By Donella Meadows
–December 7, 1989–
It was the students’ idea to carry their trash around for a week.
They had worked with the Dartmouth building and grounds staff to create one of the most successful college recycling programs in the nation. By the end of the first year the college had reclaimed 500,000 aluminum cans, 48 tons of white paper, 45 tons of newspaper, and (in just six months) 86 tons of cardboard. Requests were coming in from other campuses asking how it was done.
The program was a triumph, but the students knew it wasn’t enough. The College still hauled over 100 tons of trash to the landfill each month. More of it could be recycled — how to get better participation?
Even more important, how to reduce the amount of trash generated in the first place? How to raise awareness at the point of manufacture or purchase rather than the point of discard? How to break into the “out of sight, out of mind” mentality that makes us all accomplices in allowing huge streams of materials to flow from the mines, forests, fields, and oil wells of the earth, through our lives, and off to the dumps?
We need to make that flow more visible, said the students. People can’t act on a problem that doesn’t touch them directly, by sight, smell, feel, or monthly bill. Dartmouth students don’t even have to carry their garbage out to the curb once a week. They don’t see trash haulage as an itemized line in their tuition. Somehow the problem has to become more concrete to them.
So let’s carry our own trash on our backs for a week, the students decided. We’ll take it everywhere we go. We’ll do it not as a penance or a guilt trip, but just to make visible the invisible.
About 30 students signed on right away, the hard-core activists. Their enthusiasm was so infectious that when the designated week arrived, more than 100 students had joined, plus 10 members of the faculty and staff. I was one of the faculty. Heck, if they could do it, I could do it.
Sunday night we were each issued two huge transparent plastic bags, one for recyclable cans, bottles, paper, the other for unrecyclables. The students didn’t recommend that we haul our food garbage, unless we felt unusually dedicated. Yes, the plastic bags were reusable and would be reused. They had thought of that.
The first day I did pretty well. I didn’t happen to empty a cereal box or a milk jug; no one sent me anything packed in plastic peanuts. It was already becoming clear, however, that my life is measured in paper, an inordinate flow of paper. Computer printouts, processed mail, discarded writing drafts were accumulating at an alarming pace in the recyclable bag.
By the end of the second day the bags were beginning to be a nuisance. Two pounds of junk mail arrived that day, mostly catalogs which, because of their colorful printing, had to go in the unrecyclable category.
By the third day I was taking defensive measures. I was washing out plastic bags and yogurt containers and drying them for re-use. I turned over paper printed on one side only to my local two-year-old for coloring. I remembered to take a reusable canvas bag to the supermarket so I wouldn’t have to throw out a grocery bag.
I managed to reduce the flow considerably, but the burden grew. By Thursday walking across campus was a definite chore. By Friday I was cursing the junk mail, the single largest contributor to the poundage in my bags. It passed unread from my mailbox into the bag (any other week it would have gone into the wastebasket at the post office) without serving one second of useful purpose. My government is SUBSIDIZING this stuff with low postage rates, I fumed, as I hauled it around campus.
Friday afternoon we had a rally to weigh in our trash. We were greeted by three huge trucks carrying the recycled materials from the whole college for that week — one piled high with 700 pounds of aluminum cans, one stuffed with 5000 pounds of newspaper, one with two tons of white paper.
The hundred-plus of us weighed in 550 pounds of trash, 65% of which was recyclable. It made an impressive heap, but it was in fact a modest accumulation for a bunch of Americans, who on average each day throw away 3.5 pounds of solid waste apiece. (Of course we hadn’t included our food waste, our yard waste, or the waste created in our name at offices, stores and restaurants.)
It was an exercise worth doing. Whether we raised anyone else’s consciousness or not, we raised our own. I learned the difference between understanding a problem intellectually and experiencing it through muscles and senses directly and daily. I got much angrier than I have been at the people who thrust upon me unnecessary packaging and junk mail. And I discovered that even a loud-mouthed environmentalist like me, who has been a recycler for years, can do more, always more, to live more lightly upon the earth.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1989