Author: Focus on waste should shift back to manufacturing
CHAMPAIGN – So you recycle your cans, plastic and paper waste. You take your reusable cloth bags to the grocery store, instead of getting plastic bags for your groceries.
It's a good start.
"It matters what we do. It matters that we take our bags to the grocery store. But that's not enough," said Heather Rogers, an author and filmmaker who writes about environmental issues and mass consumption.
Recycling deals with waste after it's been made, she said, but she is calling for deeper changes that start with looking at what is manufactured.
For example, "I want to buy products without packaging, but I can't. It's not really possible," Rogers said.
She spoke to students and staff at Parkland College Wednesday about her research into what we throw away and what happens to it. Rogers is the author of "Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage," and the creator of a documentary film of the same name. She's currently finishing a book on the green marketplace.
She's also been a guest-in-residence at Unit One/Allen Hall at the University of Illinois this week.
In her book, Rogers looked at why we have the waste-handling system we have and where our garbage ends up, as well as why we have so much and how it became socially and politically acceptable to throw so many items away.
Rogers said Wednesday that Americans have historically reused more than they've recycled. But as industrial production became more streamlined, she said, and consumer goods became more affordable, consumption increased.
At that point, producers faced a problem. Most Americans had consumer goods, such as a TV, appliances and a car. The market was saturated, and it looked as though consumption would no longer keep pace with production.
The solution: Planned obsolescence of goods, to get people to consume more.
"You also get a lot more garbage," Rogers said. "Now it's cheaper to buy a new cell phone than to get your cell phone fixed. Or you can't even get your cell phone fixed."
Americans weren't comfortable wasting more at first. So how to convince people that something reusable should be thrown away? Rogers said ad campaigns instructed consumers to throw away their beverage bottles.
She said the beverage industry also began an anti-littering campaign, the first instance of corporate "greenwashing." It changed the focus from the industries producing disposable products to the individuals who threw them on the ground.
The conversation needs to turn back to what is manufactured, not how we deal with it once it already exists, she said.
But Don Fullerton, a University of Illinois finance professor and faculty member in the Institute of Government and Public Affairs, said that assumes consumers can or should have a say in what is manufactured. He doesn't know what material or production method is better or cheaper for a business to use.
"It's presumptive to tell a business what they might produce or how they might produce it," he said. "I don't want to decide what the right stuff is. That's up to the business."
But the government can adopt policies to guide businesses, he said, by encouraging them to make products that can be recycled or have less packaging.
Fullerton advocates a system that would create incentives by adding a tax or charge at the store based on the content of what must be disposed of after the product is used. The higher the quantity or toxicity of the material, the higher the charge. The cost would create an incentive to reduce packaging.
That additional charge could then be used to subsidize free garbage pickup to eliminate the incentive for illegal dumping, he said.
Finally, Fullerton is a big advocate of the deposit refund – paying customers to return bottles, for instance – to encourage recycling.
Rogers also said government regulation is part of the solution. She told the Parkland students they can support groups looking at alternatives, such as Health Care Without Harm, which seeks to make safer medical products and reduce health care waste.
"You can see yourself as a political actor, and not just a consumer," Rogers said.
She is encouraged by the increasing interest in environmental issues since her book was published in 2005.
Then, she said, "I had to make the case why it was important to talk about garbage. I don't have to make that case anymore. I think that's promising."