?”

Jennifer Vogt-Erickson


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We’ve each made a lot of it. Especially if we’ve lived our whole lives in a rich country. Particularly if that country is the United States, which produces the most garbage on this bounteous Earth. If the U.S. is a shining city on a hill, it also sports the biggest landfill below its city limits. Our recycling rate, while improving, is only 30 percent.

It is easy as an American to produce literally tons of garbage in a lifetime. It has been a fixture of our culture since the onset of the space age, when we were told we could consume our way to happiness. Many things suddenly seemed expendable, maybe even Earth itself.

One of the consequences of this mindset is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. I was jolted recently when I listened to Edward Humes talk about his new book, “Garbology,” on Minnesota Public Radio. I had been vaguely aware of the problem of plastic floating in the ocean, but Humes’ story of a dead sperm whale washing ashore in California brought it sharply into focus. Cause of death: starvation due to over 450 pounds of plastic bits plugging its intestinal tract.

Of the 300 million tons of bags, bottles and other plastic objects produced each year, only 10 percent is recycled, and an estimated 7 million tons washes into the ocean. While it breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces, it doesn’t biodegrade. When it ends up where it shouldn’t, unsuspecting animals ingest it, to their peril.

Thus, I was motivated to further reduce the garbage my family creates. I am recycling more carefully and composting everything I can. My infant daughter wears cloth diapers except on overnight trips. I’m trying to buy less processed food and utilize the farmers market more.

Thanks to a tip on Facebook, I discovered my efforts could save us $20 a month in garbage collection. Here’s how: we switched from a garbage bin emptied on a weekly basis to metered bags that cost $3.50 apiece and are picked up as needed. It has been over two weeks, and we haven’t set out a bag yet. My next goal is to fit our monthly garbage in one bag or less.

But why is the U.S. still so blasé about trash overall? My theory is that the U.S. population’s unusually high religiosity is a factor. There seems to be two main countervailing religious forces — the people who reduce their consumption as active stewards of God’s creation, and those who embrace consumption as a God-given right.

The second is dominant and coexists neatly with capitalist ideology. A third force may be people who subscribe to the popular notion of the “end times.” If a person thinks the “end times” are coming soon, possibly within their lifetime, what incentive is there to protect the Earth for one’s grandchildren and beyond? The first force, of stewardship, must become stronger and bolder, out of love for the Earth and every living thing upon it.

Another key influence is, of course, politics. It used to be that some high-profile Republicans were associated with environmental protection. Teddy Roosevelt was our “conservationist president,” and Nixon signed the Clean Air Act and created the Environmental Protection Agency. To fit the Republican mold nowadays, though, it seems necessary for “conservative” politicians to promote capitalism at any cost to the environment. Some favor getting rid of the EPA entirely.

Democrats have been somewhat more environmentally conscious, but, honestly, they could be a lot more inspiring. Corporate interests bankrolling campaigns on both sides of the aisle may be having their sway, but both parties need to get “glad” and work together on this “hefty” issue.

So, as you push your cart down a bursting aisle on your next shopping trip, ask yourself, is serving capitalist profit our highest duty as Americans? Is squandering so many resources the best way to build long-term prosperity? I hope you’ll agree we need to clean up our trashy habits.


Jennifer Vogt-Erickson is a member of the Freeborn County DFL Party.