October 2, 2014

Our Culture of Consumption

Sitting in a Starbucks I sipped my venti Iced green tea as I watched patrons order their laundry list of beverages.  I wonder if our ancestors could ever imagine the luxury of having our level of consumption.  We live our lives, unknowingly unaware of how much we actually consume and how much we throw away.   An American produces 1,584 pounds of waste per year while the world average is 330 pounds per person per year.  As a country, we consume 1/5 of the world’s 500 billion plastic bags that are produced annually.  The United States consumes 350% more cubic feet of wood than the world’s average.  So what happens to the cups of coffee we throw away once their purpose has been served?

Items that are not recycled or taken to an incinerator, are taken to a landfill to decompose.  The time it takes for our waste to decompose depends on the material.  Items like paper and wood, roughly half the waste in landfills, decompose quickly if exposed to oxygen and bacteria; however in a landfill this process may take more than 5 years.  In contrast, aluminum can take up to 500 years to decompose.  But plastic, like the 1,000 bags used per year by American families, is not decomposable. The sun, by a means of photodegrades, breaks the plastic down into molecules.  But the molecules will never decompose.  The problem is so bad, 1,000 miles off the coast of San Francisco there is an area called Garbage Patch.  Filled with 7 million tons of waste and plastic, it is the largest landfill on Earth.  Stretching to the waters of Hawaii, it is double the size of Texas and 300 feet deep. The patch is stuck in the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, a slow moving, spiral of currents, created by a high-pressure system of air.  Samples of the water showed 6 parts plastic, one part plankton- the lifeline of the ocean. Every plastic created, even the first ones from the 1930’s, still exist today. How do we as Americans limit our environmental impact and decrease our level of consumption?

One of the methods used by municipalities is recycling.  However only 20% of paper and 7 % of plastic bags are recycled.  There are 8,550 curbside recycling programs, 200 less than there were 5 years ago.  For the quarter of Americans who don’t recycle a single item, their consumption levels continue to rise. 20 countries, in response to growing consumption, have banned or tax the use of plastic bags.  Washington DC is the first city in the United States to implement a plastic bag tax.  Aimed at decreasing waste and saving energy, China saves 34 million barrels of oil a year from its ban on plastic bags.  Ireland saves 400,000 barrels from its taxation of it.   Living in the United States we have created a culture of consumption to the extent where we have consumed more natural resources since 1955, than in all of human history to that year. 

Sitting in Starbucks sipping my drink, I observed the decrease in patrons since this time last year.  Because of our economy we are consuming less than we have in the past.  What we have failed to understand is that by consuming less we can actually generate more; more natural resources, better quality material, and provide a balance to our environmental impact.  

Comments

  1. Thanks for some of the statistics! These are great. I would disagree with one thing you mentioned about landfills. With the plastic liners used in modern landfills, biodegradable things never have enough time to completely disappear. Their exposure to air and water is too brief. Garbologists, when digging up 40 year old landfills, have found legible newspapers and hotdogs that are still on the buns. This is why composting is so important. Also – another statistic about our consumption to add to your great list – Americans spend more on garbage bags than 90 other countries spend on everything. Thanks for the great post.

  2. Francisco ramos says:

    I was amazed at some of the data I found while doing research for this piece. We have built an entire way of life based on consumption. 20% of the global economy is due to Americans consuming goods. Thanks for the comment. Please continue to add more of your thoughts.

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