The Roots of Freeganism Part II: Disposable Culture

By Nelson Harvey


Yes Virginia, those are cell phones

In May of each year, as school winds to a close, many NYU students throw their lives away. I’m not talking about binge drinking, lazy days on the beach, or even the taboo subject of suicide, which has been sadly common lately at NYU. I’m talking about actually putting things in the trash.

They do it for many reasons; most obviously, many would rather purchase their necessities again in the fall than ship them home. Whatever their motives, though, the dumpsters outside of NYU dorms in early May are anthropological treasure troves.

And the freegans know it. Last year around move-out time, they were having a field day, scavenging gleefully through NYU dumpsters, bringing in TV’s, i-Pods, lamps, cleaning products, paintings, and innumerable other items that students had disposed of in their rush for the shelter of summer vacation. Often, the harvest from such events is so great that it can furnish entire apartments.

Affluent NYU students make an easy target for those who would scorn our wasteful society, but their behavior is hardly unique. Disposable culture has become the norm, and it can be understood in terms of three trends: we’re buying more products, the cost of production for many of them is falling, and there are few comprehensive mechanisms in this country for making producers responsible for their waste.

The trend toward disposability in the U.S. is hardly new. In fact, it has its roots in the turn of the 20th century. As historian Susan Strasser points out in her 2003 book “Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash,” the explosion of American industry coincided with the rise of municipal waste collection during the early 1900’s, bringing many previously homemade or bulk-bought goods into the home as packaged products that could be conveniently discarded.

Cars at the scrap yard

Strasser notes that disposability meant more than just convenience: it also implied social standing. “From the start,” she writes, “disposability was promoted for its ability to make people feel rich: with throwaway products, they could obtain levels of cleanliness and convenience once available only to people with many servants.”

This trend also transformed economic relationships, according to Strasser. “Customers” who bought from local storekeepers became “consumers,” who interacted only with large, centralized corporations. Suddenly, advertising was the principle mechanism for people to learn about products. Advertisers, capitalizing on the fact that human desires are infinite, began to fabricate needs left and right.

The results have been impressive. Over Thanksgiving weekend this year, the phone company T-mobile offered a free airplane flight with the purchase of a certain calling plan. I may not have needed to go anywhere before I saw their ad, but such an incentive made a trip to the Isle of Tobago seem as essential as brushing my teeth.

Today, the forces of industry and advertising have combined with the global flows of capital and labor to leave us in quite a fix, one that was summed up nicely in a recent story on the NPR program Marketplace. In it, the reporter relates a story of wanting to fix her broken DVD player, but realizing that it would cost about $150 dollars, while getting a new one would be just over $100. The result? She hit the mall, and the old player wound up at a hazardous waste pickup station.

Gas Cylinders

At least in the case of electronics, any holiday shopper can attest that many goods are cheap and getting cheaper (the iPhone notwithstanding). The falling prices of many technologies are closely tied to globalization, since manufacturers can produce their goods wherever labor is cheap and sell them to Americans at a tremendous markup. Technological obsolescence accelerates product disposal, and e-waste is currently the fastest growing portion of the municipal waste stream. But there are at least two less familiar trends at work here as well.

First, an increasing number of consumer goods are simply not reparable. In their seminal book “Cradle to Cradle” about sustainable design and manufacturing, Bill McDonough and Michael Braungart refer to such goods as “monstrous hybrids;” mixtures of technological and biological nutrients that were not designed with recycling in mind and cannot be readily disassembled.

Many freegans, who can tend to benefit from such design practices, attribute them to corporate greed. “I think it is ‘good for business,’” said New York freegan and high school Spanish teacher Janet Kalish, in an email message. “I think companies don’t work hard to make their parts accessible for repair because it is more profitable for them to have customers buy more.”

Circuit Boards

The “Cradle to Cradle” authors propose one solution that could preserve profits while transforming “consumers” back into “customers”: service-based business models, where companies could lease durable goods like computers, washing machines, or other appliances, offering trade-ins and upgrades with the advent of new products.

A better-known solution is the idea of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), which would shift responsibility for end-of-life processing of products from governments to the companies that produced them. This approach is based on the idea that many of the factors that make contemporary products so difficult to dispose of–hazardous materials content, lack of biodegradability–would be “designed out” once producers were burdened with their consequences.

As usual in the environmental arena, those curious about the performance of new policies need only look to California and Europe for guidance. In 2003, The European Union passed a directive requiring producer take-back of many household appliances, and this was followed three years later by an outright ban of many toxic materials in consumer products, including lead, cadmium, and others.

California followed suit in 2005, with the E-Waste Recovery and Recycling Act, which requires that retailers attach a fee to certain consumer electronics. The fee is then passed on to companies that collect and process the goods when they are no longer wanted. At the beginning of 2005, there were more than 550 hazardous waste drop-off sites throughout the state, and collection was projected to exceed 50 million pounds by year-end.

Phones, chargers, and who knows what else

The California approach may encourage recycling, but as Resources For The Future (RFF) economist Margaret Walls told me in an email message, it could be less effective at getting companies to change the design of their products. That’s because the program relies on third party recyclers to process electronic waste, rather than the companies themselves.

“An individual company never sees its own product again at end-of-life,” said Walls, “…this yields some economies of scale in collection and recycling, but it diffuses the incentive to undertake green design.”

Some companies may be shifting their design practices anyway. The rise of government programs has coincided with a spate of EPR initiatives from private companies; Hewlett Packard, Dell, Apple and Xerox are a few of the many corporations that accept some products for recycling and reprocessing. At least in the case of Xerox, this seems to have yielded concrete changes in the design process.

Although Walls notes that many EPR programs remain most costly than municipal recycling efforts, she holds out some hope. “In theory,” she said, “this could work for every product we consume — a general sales tax coupled with a payment to recyclers and re-processors for every ton recycled.”

The photos in this article were taken by Seattle-based photographer Chris Jordan, and are used with his permission.


Paying the Climate Bill, Equitably

By Nelson Harvey

The biggest question currently confounding the human attempt to deal with climate change is not one of technology or economics. Repeated analyses have shown that we can achieve substantial greenhouse gas reductions by ramping up existing technologies, for a fairly modest cost in terms of Gross World Product (GWP). Rather, the most difficult question facing us is one of ethics.

Who is responsible for dealing with climate change? This question is as old as the problem itself, and it evokes many muddy ethical issues. Should rich countries responsible for most of our greenhouse gas emissions be the ones to pay, or should rapidly industrializing nations like China and India also chip in? Such questions have undermined international agreement on the issue since the Kyoto Protocol was drafted in the late 1990’s.

But what if we could attack this seemingly subjective question quantitatively? An organization called Eco-Equity has taken an initial step in that direction by developing an index called the ‘Greenhouse Development Rights Framework.’ I saw Eco-Equity co-founder Paul Baer speak at the NYU Law School last week, where he explained the assumptions behind this new tool for allocating climate change responsibility.

Inequality of wealth is widely acknowledged as a cause of inaction on climate change, since no poor country wants to sacrifice their right to economic development to solve a problem caused by rich nations. Thus, Eco-Equity assumes that no global solution will work if it makes inequality worse. The Development Rights Framework reasons that people with incomes below a certain ‘development threshold’ (about $9,000 annually) should not be required to pay to address climate change.

The idea that poorer nations shouldn’t pay was incorporated into the Kyoto Protocol. But in allocating responsibility among individuals rather than nations, the Eco-Equity approach picks up on an important fact: It’s rich people, not just rich countries, who contribute disproportionately to climate change. Therefore, anyone with an income above the development threshold should be required to contribute, including rich people living in poor countries.

So how does this approach change the way we allocate responsibility? Take the case of China vs. the United States. China may be emitting more greenhouse gases than the U.S. at present, but becuase of historical emissions rates and per capita wealth, they are required to pay a relatively smaller portion of the bill than we are. For example, if the total cost of climate change were 1 percent of GWP, China would pay $42 billion to the U.S.’s share of $214 billion.

Given the historical role of inequality in limiting progress on climate change, the Eco-Equity approch assumes that dealing with it may be the key to a solution. As Baer put it when he spoke at NYU, rich people are the only ones with the means to deal with climate change. Unless they step up to the plate, it’s likely that no one will.

Success at Home, But Trouble Abroad

by Nelson Harvey

Ever since the late 1990’s, many energy experts have been predicting a massive resurgence for “King Coal,” the dirty fossil fuel that already provides some 50 percent of U.S. energy supply. Now, it appears that their forecasts may have been tainted by delusions of grandeur: in the coal kingdom, all is not well. Ordinarily, this would be something for environmentalists to celebrate, but in this case it is not necessarily good news for the fight against global warming.

The coal industry boom was expected to result from increases in the price of oil and natural gas even as overall energy demand continued to grow. All of this happened, but so did two other things: concern about global warming grew and and construction costs rose. Now, according to the Associated Press, only 15 of the 151 coal plants announced in recent years have been built since 2002. Many utilities are reconsidering the economics of coal in light of pending carbon legislation on Capitol Hill. In the most extreme example of how climate concerns are changing the outlook for coal, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment on Thursday rejected an air permit for two new coal plants, claiming that their carbon dioxide emissions constituted a public health hazard. To back up their position, they referenced the landmark Supreme Court decision, announced in April, that the EPA could regulate carbon dioxide under the Clean Air Act.

But before we break out the bubbly over the cracks emerging in King Coal’s facade, its worth taking a second look at the rising construction costs that I referenced above. Here’s a piece from the AP article:

“… material costs and demand for skilled labor has prompted plant costs to spike 40 percent or more. Industry representatives blamed increased competition from China and other developing nations aggressively pursuing new coal plants.”

The message here is clear: China is building coal plants at a breakneck pace. In late June, that nation overtook the U.S. as the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, and it seems determined to hold onto the title. Global warming is, by definition, a global problem. Right now, the world’s two biggest emitters are not formally part of an international solution. Let’s hope that changes when the international community meets in Bali this December to hash out a successor to the Kyoto Treaty.

Pass the Ecosystem Services, it’s Ecological Debt Day!

by Nelson Harvey



If mother nature were a debt collector, she’d be banging down our door, threatening to take the house as collateral. That’s because four days ago, on October 6th, we passed into a state of ecological debt for the year. This according to a report by the British-based New Economics Foundation, which defines ecological debt as the point where humans exhaust nature’s annual stock of renewable resources and begin digging into her natural capital. The NEF says that this morose milestone came three days earlier this year than in 2006.

Of course, we’re not all equally big spenders. While the spirit moves me, here’s another analogy: if the world were a family, the U.S. (and, to a lesser extent, many European countries) would be the teenage daughter who spends her days combing the halls of her local mall, snapping up everything from Louis Vuitton bags to ice cream sundaes, and pausing only to ask daddy for an extension on her allowance. If everyone consumed at U.S. levels, says this latest report, we’d need 5.3 planets to support our habits. Despite all the press that China’s been getting for it’s dirty manufacturing and environmental problems, it’s consumption projected across the globe would only require 0.9 planets.


















On the brighter side, though, there are many bushels of low hanging fruit to be picked if we want to get back into the black ecologically. Many of these come in the form of comically wasteful international trade arrangements. For example, in 2006, Britain exported 14,000 tons of chocolate covered waffles, then proceeded to import 15,000 tons. That country also shipped 21 tons of mineral water to Australia, before importing 20,000 tons of it again. Transforming these examples of inefficiency into instances of local sufficiency could cut a good deal of the environmental impact from trade.

I don’t mean to push the “debt collector” analogy too far, but in in many ways, mother nature is already on the stoop with a baseball bat. I could point to more intense hurricanes wiping out homes in the Gulf of Mexico, or Inuit Villages crumbling in the Arctic. Does this mean we have to “tighten our belts?” Perhaps. I’ll start with a few less Louis Vuitton bags, and a few more local chocolate-covered waffles.

The Complex

Globalization makes everything more complicated.

Planetary flows of information, people, and materials are increasing at an exponential pace, and the connections between far-flung locales are becoming thicker and more subtle. Indeed, the logic of place that has always governed our interactions seems to have become irrelevant: resources are extracted wherever they’re most plentiful, assembled wherever the labor is cheapest, and shipped to wherever people will buy it. The result? A cornucopia of inexpensive goods – and a dizzying array of unintended social, political and ecological consequences.

It’s a basic rule of systems theory that the larger a network is, the more complex it gets, and the less its entirety is visible from any single node. What this means in the context of multi-billion dollar markets and global supply chains is that it’s become ever harder to understand the ripple effects of our choices of production and consumption. It seems as if we can’t buy anything without tacitly encouraging sweatshop labor in Thailand, desertification in Mali, or carbon emissions throughout the globe – and minding these adverse impacts seems to be a battle with no end in sight.

The truth is, no single government, corporation, or watchdog organization can possibly keep track of the countless unintended consequences of our systems of production. What’s more, our attempts to rein in these “externalities” often result in a new set of unforseen problems that, in turn, require their own solutions. A factory that pollutes the air might shut down due to government regulation – only to be replaced with one that pollutes the water. A company might respond to media pressure to end practices of child labor in Pakistan – and destabilize an entire town’s economy by packing up an moving elsewhere.

Take, for example, recycled paper. Nearly a third of the paper we stick in the recycling bin is shipped to China, where it’s processed into new paper and redistributed across the globe – in other words, our “eco-friendly” paper is making the equivalent of a full circle around the Earth on its way to our desks. I’m not sure of the carbon emissions involved in such a circumnavigation (anybody want to give it a try?), but it seems certain that they’d cancel out the benefit of trees saved by buying recycled.

Another well-publicized example of unintended consequences is biofuel production. Since the oil crises of the 1970s, Brazil’s domestic ethanol and biodiesel production have been widely touted as a model of energy independence. Yet, to satisfy surging demand for biofuels, Brazilian soy and sugarcane plantations have expanded at an uprecedented rate, and they are now the leading cause of deforestation of the Amazon.

To say that we should therefore use FSC-certified paper instead of recycled, and buy hybrids instead of biodiesel vehicles, would be missing the point. It’s not just this or that technology that’s unsustainable, it’s the scale of our technology. For the time being, planetary systems might indeed be the most efficient for the flow of capital. But when our are decisions are subject only to market forces – the biggest quantity for the cheapest price – we blind ourselves to the local conditions that those decisions impact. As ecodesigner Sim Van Der Ryn puts it, “the extent to which we rely on far-flung resources is the extent to which we are no longer accountable to our own place.”