Next time you go to a coffee shop or any eating establishment, look around for towers of paper cups, baskets of disposable cutlery, piles of to-go boxes, and stacks of paper napkins. Neatly arranged and unassuming, every one of these items is destined for a short lifespan of utility and an extended stay at the Juneau landfill.
The current economic system largely follows a linear model of production and consumption. The process begins when raw materials are extracted from the earth. These materials are transformed into a consumable product, sold by entrepreneurs, and purchased by consumers. When the product is no longer functional or useful to the consumer, it is thrown away. This is the end of the line.
The reality of a modern world makes us dependent on material things, but mindless materialism encouraged by a disposable mentality wastes the resources and labor that go into what we consume. If we take that straight line from production to consumption and bend it to connect the endpoints, we have a circle. By finding new uses for objects that no longer fulfill their original purpose, we close the circle and add meaning to the material things that make up our lives.
While Juneau is not exactly an island, solid waste in Juneau does not get shipped away. It stays here with us at our pungent, ever-growing neighbor in Lemon Creek: the landfill. According to Jim Penor, the Solid Waste Coordinator for the city of Juneau, recyclables do get shipped out of Juneau. In 2009, about 2,016 tons of recycled materials did not end up in the landfill.
On the other end of the spectrum, the Juneau landfill accepted around 28,065 tons of waste in 2009. Household garbage contributed the greatest volume, including those stacks of coffee cups and other disposable products. The landfill has between 25-30 years of capacity left, Penor estimates. He and the city are developing additional long-term solid waste projects for waste reduction and waste recovery to serve the long-term needs of businesses and residents. Meanwhile, Juneauites can do their part to divert the flow of trash to the landfill by continuing to recycle and by opting out of the throw-away economy.
In the disposable lifestyle, we are dependent on product manufacturers to provide us with convenience. Consumers continually pay for more products because they are designed to be used only a short while before being thrown away. The money paid to purchase items is like paying a one-time fee for permanent residence at the Juneau landfill.
Instead of throwing money away, use real dishes, cups, and cutlery as much as possible at parties and functions. Carry a cup to the local café for your morning beverage or even consider carrying your own utensils and reusable to-go boxes when eating out. Use a reusable stainless steel bottle instead of store-bought bottled water. Cloth bandanas easily replace tissues for runny noses. Buying food in the bulk section will ensure that you pay for food, not packaging and single-serving containers. Reusable lunch boxes and cloth napkins will save money on brown bags, resealable plastic bags, and paper napkins.
The throw-away mentality is most obvious with disposable products, but it is also important to examine what other items in our lives we subject to the same treatment. A shift in perspective can benefit us in unexpected ways. Some stores in Juneau give up to a 5 refund for each reusable bag that you bring for carrying your groceries. The nickels add up quickly. If you use 5 bags each week at the store, you earn 25 a week, which amounts to $13 a year. It may seem insignificant until you consider that this amount is equal to interest earned on having $1,300 in a savings account that earns 1 percent interest a year. Not bad for bringing your own, right?
Broken or old objects can be given new life. Clothes that are ripped or worn can be mended or turned into wash rags. Worm bins and compost piles (if bear-safe) can turn kitchen scraps into garden gold. Repairing a broken appliance makes more sense than replacement, in most cases. Before you toss items with artistic or educational potential, check with schools and artist groups. You can form reclamation guilds with like-minded folks, collecting specialized items such as old flower pots, construction waste, or even jelly jars, and finding them a proper home with local businesses or small-scale producers.
Alaskans are known to be creative and resourceful. As we celebrate spring's arrival and Earth Day, let's use that resourcefulness to continue to find creative, locally relevant ways of dispensing of the disposable mindset in our community.
Jennifer Nu is a freelance writer in Juneau.