Our Throw-Away Society

The way we currently design, produce, use, and dispose of most of our products and packaging is through a linear “cradle to grave” process – what Story of Stuff creator, Annie Leonard, refers to as the “Take, Make, Waste” system of industrial production and consumption.

A hundred years ago, we predominantly discarded food scraps and coal ash. Most products were made from natural materials like paper, cloth, leather, metal and wood and most were reused or recycled at the end of their useful life.

strofoam cupToday things are different. Products and packaging comprise 71% of the U.S. solid waste stream with packaging accounting for 30%.¹ We make our products from natural resources such as trees, minerals, natural gas, and oil. We mine, clear-cut, and drill these resources to make products and packaging, and that disrupts the environment and destroys ecosystems.

Today’s “Cradle-to-Grave – Take, Make, Waste” System

  • Extraction industries dig up, cut down or drill out natural resources.
  • Manufacturers process these natural Silhouette three oil pumpsresources into products and packaging.
  • Retailers sell the products.
  • Consumers buy the products in their packaging. When we’re finished with them, we predominantly put these materials – and the natural resources and embodied energy they represent – into the trash.
  • Through our tax dollars, we then pay to have our town government contract with waste haulers to send our unwanted products and packaging to a landfill or waste incinerator.

Every year, Americans send around 160 million tons worth of materials to landfills and incinerators, and that figure is dwarfed by all the natural resources and fuel used to make those products from virgin materials. For example, it takes 98 tons of materials to make 1 ton of paper, and even though paper is easily recycled, Americans send more than 26 million tons of paper to landfills and incinerators each year.

Rising waste and stagnant recycling rates

dumping at landfillAmericans believe that we recycle many more materials than we did 40 years ago, before the advent of municipal recycling programs. This is a true statement. What’s also true is that we throw away much more than we did back then. According to the EPA:

  • In 1960, U.S. citizens disposed of 2.7 pounds of trash per person each day.
  • Today, that figure has nearly doubled – up to 4.5 pounds of trash per person every day.
  • While recycling rates increased dramatically during the 1990s (from 16% in 1990 to 29% in 2000), they stagnated at around 35% for much of the past decade.

Toxic and disposable by design

Because manufacturers bear no legal responsibility for their products at the end of their useful life, the volume and toxicity of products and packaging designed for disposal continues to grow. Products are designed with toxic materials, which pose health threats to workers, wildlife, and to all of us – either through direct exposure to dangerous chemicals, or by indirect exposure through ingesting or inhaling pollutants that migrate out of products into the environment and the food chain.

Local governments unable to fix the problem

At the back end of the “Take, Make, Waste” system, cash-strapped local governments currently hold the responsibility for managing society’s waste. However, they have no ability to influence the design of products or the capital to invest in real solutions to reuse and recycle the valuable materials that make up products and packaging.

Throwing jobs away

Another way to look at the problem is through an economic development lens. Along with our tossing billions of dollars of quality materials into the garbage, we are also throwing away millions of American jobs. A 2011 report estimates that the United States can grow 1.5 million new jobs by increasing our nation’s recycling rate from 34% to 75%.

UPSTREAM works on extended producer responsibility as a critical policy to end the “throw-away society” by making corporations financially accountable for the waste they create.