Consumed: Is our Consumer Culture Sustainable?

As part of the upcoming "Consumed" series from American Public Media, Marketplace Money host Tess Vigeland challenged herself to a rather stinky two-week endeavor; listeners followed suit and many commented on her blog. Vigeland talked to City Pages from L.A. about landfills, her critics, and consuming.

City Pages: What was "The Trash Challenge"?

Tess Vigeland: My editor suggested it to me back in January. He said, "We're going to have a special coming up next fall. Would you be willing to carry your trash around?" And at the time I said, "Oh, yeah, sure. Why not?" So nothing came of it until July and then they reminded me and said, "You know, you said back in January that you'd carry your trash around." I said, "Oh, I did? Okay." And the "Consumed" series is all about whether our consumer culture is sustainable. And on Marketplace Money, we're really looking at the end of the consumption chain. We buy all this stuff and eventually a good chunk of it ends up in landfills. So we thought this would be a very vivid way of illustrating how much we throw away. So I challenged our listeners back in September to join me for two weeks carrying their trash around, and a lot of people did, actually. It was amazing, the response we received. For my part, I learned all sorts of things about what's recyclable and what's not, differences from state to state and city to city, what you can recycle and what you can't and also how tough it is to keep a lean, mean garbage bag.

CP: As you were carrying your trash around, what sorts of reactions would you get?

TV: I got some funny looks when I was wandering around running errands around town. For the most part, places that I went--when I went out to dinner or to the mall--I exempted those places. I knew I would get kicked out anyway if I walked in with this stinky bag of garbage. My friends certainly made fun of me. They had nicknames for me: “Bag Lady,” “Mess Vigeland,” “Trash Vigeland.” I did have a couple of people recognize what I was doing and, you know, wanted to know how it was going, wanted to know what I was learning.

CP: What, other than recycling differences, did you learn?

TV: I learned that it takes a lot of forethought to break yourself of bad habits. For example, using tissues, paper tissues. I ended up having a really bad allergy attack in the middle of The Trash Challenge--fall allergies here in LA. My bag started filling up with paper tissues and eventually I started using a hanky, which I’ve never done in my entire life, but it’s certainly more environmentally friendly. The gross-out factor is still there for me. You know, it forced me to think about where all those tissues were going to end up. I did find out that those are compostable as long as you don’t buy them bleached. So it was a great learning experience in a very short time span from what I can do with our cat poo, which I also exempted from carrying around to what I can do with our now infamous chicken bones because that was the thing that was stinking up the joint. There are methods you can deal with waste without putting it in a trash bag, but they’re not always obvious and you really have to make an effort to keep that trash generation down.

CP: Why is trash a problem in the United States?

TV: There are people who would argue that trash is not a problem, that we really need to build more landfills, but then you starts to run into space issues, you start to run into NIMBY, for better or for worse. Nobody wants it in their backyard. But the fact is that landfills are closing around the country. And there are no new ones being built. In fact, I visited three different landfills in the LA area and you’d be surprised that they’re not the stinking piles of trash that you’d think them to be. The modern landfill is very clean and very neat. They actually capture the methane that’s produced in them and use it to provide electricity for nearby homes, but people still don’t want them around. And the agreements that these local landfills have with the cities and the neighborhoods are to close in a certain period of time. There’s the very real question of what we’re going to do with our trash. We export some of it. There are states that actually import trash because it’s good business for them. Eventually we’re not going to have all those options. Besides which, there’s also the resource usage at the front end of that chain. Even if we had a limitless supply of landfills to generate, to manufacture all the stuff we buy day in and day out, that takes resources out of the ground, whether it’s paper or plastics that are made with petroleum. We need to think about that consumption chain from the very start to the very end and I don’t think it’s anything any of us bother thinking about when we put our trash out.

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