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How We Can End the ‘Disposable Age’

Burying rubbish is not a long-term strategy for Maui. With more garbage piling up every day, it’s prudent to rethink the “disposable” paradigm.

September 5, 2013
Dr. Janet Six , Maui Weekly

With more and more particulate pieces of plastic blanketing Maui's golden shores, concerned Maui residents and visitors may want to consider increasing their understanding of how our actions have far-reaching effects on our environment.

More importantly, we need to find ways to rectify the situation.

To this end, the following presents this ongoing problem in a historic context.

Article Photos

Throwing spent and unusable items “away” means burning and burying them at Central Maui Landfill, aka “Mt. Opala.”
Photo: County of Maui

Prior to the invention of plant and animal domestication around 12,000 years ago, humans had little impact on the natural environment. Prehistoric hunter-gatherers traveled in small bands of 25 to 30 members, foraging in a wide region and taking only what they needed. Careful management of the natural resources ensured that the environment could continue to support them.

With the advent of widespread farming, everything changed. For the first time, humans could generate a surplus. Having surplus spatially tethered once-mobile populations--effectively tying them to the land and creating a sense of ownership as opposed to stewardship.

Soon, the first cities formed, and with so many people living in close proximity, solid waste became a real problem. American historian and philosopher of technology Lewis Mumford described these ancient cities as plagued by "the slack rural ways of disposing of rubbish and excrement," which in no time "became a menace in crowded urban quarters, without apparently spurring sufficient efforts for the improvements of urban sanitation and hygiene."

Therefore, the first landfills were born--over 5,000 years ago.

As new cities rose up, garbage continued to be a real problem--especially for those occupying the lowest social rung. It wasn't until around 500 BC that the ancient Greek city of Athens organized the first municipal landfills and issued formal edicts ordering its citizens to stop throwing their garbage out onto the streets. The Roman answer to waste management was to ring the city's walls with open dumps or "offal" pits and periodically set fire to them.

Fast-forwarding a couple of thousand years, concerned citizens fed with the burgeoning social inequality fueled by Western industrialization began making the connection between industry and its effects on the natural environment. They called for immediate reform of waste management practices. Through citizen activism, waste began to be viewed differently. New ideas about hygiene gave rise to new sanitation practices, and by the 20th century, garbage trucks hauled trash away.

"Away" for most of Maui means the Central Maui Landfill. While the "technology" is ancient--dig a hole, dump the garbage in, burn it and then bury it--the content being buried has morphed from organic materials (i.e. food waste) to inorganic (i.e. plastic containers and packaging).

Today's landfills are chock full of disposable items such as diapers, razors, empty toothpaste tubes and bento containers, rubber slippers--the list goes on and on.

We didn't always live in a disposable society. Why and when did we begin throwing away items we purchased with such reckless abandon? The answer: Consumers wanted "convenience," and the manufactures readily supplied it.

The cradle-to-grave is a term used in life-cycle analysis to describe the entire life of a material or product up to the point of disposal. A cradle-to-grave industrial model--for example, using a natural resource like aluminum to make soda cans and then throwing them away--doesn't make sense, unless you are a manufacturer, because the practice creates a perpetual demand for new cans and a perpetual source of profit for manufacturers.

Built-in obsolescence soon became another industrial model. "Throw it out and get a new one" became the mantra for last part of the 20th century. Therefore, our landfills swelled--many becoming mountains.

But what if, similar to activists' demands of the late 19th century, today's consumers demanded products, packaging and practices that don't harm the environment?

It has been effective in the past. The following are two examples of how consumer choices can drive change:

In 1987, under pressure from environmentalists and concerned citizens, corporate giant MacDonald's stopped the use of Styrofoam containers in the U.S. On Jan. 11, 2011, Maui County banned the use of plastic bags at store checkout counters, which made a positive impact at the Central Maui Landfill.

Since Maui is terrestrially finite, burying rubbish in the ground is not a long-term strategy. With more garbage piling up on the island every day, it's prudent to rethink this "disposable" paradigm.

In 2002, Michael Braungart and William McDonough published a book called "Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things." It's essentially a manifesto calling for a radical change in industry: a switch from a cradle-to-grave model to a cradle-to-cradle model.

The book encourages the manufacture of products with the goal of upcycling. After a product has reached the end of its useful life, it becomes either "biological nutrients" or "technical nutrients." Biological nutrients are materials that can re-enter the environment. Technical nutrients are materials that remain within closed-loop industrial cycles. Their vision is a closed-loop system generating zero waste.

To learn about the current state of garbage on Maui, join the Sierra Club Maui Group and Sustainable Living Institute of Maui (SLIM) on Wednesday, Sept. 11, from 5:30 to 8 p.m., for "Talkin' Trash: Solid Waste Solutions for Maui's Future," an educational panel discussion about waste management options and strategies. The forum will be held in Ike Le'a (the new science building) at the University of Hawai'i Maui College.

This free event is part one of a two-part series open to the public.

If you want to make an immediate impact, join community volunteers for "Get the Drift and Bag It" on Saturday, Sept. 21. This island-wide beach debris clean-up effort is being organized by Malama Maui Nui (formerly Community Work Day). Call (808) 877-2524 or visit for more information.

When you bend down and pick up trash from one of Maui's once-pristine beaches, you quickly come to the realization how far we have drifted from our Stone Age hunter-gatherer ancestors. We live in the "Plastic Age"--an ecological disaster of our own creation.

Editor's note: Maui Weekly freelance writer Dr. Janet Six holds a Ph.D. in anthropology and specializes in the archaeology of capitalism. She has conducted several large-scale excavations in Hawai'i on sites associated with industrial plantations.



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