The economy is trash

Those living in the vicinity of China's Asuwei dump may soon find relief.

This month, the government is installing high-pressured guns that will spray deodorant on the ever-growing trash pile. The "Made in China" guns can spray at a distance of 15 to 50 metres. This will stop the stretch and the complaints of residents living downwind. The smell of the Beijing's 18,000 tonnes of waste produced daily was becoming too much to stomach.

A lot people think the global economy is in the trash. Really, it is the trash. And, China's overflowing landfills and deodorant guns only demonstrate the growth of an increasingly consumer-driven society.

This isn't just true of China. The signs of that country's emerging economy are apparent in its landfills, but North America is already wrapped up in a throwaway economy. The Depression-era mindset of saving and reusing is a thing of the past (even if we did see its brief resurgence during the financial crisis). That makes dumpster diving the leading indicator of the economies and politics of our time - even if it's not the most pleasant.

Trash says more than we might expect. Many look at the food we eat, the clothes we wear and the homes we live in as societal indicators. Of course, this is all stuff we buy. And, as Annie Leonard reported in her documentary, The Story of Stuff, only one per cent of it is still used six months after the date of purchase.

"In other words, 99 per cent of the stuff we harvest, mine, process, transport, 99 per cent of the stuff we run through this system is trashed within six months," she says.

That's what is currently fuelling China's growth in economy and trash.

Changes in China's economy has allowed for the growth of a middle class with disposable income. That's evidenced by the fast food restaurants and malls popping up everywhere and the logo-embellished packaging that ends up in landfills.

As this growth in garbage represents a growth in the economy, China wants it to keep it piling up.

So does North America. During the financial crisis, a reduction in garbage seemed to be the harbinger of bad news.

Across Britain, city councils and waste management companies reported drops of up to 10 per cent in waste collection. Meanwhile in New York City, Action Carting Environmental, the city's largest commercial garbage collection company, saw about 400 clients go out of business in first quarter of 2009, meaning less trash for the firm to haul.

Economists only needed to watch curb-side pick-up to see consumer confidence hitting all-time lows. People were buying less - that meant less to throw out.

Today, as our waste production goes back to previous levels, governments take a variety of actions to keep them smelling sweet - be it feats of engineering here in North America or perfume guns in China. But, these solutions only mask an unsustainable level of consumerism for both the environment or for us.

Rather than continuing on a linear production path that takes products from cradle to grave, we need to move towards something more cyclical. The cradle-to-cradle approach models after nature, allowing products to return to the earth. Producers are encouraged to redesign their processes using renewable energy, biological inputs that can decompose and technical inputs that are continually recovered and remanufactured.

This virtually zero-waste model would still serve as an indicator. This time, it would show that nations from the United States to China are adopting a system based on the limits of the environment rather than covering up the smell. That way, business can find internal savings rather than extracting from the earth. As well, we can stop throwing our money in the trash by buying products with longer lifecycles.

This lack of garbage indicates something sustainable. And, it shows landfills for what they are - just a load of garbage.