What a Humane World Looks Like: Rethinking "Away"

I live in Portland, Oregon, where we have excellent recycling options. I'm fortunate to be able to recycle an enormous variety of stuff, from electronics, to Tetra-Pak containers, to several kinds of plastic lids. Having such a bounty of recycling opportunities can occasionally make one feel a little smug (as well as frequently incredibly grateful); and it can also lead to a level of unconsciousness about how much I'm consuming.

In fact, a recent study explored whether having access to a recycle bin affected consumption habits. Researchers discovered that when a recycle bin was near, rather than just a trash can, people tended to use more. As one researcher said: "People may view recycling as a 'get-out-of-jail-free card' to consume more."

Our ancestors didn't have the luxury of recycling (though there are some indications that our ancient ancestors engaged in the practice -- sort of), so they either threw it "away" or reused the heck out of it.

And in many places around the world (and in the U.S.), options for recycling or throwing stuff "away" are still limited to non-existent. A few months ago GOOD blogger Megan Wood wrote about the lessons she learned about "away" living in Paraguay for two years:
"Paraguay doesn't have government-regulated garbage pickup, or septic systems that can handle toilet paper. What to do? At first, I simply bagged my banana peels, empty juice boxes, and other secret garbage that I'd never given a second thought to in the United States, and tossed it all in the trash cans at the center of town. I assumed the government would be along shortly to empty them. The garbage trucks never came.  

It didn’t take long for me to realize that disposing of my garbage in Paraguay wasn’t really disposing of it at all. I noticed an American brand can of Pringles rolling down the street, the same flavor I'd bought the week before. Then some school papers with my name on them. Then—the horror—a used tampon wrapped in toilet paper. For Paraguayans, litter is a bigger problem than excessive garbage accumulation. Candy wrappers are a regular occurrence in the street. The trash is tossed in cans loose, rarely bagged, and tends to scatter through the street as people sort through it looking for treasures.   

While I scrambled around picking up my waste, I realized that garbage in Paraguay was going to be my responsibility. My trash was no longer anonymous. There’s a lesson the Western world could learn from a garbage system like Paraguay’s—that is, no system at all, only personal responsibility."

Whether it's recycling or trash, "away" is a place that doesn't really exist. Our trash goes to habitat-destroying landfills or incinerators -- sometimes in another state, or even country. Our electronics often go overseas, where their toxic components may be handled by children. To help create a humane world we need to rethink "away" and bring mindfulness to all our encounters with stuff. We can ask ourselves questions. We can avoid packaging and disposables as much as possible. We can flex our creativity. We can educate ourselves and others about all the positive options we have for foregoing mainstream culture's "away" mentality and making choices that do the most good and least harm for all.

~ Marsha


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