Commentary  Editorial: Waste isn’t normal

The generation of waste is a built-in feature of the consumer-based society we live in; more often than not, a product’s life ends in a trash heap because things are made to break. The aim of this special issue, however, isn’t to scold anyone for wasteful behaviour, but to take a closer look at how waste is produced, what effects it can have, and the ways in which its definition varies.

Planned obsolescence – whether through annual car models, seasonal fashion trends, disposable razors, or computer hardware – has long governed producers’ understanding of the retail market. Efforts to enact a paradigm shift in design, one that would make producers responsible for their goods throughout the entirety of their life cycle, are gaining momentum, but remain the minority in a world accustomed to solving problems of overproduction through overconsumption. And this attitude of consumerism continues to spread outward from the U.S. and Canada.

Add to this our society’s focus on short-term wants rather than long-term needs and it’s easy to see just how destructive our 100-year-and-counting bender on disposability has been. Yet any trip to a typical grocery store – where the space allocated to produce pales in comparison to aisles stocked with packaged foodstuffs – is evidence of the difficulty individuals face in reducing their waste.

New ways to produce waste can become the norm in less than a generation. We’ve grown up with supermarkets, and they seem like the most basic, normal places, when they’re actually a phenomenon barely older than most of us are. Waste has become so everyday that we do it without even realizing it. Water and mineral waste is embedded in products and services in ways that aren’t immediately obvious – for instance, more than 1000 litres of water goes into every pound of industrially-produced beef, and more than 120,000 into a new car.

The attributes associated with goods and services can switch in an instant, whether through space or time. One person’s waste is another’s value, but not in the jolly treasure-and-trash kind of way. Similar to the power dynamic at the root of the global environmental crisis, those doing the wasting are not the people dealing with its effects. So-called developing nations continue to bear the brunt of our obsession with the latest electronics, though it remains unknown exactly how many tonnes of discarded or “donated” cell phones, computers, and printers wind up in China, India, Nigeria, and other regions where recycling of these goods can provide modest economic benefit at the risk of disastrous health and environmental consequences.

Montreal’s Lachenaie landfill is so full that the province put forward an emergency call for its expansion last year. If things are truly beyond re-use, do what you can to divert your waste from holes in the ground: recycle electronics ethically, and making worms eat your food waste. Most importantly, find ways to reduce consumption overall. As the global capitalist system continues to wade through its most recent downturn, the world is spending less, and being more careful about where and how to acquire things. What better time, then, to consider the after-life of our possessions.