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Picture It: Burger Boxes Outlasting the Pyramids : Recycling: The responsibility for easing the garbage crush lies with product manufacturers to design renewable packaging.

<i> Paul Shrivastava is a management professor and editor-in-chief of Industrial Crisis Quarterly, Bucknell University. </i>

Each year we generate more than 150 million tons of garbage, in the form of 250 million tires, 2 billion disposable batteries, 28 billion glass bottles and jars, 50 million tons of paper and 18 billion disposable diapers. We then dump these materials into one of our overburdened waste sites where they sit for hundreds of years. This year 50% of our cities will run out of landfill space to store these treasures. We are in the throes of a garbage crisis.

The worst part of this problem is that we are headed down the wrong track to its solution. Corporations, government agencies and environmentalists have enthusiastically endorsed the idea that recycling is the solution. This is wrongheaded for two reasons. First, actual levels of recycling in the United States are abysmally low. Less than 5% of garbage generated is recycled. We generate more trash each month that we recycle each year.

Second, all this talk of recycling has conditioned the American public to believe that it alone is responsible for the problem and for finding the solution. Consumers are not the source of garbage; they only discard the excess that manufacturers put into products. Waste disintegrates so slowly because most products and packages are highly over-engineered by manufacturers. Primary responsibility for the solution should be in their hands, where it rightly belongs. They design the containers that are built to outlast the pyramids. Certainly, it is easier to regulate a few thousand manufacturers than to coordinate the recycling efforts of 200 million consumers.

Recycling is a useful idea that needs to be encouraged, but should not be mistaken for a solution. Besides, it is impossible to effectively recycle significant amounts of waste without investing in an expensive recycling infrastructure. Countries like Japan that have developed successful recycling programs have done so by providing a variety of laws, monitoring agencies, municipal services, equipment, personnel and information to make them work.

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Recycling also heavily depends on action by citizens. This dependence on voluntarism is the Achilles heel of the entire idea of recycling. Let’s face it: Can a society in which less than half the people vote or fill out census forms be expected to voluntarily recycle its garbage? Probably not.

The real solution to the garbage crisis lies in not generating unnecessary garbage in the first place. Product manufacturers think of disposability as producing inexpensive and short-life products that consumers can afford to simply throw away. They need to rethink this concept. Product design should seek to minimize not only the cost of the product, but also the cost of disposing it. The real cost of disposing a product, such as a tire or battery, is incurred over hundreds of years of its useless life in landfills, and may be more than the cost of the product itself.

Packaging manufacturers need to design materials that are relative to expected product life. If the time taken from production to consumption, of coffee, or detergent, or soft drinks, is six months, do we need to wrap them in material that lasts for 500 years?

Consumers can help by substituting disposable products with renewable ones whenever possible. In fact, renewable products often turn out to be less expensive in the long run. For example, used over five years, an electric razor costs about $15 per year. Disposable razors cost about $35 per year and also generate 750 pieces of plastic and metal, as opposed to one piece of waste from an electric razor.

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If we fail to implement effective garbage control strategies, we may invite the fate envisioned by a satirist paraphrasing Robert Frost:

Some say the world will end in fire

Some say in ice,

But at the risk of sounding sarcastic,

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I say the world will choke on plastic.


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