When I was a kid, one week of my school year was dedicated to outdoor activities, the “week without walls” it was called. Besides representing some of my best middle and high school memories, there was one idea that got stuck in my head, the idea of “leaving no trace”. Just to be clear, I’m all about duly deserved recognition for our actions, I’m not saying we should go about life without leaving any (idea, invention, book, accomplishment…) behind. What I am saying is that, in the last couple of years, the “leave no trace” paradigm has started to make more sense to me than it ever did before.
When camping in the millennial forests of Chile as a teenager, leaving no trace seemed quite obvious. I wasn’t going to litter or leave some stupid object behind… the picture was too perfect to be ruined with the belongings of some lousy teenager. But once I was out of the forest and into the city (with an easy access to trash cans, it’s funny how the existence of trash cans makes us completely lose control of our waste), leaving no trace was the last of my worries.
Everything changes when you start applying this paradigm to waste.
My relationship with my waste, or rather with the need to reduce it, has evolved throughout the years. I don’t have a wake-up call moment to speak of (this is probably why I still don’t have my own Ted Talk)… the idea has grown inside me little by little. It probably started with paper towels and napkins, built its way through to plastic bags and water bottles, started becoming more intense with food packaging and, in the end, has come to touch just about everything I need to live according to my current standards. I have come to the point where I want to know for a fact that if I have to buy something that comes in a container, I need to know that the container will be either reused or recycled… that it will not simply go “away” to a landfill, or an incinerator, or who knows what other methods of waste treatment are around.
Reconsidering my relationship with my waste has led me to reconsider my relationship with the way I consume because, let’s face it, trying to live a waste-free lifestyle takes interest, money and hard work. You have to know where to shop and prepare for it in order to make sure you’re not getting any useless packaging. Personally, I don’t carry around little produce bags and jars in my purse on a daily basis. Grocery shopping is definitely not as easy as it used to be, it takes some basic organization skills but at least I know that I am trying the best I can to leave no trace. The time and research factors also apply to composting at home, making your own cleaning products, etc. I could definitely not imagine doing the same thing if I had to do it for more people… if I was coming home to a whole family that was leaving a waste-filled trace on our planet!
This brings me to my main point… while I believe that change lies within each one of us, and that our small individual changes can have a real impact on the big picture… when it comes to waste, we must act as a whole because… waste is our common evil. Just as a common good – that supposes that there is a resource, a community that shares it and rules that dictate the way in which it is used – waste, and the massive amounts of it that we produce, has to be handled by all of us at the same time. We can’t just sit here and wait for cities and states to make decisions that will, eventually, help us regulate the amount of waste we produce and how we dispose of it. The change must come from within: we are all creators of the waste, we are now responsible for collectively finding a way for leaving a trace that does not imply turning our planet into a massive landfill.
The problem is that for EVERYONE to be able to take part in the change, it has to be less time-consuming, it has to be cheaper and… it simply has to represent less of a challenge for each and every one of us. It has to become the norm. Unfortunately, I believe that there is still a long way to go in order to make waste-free living available for all. Fortunately, I think the world might have come to its wake-up call moment. All there is left to do is hope that it will inspire each and every one of us, as a whole, to take action and help make waste-free living the norm.