By Frances Lamberts
A 1998 report by the Worldwatch Institute dealt with “the role of materials in our lives.” Noting the extraordinary amounts of nature’s resources on which industrial economies are built, it suggested that an extraterrestrial visitor observing us “might conclude that conversion of raw materials to waste is a major purpose of human economic activity.”
The quotation came back to mind when a recent Bloomberg Opinion piece published in the Johnson City Press stated that the gifts returned after the holiday season [are] choking the landfills. It reported that many retailers, especially in e-commerce, over years have cultivated such lenient return policies that, in the year 2020 alone more than $428 billion in merchandise was returned. The returned items produced nearly six billion pounds of waste which the retailers ended up incinerating or dumping into landfills.
The Bloomberg author argued for “a better approach” to our gift or product buying, in that retailers should inform customers of the “environmental and financial costs” involved. A range of environmental impacts which our throwaway-practices and excessive consumption entail were, indeed, documented in the Worldwatch Institute paper, as of now almost a quarter-century ago.
The dark side in our materials-intensive system stems from the ways in which these are mined, processed and disposed, the large amounts of energy required, and the landscapes damaged or lost in their extraction. Logging for wood products, for example, erases, fragments or otherwise damages more than 70% of the world’s large forests, though these are critically important as habitat for wild species, originate and nourish our freshwater streams, and help sequester the climate-damaging carbon emissions. The mining for metals and minerals leaves lasting damage to landscapes through enormous amounts of overburden-earth displacement, which in coal mining often is dumped into streams, and through use of toxic chemicals – cyanide, mercury and others – to separate or “wash” the ores. More than 200 tons of overburden and ore must be excavated, the report cites in many examples, to produce a single ton of copper, and “few newlyweds would guess that their two gold weddings rings were responsible for six tons of waste at a mining site in Nevada.”
The force of advertising in television and other media by now may have institutionalized the notion, so to speak, that incessantly buying new and more things will advance health, excitement and happiness in our lives. Yet, seeing its waste and damage to the Earth we can all evaluate our real needs and resist the constant incitement toward over-consumption.