Reimagining the Waste Crisis

Illustration by Burcu Ozdemir/The Guardsman. Instagram: @Ozdemrbrcu.

By Elena Toups


Current recycling habits in America differ by the community. I experience this personally every time I leave San Francisco to visit my folks in New Orleans. 


Every trip home there’s a distinguishable instance I glimpse their garbage, gawk, and then consciously pick apart what they aren’t separating adequately. To be fair to them, San Francisco has been the major trailblazer for waste regulations and laws. 


Most other places, and evidently including cities, haven’t come as far with adopting efficient recycling into their common culture. For instance, the 2009 San Francisco ordinance that made separating your waste into recycling, compost, or landfill the law was the first of its kind. Since then, San Franciscans have made the minor adaptations necessary to live more waste-consciously, even if it’s merely to avoid the fines for not. 

Illustration by Burcu Ozdemir/The Guardsman. Instagram: @Ozdemrbrcu.

But it’s easy to feel that all this progress in municipal recycling doesn’t actually matter when we consider how China stopped accepting the totality of America’s recyclable waste exports in 2018. What was previously the major processor of all of our recycling is simply not accepting our masses of waste any longer. 


Most of my peers will agree it’s hard to even determine how much of the recycling that we scrupulously separate each day doesn’t just wind up in landfills. This seems pretty frustrating, at best, but there is some potential here for good. Americans now have reason to push to adopt more of the recycling processing domestically, which could have positive economic effects as well. Additionally, while we figure out this waste crisis, we can divert some of our attention to the roots of the issue: our personal and collective mentality that leads us to create so much waste.


When I find myself thinking a bit too idealistically, I imagine some utopian world where our waste management ceases to be an issue because we simply don’t produce waste in the same sizable magnitudes. Kind of the same idealism as the tale that North Koreans think their Supreme Leader mustn’t stink because he simply doesn’t have bowel movements. 


Highly idealistic, but bare with me. I have actually found that we can greatly reduce our personal waste when we force ourselves to reexamine how we value the items in our daily lives. This comes in the form of rejecting single-use plastic bags at the store in place for a beloved tote bag. Or choosing to keep food in glass containers that can be beautiful and that we admire, instead of purchasing it in disposable plastics. Or a plethora of other small, imaginative changes. 


These lifestyle shifts can seem fad-like, with online challenges to live free of waste for merely a week or a month. However, they don’t have to be. Only since the emergence of modern capitalism have items been so depersonalized in place of commoditization. We have been urged through this economic process to start treating materials as disposable and limited in use, so we can continue to produce and use. Thus, it’s totally possible to regress back to viewing items as invaluable and endlessly reusable instead.


When I think back to New Orleans and its gradual shift from glass Mardi Gras beads that were more scarcely thrown to plastic beads that litter the streets, I’m reminded again that our view on plastic use and waste has become cultural. Glass beads were once (and even still) cherished, whereas the plastics ones are hardly worth picking up once they hit the street. I know every New Orleanian and parade-goer would revel in a less polluted city at the end of the festivities. Then does this not denote it’s time to reimagine our community habits? I think it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by our waste crisis, but it is also energizing when we focus on how we can begin to fix it.