The Story of Stuff

A number of people have asked me how I got on this path of exploring the materials economy. It started in grade school and crystallized on a spring afternoon on Staten Island.

I grew up in Seattle, at that time a green and luscious city. My family would go camping every summer. Since this was in the days before DVDs in the back seats of family cars numbed young passengers, I’d look out the window, studying the landscape, for the whole drive. Each year, I noticed that the stores reached a bit further and the forests started a bit later than the previous year. I wondered where all those forests were going. I wondered how I could stop them from going away entirely.

It turned out to be fortuitous that I went to college in New York City, even though at the time it seemed an odd place to go for environmental studies. My college campus was on 116th street and my dorm room was on 110th street. Every morning I would groggily walk those 6 blocks, staring at the piles of garbage that line NYC’s street’s every dawn. Ten hours later, I’d walk back to my dorm, staring at the empty sidewalks.

I became increasingly intrigued with this microcosm of materials flow. I started looking into the trash each morning to see what was in those never-ending piles. It was mostly paper. Paper! That is where my beloved forests were ending up. In the U.S., 42 percent of industrial wood harvest is used to make paper. And about 40 percent of the stuff in municipal garbage is paper, all of which is recyclable or compostable if it hasn’t been treated with too many toxic chemicals. By simply recycling, rather than trashing, this paper, we could reduce our garbage by 40 percent, which would also drastically reduce pressure to cut forests and help with climate change and that doesn’t even get into the massive benefits of reducing paper use.

Once I realized that those morning trash piles were nearly half paper – were once forests – I was determined to find out where they were going. So I took a trip to the infamous Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island. Coving 4.6 square miles (12 square km), Fresh kills, is one of the largest dumps in the world. When it was officially closed in 2001, some say its volume was greater than that of the Great Wall of China; it’s peaks 25 meters taller than the Statue of Liberty. I had never seen anything like it. I stood at its edge in absolute awe. As far as I could see in every direction were couches, refrigerators, boxes, apple cores, used clothes, stuff. You know how a gory car crash scene makes us want to turn away and stare at the same time? That is what it was like. I just couldn’t comprehend this massive mountain of materials, reduced to muck, by some system obviously out of control. I knew this was terribly wrong. I didn’t understand it back then, 20 years ago, but I vowed to figure it out. And I did. It’s the Story of Stuff.

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