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.


CP: How did your fellow trash carriers respond to the experience?

TV: Many of them had very similar experiences to mine. They found that it was harder than they expected it to be because, again, it really forced you to think about what you were putting in that bag if you were going to be carrying it around. Some people did it for three days, some people did it for a week. There were some folks that actually did it like me for two weeks. And it’s just so easy to toss things away and a lot of the fellow participants remarked as I did during that two weeks that food was the really big thing that you had to think about. For people in apartments who didn’t have the option of composting, that became a real problem. You know, you have an apple core and you’ve got a composter--no problem. If you don’t, it’s is going to start stinking in three or four days. Then you have to start thinking about packaging. I ended up buying a roasted chicken and it came in a huge plastic container. I’m lucky in that the city that I live in has a pretty good recycling program. I could throw that away, but it had a black plastic tray to it and a listener up in the bay area said her recycling program doesn’t allow her to recycle anything black. So you get these different experiences all over the country for the most part because there are different systems everywhere in terms of what you can put in trash, what you can put in recycling. In the Bay Area, they actually have a bin that you can put your food waste in. So people would be able to put food waste in there. I on the other hand, had all kinds of food waste that I couldn’t recycle or put in a composter. So there’s no actual standard. I think that’s what a lot of us discovered while we were doing this. More than anything we found that it takes a lot of effort to think about what is trash.

CP: As one individual person, how much of an impact can we actually have? Would our time and energy be better spent focusing on getting corporations to change their packaging practices?

TV: Sure. Absolutely. And that's one suggestion that came in. One of the listeners said, why don't we all take the unnecessary packaging and wrapping that comes with everything that we buy back to the store that we bought it from and say, "Here. I'm giving this back to you because this was an unnecessary part of my purchase." That would certainly be more effective than me carrying my trash around for two weeks. But that idea came because of "The Trash Challenge." It was put out there because of "The Trash Challenge." We're generating a conversation. And maybe people didn't know before about "the doggie dooley," which is this thing that you can put in the ground and you put your pet waste in it and it just basically ends up going into the soil and fertilizing your plants. And, yeah, one person is not going to make a difference in the grand scope of things. But, you know, if it causes people to think about it and put pressure on manufacturers and retailers, how can that be a bad thing?

CP: What did critics of "The Trash Challenge" say?

TV: Well, I did get a couple of comments on the blog that I was writing during these two weeks from critics who said, "You know what? This isn't going to do anything. What does your carrying trash around for two weeks accomplish? There's a limited public radio audience who are already true believers anyway." Even if it doesn't change the world, if it opens a few people's eyes to what they're doing—it opened my eyes. It changed how I look at my trash and what I decide to put in there and not put in there and even what I choose to buy in a grocery store. So, yeah, I'm one person. Yeah, it was one small challenge, but the more people hear about it, the more people who at least think about it.


CP: Without giving away too much of your upcoming talk at Macalester, is our consumer society sustainable?

TV: I would say no, especially when you look at the beginning of the consumption chain and how much energy and resources it takes to manufacture all of the stuff that we buy. All the stuff that we think we need and probably don’t. Those resources are coming out of the ground. They’re coming off the hills. They’re coming out of the air. And the earth is certainly a finite resource, not to sound like a tree hugger. The evidence of that is fairly overwhelming. So those things are manufactured and produced to meet our demands. If the demand goes down then by the law of supply and demand, they should ultimately stop making so much crap. And it’s also up to us to put our hands up and say, “Stop the marketing machine. I want to get off.” We have a story on Marketplace Money that part of the series that shows how difficult it is to get off that marketing wheel. So our habits are likely unsustainable but the solutions are very tough and especially in a society like America where it’s our God given right to go and buy everything we want, it’s going to be a very long, tough haul to convince people that they don’t need all that stuff that will eventually end up in a landfill.

You can read more about "The Trash Challenge" on the Marketplace Money website or at Vigeland's talk at Macalester. Free; call for required tickets.
Wed., Nov. 14, 7 p.m., 2007

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