Ableism and Waste Reduction

Two of the topics on which I am an expert and I regularly rhapsodize regarding are reducing garbage output and reusing or repurposing old things instead of throwing them away as part of reducing garbage output. These topics are intricately intertwined in my mind and I’m always looking for new information and experiences relating to them.

Unfortunately there’s a lot of ableism in discussions of reducing waste. Most of the responsibility for waste reduction is put on individuals when it’s a very systemic problem that’s been with us for well over 100 years now (garbage has, of course, been with us for all of human history, but it’s not been as systemic or prolific for very long, comparatively).

I love learning about the history of garbage, which is also a history of the industrial revolution because before the industrial revolution and the development of mass production there was simply a lot less trash. Goods were harder to make and therefore there was less excess to be discarded.

I also love learning about how to minimize my own garbage output. I try to resist items that are obviously part of planned obsolescence like fashionable clothing and items that seem as though they’ll break after only a few uses or have irreplaceable parts, but effectively and consistently cutting back on waste is not an easy thing to do despite it being one of my most beloved interests.

A bit of my garbage interest’s backstory set apart in block quotes in case anyone wants to skip it:

Before I became interested in garbage, I discovered that abandoned places are absolutely fascinating. In college I was riding on a train and a poem came to me about all the abandoned buildings and old places we passed along the route. I grew up mainly on the West Coast where there aren’t many passenger trains compared to the East Coast. Then I attended a college in the Mid-Atlantic region and eventually had the opportunity to take my first real train ride. It was lovely and left a very positive impression on me.

Upon returning to my dorm room following my train journey, I googled so many abandoned towns and buildings. One of my favorites that I’d never heard about before was Pripyat, the abandoned Ukrainian town that was so badly affected by the Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster. I’ve kept up on the town and how it’s changed (and not) over the years. It’s all just amazing to me how nature takes over after people have left, even when we’ve so utterly ruined a good deal of that nature.

I’ve always had intense empathy for inanimate objects and in learning about abandoned places, I’ve always felt sorry for them and tried to imagine what it was like for them when happy people were around most of the time. Old now-rotting homes that used to house families who loved and cared for them back when they were new or at least livable just seem so sad, although the nature taking them back seems fairly happy about the decaying state of things.

In looking at abandoned places (either via pictures or in real life) it’s amazing to me how much stuff is left behind to rot along with the buildings. This isn’t only true with places like Pripyat where timely evacuation was necessary, but with regular houses too. I usually wonder when I see the things left behind if someone died or maybe was evicted or wanted to make a fresh, clean start at a new place. Maybe they decided to become nomadic and it was easier to just shed their belongings without trying to sell or give them away.

Anyhow, all those decades now of empathizing with things, looking at and exploring abandoned places, learning about the immense problems our modern society has with creating garbage…. all that research has made my life difficult in some ways.

I cannot watch an old TV show or movie without picturing, unbidden, in my mind how all the packaging has been rotting (or not) in landfills for the past however many years. When I walk through big box stores, in addition to the sensory nightmare it presents, I also imagine a good 80% of those things in the landfill or creating air pollution via trash incinerator by next year.

In my own life, this has led to a sharp reduction in trash output when I feel up to reducing it. One year (when I was much younger) with two adults, two children, and two furry pets in our household we created only four bags of trash total for the entire yearand we used pet food bags to hold the trash. No plastic trash bags.

We always try to buy used things whenever possible because it cuts down on packaging and production while hopefully keeping useful things out of the garbage. I try to buy local produce and meats when we can afford it and when we feel up to cooking from scratch, but my own energy limitations can make pre-made, and extremely packaged, food a very attractive option.

Also, even when buying fresh local ingredients, the bags or containers are often plastic single-use too.

The fact that I live in a place and time where this sort of disposability is so normalized and accepted is painful to me. This acceptance didn’t just happen either, it was manufactured through ad campaigns in the mid-1900’s. It takes an immense amount of work for an average USian to not produce several pounds of garbage every day (over 4 pounds a day is the average per person in the US) and the problem is so huge and ingrained in our culture and I cannot even conceive of how to change things that are this systemic.

So very often it is individuals (especially disabled individuals) who are shamed and blamed for the immense piles of garbage that are created daily. But we didn’t make this garbage, we bought it. We bought it because future garbage is what our food and household goods and toiletries are encased within.

Waste creation on such a huge scale is a systemic issue with how our society developed and there will need to be widespread changes in place before it becomes feasible for people who don’t have a plethora of time, motivation, and energy to consistently reduce our waste in a significant way.

Even those of us who care greatly, have a decent amount of time, and find it excruciatingly painful to go through a store because of all the future trash contained within can’t always manage to cut back on own waste effectively because it requires so much planning effort and energy to do that in our society right now.

Garbage management is a huge business. Companies and their owners are making ridiculous amounts of money from this environmental nightmare while individuals are shamed for not being able to somehow break the cycle ourselves.

This is true despite the fact that so many people and companies (who have much more money for lobbying than people like me do) have a profit-based motive for keeping this cycle the way it is.

As a society we desperately need to talk about trash, but we need to talk about trash in ways that look at our society as a whole and that doesn’t blame individuals for participating in our society in the way it was purposely set up to be.

We need to talk about  how we can make reducing waste more accessible and supported in our society (preferably starting from the top down) instead of villainizing people who are unable to cut back on the wasteful packaging, clothing, and goods that are, practically-speaking, impossible to completely avoid under the current system no matter how motivated and energetic one happens to be.

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