This time of year we see future trash everywhere. This might seem an odd way to refer to wonderful presents and beautiful wrapping paper. But we generate lots of future trash. Go to any store and you will see so many packages going out the door. Gifts for our families. For our friends. For all of the kind people who make our lives easier.
Early on Christmas morning everything looks beautiful. Yet just hours later, discards are everywhere. Hang out on your street the day after. You’ll likely be taken aback at the mounds of trash and at how hard your trash collectors work to cart it away.
We all love our things: our train sets, our dolls, our new electronics. They add excitement and meaning to our lives. But what do we do with all that trash? If it was just our holiday waste that would be one thing. But it’s so much more. Maine, like most places, has a growing trash problem.
I’m a part of a research group at the University of Maine — informally the “Trash Team” — that includes researchers from anthropology, business, economics, engineering, nursing and psychology. For five years, we have worked with partners to develop solutions. Consider the following and the complexities they suggest:
Economics: What does research show us about the cost to sort and get rid of trash? How far do we have to transport the waste and what does this cost us? How do we cost out the alternatives to using up our land to bury trash: if we burn it, if we compost it?
Nursing: In our hospitals, significant amounts of waste are created by “one use” practices such as single-use gloves. These practices are assumed to reduce patient dangers but have not been fully studied. There is evidence that less wasteful alternatives might work. And then there is the waste from prescription drugs no longer needed and thrown in the trash.
Engineering: Can we engineer our ways out of these problems? It turns out that perhaps we can, but only to a certain extent. Environmental engineers help us look at practices for treating many different kinds of waste in various kinds of facilities.
Anthropology: Anthropologists are helping us understand Maine’s leadership traditions in reuse. How have these approaches worked? Can they be expanded? Effective approaches draw on what is in the culture — strategies with long traditions and great potential.
A large part of Maine’s waste is food, yet we are New England’s most food insecure state. At the same time that we are throwing away food that might still be good, many Maine children and elders go hungry. Grocery stores are legally required to throw away food past its due date. But what is the science underlying past due dates? We are working with partners such as major grocery chains to solve these problems and looking for alternatives such as — using expired food for animal feed or composting it. New ways to handle food waste are being developed, but that waste needs to be understood. Additives in the food and chemicals in the packaging can cause problems for both animal feed and crops.
These problems are complex but together we can solve them.
This time of year isn’t just about buying. New Year’s is coming, and this is when we make resolutions. Perhaps we can all give some thought to making small changes in dealing with our trash so that Maine’s beauty remains unharmed. Come work with us. You can learn more about this and similar opportunities at the Senator George J. Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions at umaine.edu/mitchellcenter/.
Linda Silka is Senior Fellow at the Senator George J. Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions at the University of Maine. This column reflects her views and expertise and does not speak on behalf of the university. She is a member of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.