Weighing in on the wicked waste of the West

Fiala on ethics: Weighing in on the wicked waste of the West

By Andrew Fiala

Fresno Bee, Friday, May. 31, 2013 | 06:15 PM

As citizens of Fresno vote on how we manage our garbage, it’s a good time to reflect on the ethics of trash. Our waste-disposal habits have changed and they will evolve further.

My grandparents burned garbage and yard waste in an incinerator. My grandfather also smoked cigars and was fond of dirty language. He would have laughed at recycling. Although filthy language is still around, smoking and burning have given way to recycling bins and smoking bans. We’ve come a long way.

The new frontier in the ethics of garbage is the issue of quantity. Americans generate more than 4 pounds of garbage per person per day — well over 1,200 pounds per person per year. That’s the highest per capita garbage production rate in the world. The World Bank recently predicted that at current rates of development, the global garbage volume will nearly double in 15 years to more than 2 billion tons of garbage per year. Is there an ethical obligation to reduce the amount of garbage we create?

Some reduction would be easy. American trash includes hundreds of billions of disposable cups and plastic bags. Those cups and bags are single-use items; we use them once and throw them away. Plastic bags have been subject to special criticism. They deteriorate into small plastic bits, polluting the oceans. The bags blow loose from garbage bins and landfills, prompting some to call them “urban tumbleweed.” Some cities have banned them. The California Senate just rejected a bill proposing a state-wide ban.

Some may think that we are entitled to produce as much garbage as we can pay for. Is there a right to make garbage? Should the affluent be proud of their profligate trash production? Imagine a rich man gazing smugly at his overflowing garbage bin, thinking that its fullness signifies a life well lived. If that image is absurd, that’s because we’re not proud of waste.

The higher path may be the one strewn with the least amount of garbage. Some books and websites tout zero-waste lifestyles. Advocates of trash-free living brag that they no longer need to take out the garbage. And they view waste production as, well, trashy. Perhaps there is something indecent or tacky about creating lots of garbage. Perhaps in the future, we’ll be ashamed to ask for a single-use cup or a plastic grocery bag. And we’ll proudly display our reusable mugs and cloth shopping bags.

Social norms regarding trash disposal have progressed. Litterbugs and trash burners are subject to fines and social disapprobation. As of yet, there is no social penalty for filling your garbage can to the brim. No one views it as rude, obnoxious or selfish to pile up mass amounts of garbage. But as the population grows and the dumps fill up, we may come to be ashamed of the sheer quantity of our refuse.

One difficulty here is that it is not clear exactly who is harmed if you generate excessive garbage or who is benefited if your bin is empty. The harms and benefits of trash production are abstract, concerning ecological and economic issues. But the ethics of garbage may involve a more personal issue of spiritual hygiene.

The old saying that cleanliness is next to godliness points toward the need to minimize waste. The goal of reducing trash may be part of a broader ascetic discipline, which wants to eliminate spiritual garbage. A trash-free lifestyle might also condemn filthy language, scummy thoughts and dirty jokes. It might also warn against wasteful extravagance.

But you can’t live without generating a bit of waste. And sometimes a dirty word is the right word. The key is balance and moderation: to produce the right amount of garbage at the right time. The ancient Greeks revered Hygeia, the goddess of sanitation and hygiene. Hygeia also represented harmony and health.

Garbage-free abstinence is extreme. A devotee of moderation may still wonder, however, whether our prodigious garbage production isn’t a sign of imbalance and dis-ease. As our trash bins bulge, are we happy, healthy and harmonious?

Perhaps saintly beings can live purely, without trash. The rest of us struggle every day to keep our language clean, our minds out of the gutter and our garbage cans from overflowing.