Green waste

Waste not want not WWI poster

Waste not, want not applies to more than gardening and canning. It’s a way to see the entire life cycle of all goods. WWII poster.

I was riding my bicycle into town on trash collection day last week and noticed that one of my neighbors had filled their can with weeds and other green waste. They had obviously cleaned up their yard and had accumulated a lot of green material in the process. But, I stalled out in trying to figure out why they had put it in their trash can?

Weeds, grass clippings, twigs and other cuttings are, most assuredly, not trash.

My sighting the greens in the trash can happened to coincide with reading Derek Jensen’s book, What We Leave Behind. In typical Jensen style, he has a lot to say about what we consider “waste.” Jensen is philosophical enough to turn me on — and, true to form, he muses philosophically about “waste.” He does this so much so, in fact, that the reader begins to see a lot of things very differently.

Jensen points up that garbage collection systems were rare in America until the early 20th century. This is because people did not view everything as “waste.” Those grass clippings and weeds, for example, would have naturally been turned into compost, bedding for the henhouse and/or mulch.

When frugality was a virtue

Likewise, much of what gets thrown away in contemporary America would have been, as a matter of course, repurposed. Wood ashes would have gone on the vegetable garden. Old fabric scraps were made into paper.

Kitchen garbage was naturally fed to livestock and put into garden compost. Tattered clothing was cut into strips for rug-making or quilts. When an outbuilding was torn down, the lumber was repurposed for another building project. And, of course, there simply wasn’t the plethora of disposable packaging that is so common in today’s commercial society.

You’re so trashy

The disposal of product “wastes” in America has seen an exponential increase in quantity in the past century. In a mere one-hundred years they’ve grown from only 92 pounds of throw-away trash per person per year to a staggering 1,242 pounds per person per year. Do the math on that for yourself.

It’s upsetting.

And, an unexpected — and even paradoxical — outcome of the development of municipal garbage collection systems was that they actually led to an increase in the amount of garbage produced. This was because it became so easy to simply throw things away.

And, throw things away we do.

Americans produce approximately 220 million tons of trash each year. This is equivalent to burying more than 82,000 football fields six feet deep in compacted garbage. So, what is in all of this trash?

The average American office worker uses about 500 disposable cups every year. Every year, Americans throw away enough paper and plastic cups, forks, and spoons to circle the equator 300 times. Over 7 billion pounds of PVC are thrown away in the U.S. each year. Every year, Americans use approximately 1 billion shopping bags, creating 300,000 tons of landfill waste.

Food scraps constituted 12.7% of the waste generated in 2008, and yard trimmings were 13.2%.  Only 2.5% of all kitchen waste was composted in 2008 – the rest went to landfill or incinerators.

Reconsider, re-imagine, recommit

What happened to “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle”?

The above statistics make it painfully clear that this concept hasn’t really moved off the drawing board — at least not sufficiently so. This is really where we need to be directing our attention. And, in that order: (1) reducing consumption, (2) reusing expended products and (3) recycling “waste.”

As we begin to develop these kinds of habits, we’ll see things differently. We change our views about what we “need,” what has value, and what constitutes “waste.”

In the simple act of contemplating “waste,” we’re given an opportunity to change from being unconscious consumers to conscious citizens.

–Sherry L. Ackerman Ph.D., Transition Voice

You might also enjoy


  1. karyn says

    Maybe some of it is education. For example, I thought weeds were suppose to go in the trash; that if they go in the compost, you’ll end up with weed seeds in your garden?

    Going from 92 pounds to 1242 – that’s staggering! I wonder how much is due to disposable diapers and electronics.

  2. Auntiegrav says

    The trash will grow as long as it is OK to ‘create jobs’ by packaging junk inside junk and selling it as “value added”.
    Local foods and goods don’t need to be packaged.
    Things you grow yourself don’t need to be packaged.
    To the politicians and businessmen, the trash is just another sign of a booming economy. It’s just “trashflow” instead of “cashflow”, and it’s another “stream” to siphon money off of.
    If you want Change, keep it in your pocket.

  3. says

    I’m with you Sherry. I am grateful for the conversation going on these days about “waste management”, but feel we can’t take our eye off the ball of “waste prevention.” I’m about to launch a blog on this topic. It’s called, I would invite you and your readers to take a peek and give us some feedback.

  4. wendy webber says

    I was born in the fifties and brought up with the notion of “leaving this planet better the I found it”. This philosophy covers much territory which I have tried hard to live by…not perfection just progress. One dimension of this philosophy was I was taught not to litter, to recycle, not to waste, etc…. My dad had access to an ammo dump where they threw away tons of wooden crates that held…..ammo etc….He would take the boxes apart and make incredibly beautiful and functional furniture. Show pieces to say the least. I am my fathers daughter. It amazes me and throws me into aghast mode that so many have little respect for this planet. I have never understood their rationale. I recycle on multiple levels. I am one person and I believe I consume less then the average bear but when I go to the recycle center I am amazed at what I generate. I cannot conceive of not recycling. I am aware of so many people who do not.When I go to the center I think about the families with 2,3,4 etc…in them that do not recycle. For me, it is simply one of my chores, that I do.I don’t think I could sleep at night if I did not. I don’t understand why so many see it as a burden. I think it has to do with an arrogance that the earth is here to be used and out of sight, out of mind. I believe it was Chief Seattle who said “The earth does not belong to us, we belong to the earth”. I intend to check out the blog wehatetowaste to see if there is more I can do. I feel sad that more folks do not value this planet.It is the only one we have.For those of us that do what we can…we have to educate those who do not. I don’t believe I have the right to rob future generations of clean air, water, species of animals,healthy food, etc…I wish everyone believed this.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *