Happy Mortal

This life, well-lived.

The Trash Quandary: Does Garbage make us human?

Do you really need to throw that away?

Wait: Do you really need to throw that away?

Creating waste is not a new human activity. What anthropologists know of our prehistoric relatives comes in no small part from examining what was thrown into middens, or domestic trash heaps. The myth that early humans were perfectly in tune with nature is easily disputed by the fact that thousands of years later, piles of refuse still litter the planet, waiting for discovery by anyone with a nose for bits of whittled bone or broken crockery

Still, there seems to be a qualitative difference between, say, charcoal and clam shells from our past, versus the trillions of tons of plastic waste that we have strewn around the planet in just the last six decades.

Whether it’s Mumbai, Mexico City or Manila Bay, there are almost certainly more hunter/gatherers living in the world’s municipal dumps than there are in the pristine wilderness.

No microbes know what to do with polypropelene and its ilk. A significant percentage of the oceans are now filled with plankton-sized plastic bits, which fill up the stomachs of sea creatures, and starve them. The straw that breaks the camel’s back, it seems, will be from a big gulp. Or maybe death by nurdles.

So, as I make my way through my American day, what can be my response to this? I’ve already done the easy stuff: No plastic utensils, No plastic water bottles. I recycle, reuse, reduce, but each day inevitably involves the disposal of plastic bits too small or insignificant to have received the recycle symbol.

  • Return Envelope Windows
  • Bottle Tops
  • Cap Wraps
  • Packing Foam
  • Organic Produce Stickers
  • Plastic Sheeting on yogurt and tofu containers

My grandparents used to burn or bury what they couldn’t repurpose. I remember charred remains of glass, burlap, tin and waxed paper, suitable to add to compost and throw on the flowerbeds. Burning is no solution for plastics.

Of course, scientists are working on possible mitigation techniques, including microbes that eat plastic. And lots of companies are touting packaging materials that may or may not be biodegradable.

I’m not really willing to wait and hope that corporate innovation can solve the problem it caused. But I’m not sure of the alternatives. It seems we’ve inheirited a long history of making trash. In fact, we’re no longer confining our filth to the surface of the planet. We are seriously mucking up space in earth’s orbit. The recent collision of US and Russian satellites supposedly had a chance of creating a chain reaction of collisions, resulting in a cloud of space debris that would have closed off space travel for decades. Perhaps that wouldn’t be a bad thing, at least until we learn to clean up after ourselves.


  1. The past two weekends I traveled to Las Vegas and subsuquently up to Berkeley and Frisco. My time on the road was enjoyable as it gave a chance to unleash my mind from its contrived thoughts on topics Fuller Theological Seminary deems necessary. Your post reminds of a few things I saw on the road.

    The Hoover Dam is an impressive American feat. People come from all over the country (seemingly most from the South judging by the accents) to admire the Dam and gawk at it with American pride. The gift shop is wrought with images of the dam accompanied by red, white, and blue and bald eagles flying over the Colorado. As I sat and mused on the dam a wave of confusion overcame my mind. I didn’t see the greatness of the Protestant work ethic, or American idealism. I saw the proverbial American phallus demeaning mother nature. Now perhaps the dam is good because it’s better than burning fossil fuels for energy, but nevertheless, Mother Nature got a soar deal in my opinion.

    Speaking of proverbial phallus’! On my way up to the Bay Area, while enjoying a pleasant conversation with willwindow, I watched as a field of oil rigs gang raped Mother Nature in Central California. Perhaps my world is over sexualized? Or perhaps this earth isn’t humanity’s to carelessly use for capital and a little respect is in order. Perhaps it’s both.

  2. Thank you for your choice phrasing. Our waste is certainly a problem. Given the relatively ‘unnatural'(what does that word even mean anymore?) origins of much of our waste, it’s not surprising that the most effective solution in sight is equally ‘unnatural'(genetically engineered plastic-eating bacteria).

    It would be nice if we could just stop building things on and sucking things out of the land until we can learn to achieve some kind of balance with our environment. Unfortunately, that would mean giving up most the comforts we think of as rights (and probably need for survival at this point). Even more unfortunately, most people don’t even realize there’s an imbalance.

  3. Yeah, it’s those darn small bits isn’t it?

    You can certainly learn a lot about different societies from what they throw away (e.g. middens). I am all for finding better ways to reduce the amount of harmful waste we produce. It seems that population control also becomes a key factor. Almost anything you do on a such a large scale will probably have some negative fallout just because of the stunningly large human population on earth.

    Here are five things to do with your plastic bottle caps from green daily. Not the most lasting solutions, but they could be good once in a while . . .

  4. Small bits. Hate ’em.

    Those five things to do with bottle caps are as good as any solutions I’ve ever heard, which means not very good at all! Can’t blame them for trying, though.

    It’s true that there are quite a few of us humans; still, in total mass we’re outweighed by quite a few other species, including ants, and you don’t see them screwing up the oceans and atmosphere. So I hope there is a solution that doesn’t require a significant reduction in human population. Do you think it would help to replace plastic with oldschool natural packaging materials such as burlap and paper? Or do we need to dramatically change the way we exchange and consume goods?

  5. I think I would argue for the latter. Right now we burn a lot of fossil fuels shipping things around, and there would be a lot less trees if we returned to paper.

    It might be cool if we could get manufacturers to use standardized plastic containers that consumers had to turn in for re-use.

  6. To pull a little Freud into this conversation, it seems like democracy and the middle class makes us all pharaohs when it comes to reaching for immortality. After all, my plastic, and nuclear waste from fuel rods at Hanford will far outlast any silly pyramid.

    Take that Tut! When I drink my Aquafina not only am I purchasing my way in to the cult of health, I’m immortalizing my achievement. Forget a stele to recount my battle campaigns, I can fill up oceans to commemorate my existence. Who needs to erect a phallus/tower, when I can vicariously blast off the surface of this rock with every little satellite?

    We want to live forever, and if we can’t, we neurotically desire for our death to never pass away. Until we can recover from this, neither the landfills, nor the oceans, nor the reaches of the atomsphere will be able to contain the residue of our existence. It’s time to remember how to die.