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The Design Consumer: Attainable sustainable — it’s a "no-brainable"
Jeff MacKenzie

Sustainability is a popular term bandied about in scientific, engineering, architectural and political circles. It first appeared 30 years ago in ‘The Bruntland Report’ to the UN General Assembly. It highlighted a disturbing deterioration in such environmental indices as arable farmland, potable water, and breathable air, which it determined acted as obstacles to progress in all nations. 

Rampant development and short sighted exploitation of resources has significantly affected human health and prospects for improved standards of living (which today’s globalist adherents claim to have addressed successfully) according to Bruntland.

“Our Common Future” is the theme of the report — generated by written submissions and expert testimony from scientists, corporate and business experts, senior government officials, industrialists, NGOs and comment intervals for the general public.

Essentially, it stresses the interrelated nature of life among world cultures and between flora and fauna around the planet.

I picture sustainability, applied successfully, as using all resources in a manner that renews them. Obviously some resources — rare earths like coltran and lithium, iron and copper ores — are finite and subject to mining limitations. Once used up, they’re gone.

And the search is on for replacements. Human ingenuity has been able thus far to stay ahead of the curve, replacing scarce resources with innovations that either use them more efficiently or substitute other materials.

The result over time has accrued an abundance of consumables with materials used to make them discarded after single use, stacking up in landfills and infesting waterways and roadsides with potentially recyclable detritus.

A typical small shampoo bottle, for example, is a fairly thick plastic container ubiquitous in landfills. Often bottles of stuff come in paper boxes which also are tossed. 

Some of this stuff breaks down quickly over time. 

Most does not.

On the farm where I grew up most trash was thrown into a gully downslope from the house. Over time, the metal cans have rusted away, paper items rotted. But glass mayonnaise jars and whiskey bottles remain and numerous blue plastic bromo-seltzer bottles — necessitated by abuse of the latter — are still pristine, though their bright blue dye has faded.

Multiply the contents of this gully a million times and  add more recent items, and you have a typical third world landfill. Often the recipients of castoffs from first world cultures who load barges and ship it to less fortunate areas, these landfills have evolved into formidable trash dunes where whole subcultures of desperate people seek items to recycle or sell. They often have toxic levels of carcinogens and rank poisons absorbed from years of toiling there. Their children — when not put to labor themselves — play freely among the debris, incurring future health tragedies in adulthood. 

Is this the gift we wish to bestow on those unfortunate areas? Does this enhance our “greatness” by doing so? How long may we ignore such festering sores before they erupt?

An area of trash double the size of Texas exists in the Pacific. Plastic bags, milk jugs, old toys, chunks of styrofoam — a floating, roiling mass of castoffs. Common items are also found in the bellies of whales and other large mammals and fish.

Nano particles are used in various processes, chemicals and medicines. They are now found in the biosphere.

Folks, we don’t have to tolerate this situation.

When confronting the “cost effective” agendas of corporations, municipalities and other entities responsible (including of course, ourselves; end users and prime movers) for this profligate dumping of stuff, we must ask them to consider the long view. What may seem cheap now may ultimately cost far more decades later. And while we may not live to see the results of our extravagance, our children (or their children) will, guaranteed.

“Tossing out” must become an archaic term, so that nothing passes through consumers’ hands that does not ultimately return to its source. 

I once worked in a factory that made plastic canisters. When occasionally a defective one emerged from the mold, we simply placed it in a bin to be ground up, melted down and recast.

All our plastic should be like this.

What if no items were marketed — no bottles, caps, bags, cellophane wraps, cups or plates (anything plastic) — that could not be ground up and recycled?

What if the same applied to metals, plastic impregnated paper and all items that if tossed will not break down in a day or two?

What if all construction debris recycled; metal to forges, paper back to manufacturers, concrete chunks to buttress roadways and beach jetties? 

What if all toxic chemicals, such as those used in fracking and pesticides, couldn’t penetrate ground water levels?

What if all organic waste were composted and the end product(depending on pathogen content) made available for landscaping and gardening?

What if every glass, plastic and metal consumer item had a deposit on it, redeemed where it was bought?

What if any financial innovation had to have an environmental impact statement? 

What if this could actually trigger cease and desist orders if discarded waste potential seemed likely?

Quality of life is a factor in sustainability. Hog farms in eastern NC produce such noxious odors that people in nearby farms and communities are driven indoors. Were such an operation set up in say, The Hamptons, it would be quickly shut down.

What if this applied everywhere as a standard of sustainability?

What if no one could ‘waste’ clean, fresh air in the pursuit of profit?

The drive for sustainability must needs be organic-that is, adopted as popular practice and widely accepted before codification into law.

Just as building codes have evolved, through trial and error and occasional catastrophe into relatively sophisticated concepts presided over by experts and continuously updated, so a sustainability code might evolve.

With certain high polluting items wanting immediate action, others might come about more slowly. Composting yard waste, reuse of construction debris, etc. can be adopted as popular practice before codification.

There is a phenomenon called “groundswell”, very potent in our culture. Where it exists, sea changes happen.

When all household trash is sorted into separate bins by end users — saving the cost of municipalities hiring someone to do this after collection-sea change will be well underway.

Sustainability is not a liberal concept-if anything, it’s truly conservative. Conservation of resources is as natural as breathing air — clean air — and the time for NIMBY (not in my back yard!) is long past. 

My back yard and yours are part of the problem.

The DESIGN CONSUMER: Jeff MacKenzie examines issues of design that citizen consumers use.