08/15/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Garbage Nightmare

Over 52 tons of solid waste is landfilled per second on planet earth. This translates into 2.6 billion tons of landfilled waste per year, and over 3 billion tons of CO2 equivalent greenhouse gas emissions per year from landfilled waste. So shall we put this in perspective, this number of 3 billion tons world wide? It is half of the total US emissions! Or the emissions of India and Japan combined!

We have got to do something--we have got to do a lot of things--about this waste problem. We have got to minimize, recycle, reuse, think of waste as food; that's what nature does. Every creature that produces waste is producing food for some other creature on this planet. We have got to close the loop. As my friends Bill McDonough and Michael Braungart say, we have to stop thinking about cradle to grave and start thinking about cradle to cradle.

And not just because of greenhouse gases either. One of the deepest questions we can ask when talking about the environment is this one: What is land for? There is a lot to debate about this, but I know one thing for sure. Land is not the place where we should be storing our garbage, to let it decay and release methane into the atmosphere. We all need to be asking deeper questions about packaging of those we are buying stuff from. Some of these are already becoming common questions in our society: Like when I buy four peaches this summer at the supermarket do they come in a package with a molded plastic base and a clear molded plastic top, or are they loose? And questions to ask ourselves as well, like when I take those 4 loose peaches, do I put them in a bag I have used before and can reuse again, or into a plastic bag that winds up in the middle of the pacific ocean a few years from now and get swallowed by a fish? Yes, many of us are already asking those questions.

But what about the box and packing material that a new television is packed in? Maybe it needs that box to get safely from the factory to the warehouse to the Best Buy store, maybe. But how do we get that box and Styrofoam back to where it started so it can make another journey. And yes, there will still be plenty of waste for our three companies to deal with. McDonough and Braungart give one of the great examples of this from history. When Henry Ford shipped you a model T in its wooden packing case, you took the wood and converted it into the floorboard of the car. How do we get back to this sort of thinking?

And we need to seriously question our own buying values. If a car that has been driven for 250,000 miles has some parts that are still as good as they were when the car was new, do those parts have to be melted down and reprocessed, at great energy cost, or worse, thrown away into landfill, or can they go into another car? Why wouldn't I buy a new car, with a new car guarantee, that had reused parts in it? The automakers don't do this because they think we won't accept it. Governments, who are big purchasers of all sorts of stuff, from cars to copying machines, often specify that it must all be new. This is waste, and waste is a form of stupidity that this society could never afford, and really can't afford now.

There are a lot of entrepreneurs working in this field. You can hear my conversation with some of them on Environment on the Edge, my radio program on Voice America. You can download this from itunes by clicking here.