August 31, 2013

Our Trash Dilemma: There is No Such Place as “Away.” ~ Robert Hider

I’ve nothing against Finchley Road tube station, on London’s Metropolitan line; it’s as decent a tube station as the average. Grey and a little functional—nothing special.

It’s busy, busy busy most days, packed with commuters hurrying between the city’s leafy suburbs and its chaotic urban heart.

The main reason that I’ve chosen to write about it—apart from using it on a regular basis—is because it’s one of the few tubes left with bins on the platform. The fear of another, more sinister use as the perfect hidey-hole for terrorist bombs robbed the city of public rubbish disposal for many years—historically the IRA were the villains; now bigger, badder versions populate our urban nightmares, but…

…I’m not writing about bin Ladens.

I’m talking bins, trash, garbage, rubbish-bins; bins with metal frames and lids, from which hang plastic sacks, clear plastic sacks, whose all-too visible, yet strangely invisible, bulging contents seem to stare in mute accusation at me every day that I stand with the crowd waiting for a train.

“We’re going to a landfill!” they whisper at anyone with a guilty conscience or consciousness enough to hear.

The bags may be clear but my conscience is not.

Those bags are filled to the brim with our endless stream of cast-off, disposable daily commodities, at once mundane and ubiquitous, used once and then thrown away. Objects of convenience, made mostly from unsustainable resources, of which around sixty percent could be recycled according to our own city government.

What’s in the bag?

Cardboard coffee cups with plastic “drink-through” lids, aluminium cans, glass bottles, plastic bottles and packaging and containers, acres and acres of forests’ worth of free “newspapers.”

Every minute of every day, the full bags are dutifully, unceremoniously removed and replaced with empty bags. 24/7, 365 days a year, the cycle continues unabated.

Fill the bag up, take the bag away, replace it with another…

A rhythm as predictable as the sound of the train wheels echoing in and out of the station.

But it’s OK. It’s only rubbish, just trash; the very language relieves us of the burden of blame for those things that are too much for our complex, busy lives. It’s no longer “our” problem, as long as we “please dispose of rubbish responsibly.”

In a bin.

Throw it away.

Through this neat, socially contracted obligation, we “keep our city tidy;” through it we salve our aching, overburdened, compassion-fatigued minds, and may be temporarily comforted by soothing salves such as “sustainable forestry” cardboard and “rainforest alliance” tea and coffee reassurances.

And yet, a little nagging voice asks;

Just exactly where is this marvelous, invisible, mythical land we call “Away?”

Passionate activist Julia Hill, who lived in an ancient redwood tree for 738 days to protect it from loggers, posed that very question in a film for the organisation Be The Change.

Her answer?

“There is no such place as Away.”

Out of sight used to be out of mind; our Victorian forebears built extra long pipes to pump and dump sewage far out to sea, away from the promenades and bathing machines and nannies and children.

Now, our very sense of limitlessness has itself become finite. We’re running out of carpet to sweep under; the landfills are getting full.

And that’s another giveaway in itself: “landfill”—isn’t land already ‘full’?

Of earth?

Errr, no, let’s try that one again: “landfill” (a term first used in the US in the 1940s) is where we dig enormous holes and fill them full of all the stuff we’ve thrown “away.”

Ah, so landfill is the mythical “away.”

Well, maybe not.

Space—”the final frontier?” We would if we could but there’s simply too much trash to be viable and rockets are too expensive to launch regularly.


My daughter recently asked me, “How is Mother Earth, Dad?” As usual, I paused, uncertain how much to tell her.

“Full of holes, love,” I wanted to reply.

I can’t pull the wool over her eyes.

People sometimes think I’m obsessive and crazy about recycling. And sometimes it does seem like we are the crazy ones, standing in the ever growing tide of trash, commanding: “Cease.”

My children are one of the reasons I have made a habit of recycling. It’s not the be all and end all, but it’s something. I can’t bear the idea of her sitting in a dark cave at the end of days, cursing,

“And all this because my dad wouldn’t recycle.”

So if there is no “away,” what could be the answer(s)?

Burn it? The Three R’s: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle?

A 2011 “Which” magazine report found that eight out of 10 consumers didn’t know which recycling bin (in the rare cases they are available) to place disposable cups in: plastic or cardboard (most are a mix of both). So in the UK 2.5 billion disposable cups are estimated to go to a landfill annually.

Green consumerism a la Starbucks’ attempts (selling sturdy reusable “drink”-through lidded versions of their “normal” cups) tries to change our disposal habits, but still has the same mindset of disposability. You can ask for a china cup, but they don’t ask—it’s up to you now. And besides, people want to walk and sip their coffee, don’t they?

In our perception of being time-starved, we are caught in the same dilemma as the concept of “away.” Behind the language lie the clues and the ideas.

Our language is a great clue to our state of mind, and, at the moment, our minds are most definitely with our heads, firmly stuck, ostrich-style, in the sands of time…which are running slowly out.

While the idea of “away” still allows us to carry on with our disposable lifestyles, things will change very slowly.

There is no magic wand, panacea or blue pill. There is no such place as away.

So we have to start with the idea of facing the problem. And the paradox is this: part of the problem is that we are used to living right in the problem; the trash/bin bags are clearly visible. We just generally don’t look beyond them and what happens to them and their contents.

And recycling has advanced, but humans generally seem to only manage “successful” change in bite-size chunks. Ideas and solutions for mankind’s potentially terminal dilemma vary wildly from technical fixes to phased voluntary human extinction.

But all of them start with the same basic premise, whatever their paths and projected outcomes. Naming the problem, drawing more and more attention to it. Making the idea of “away” as unacceptable as racism, sexism or homophobia. It’s been done, many times.

Just the fact of drawing attention to the problem is a radical shift. It’s also been said that “simple awareness is often curative.”

So let’s shine the light of consciousness on “away” as a concept. We need a huge and universal shift in mindset that will open our eyes to all of this, enable us to look twice at the bulging bin bags before we toss our next piece of rubbish.

That will then lead to yet more consciousness, which is the key to change. We may decide to stop drinking coffee in disposable cups.

We may buy a genuinely reusable coffee cup and discipline ourselves into keeping it in our work bag and develop the habit of using it.

We may decide to take a little time on our journey and sit down to drink our coffee from a china cup.

We may decide to stop buying coffee.

We may join a movement that tries to bring down capitalism.

Educators can help with this. Social activist and artists can help with this. Parents can help with this. Anyone can help with this. We’ve come too far to look to politicians and policy-makers to fine us and scold us and prod us with threats or incentives.

We can start to reclaim our own power, beyond our bit roles in the great consumer society, and start looking for real answers to the difficult questions that our children and grandchildren will face—by looking at the problems we are facing today.

One thing is certain: the problems are not going… away.


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Assist Ed: Dejah Beauchamp/Ed: Sara Crolick

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