01/16/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Trash Talk

I'm not one to trash talk, but our current state of affairs has backed me into a dirty corner. In 1960, the average American produced 2.7 pounds of waste per day. According to the EPA that number had increased to 4.5 pounds by 2003 (I'd assume that number hasn't gone down). That's per day, which is equal to over 1,600 pounds of trash per person, per year! But to quote William McDonough, "there is no away."

There is just a designated spot of unsavory earth called a landfill where our offcasts sit for hundreds of thousands of years, and because it's not always properly contained, many chemicals leach into the soil and waterways turning vast landscapes into toxic wastelands. And when "away" gets filled up on our own soil, the rest is shipped "away" to China and island nations.

These countries have extreme poverty and limited regulations, which leads to women and children taking apart electronics to gather scrap metals and minerals, and subsequently being exposed to toxins that can result in major respiratory and organ damage, not to mention the damage caused to the surrounding environment. The Cousteau family has found garbage in the farthest reaches of the oceans, even discovering plastic army men in the stomachs of albatross in the most remote island chains on earth. In case you need a visualization of how stuff is made and where it goes, the has just launched an international version that will make manufacturing neophytes everywhere a little more informed.

Clearly this issue has spiraled out of control. Almost every environmentalist agrees that we need a paradigm shift that acknowledges that nature doesn't have an "away," that everything created in nature is incorporated back in a regenerative, cyclical process when its useful life is done. Simply put, waste equals food.

And no, I don't advocate living naked off the land (my parents tried that). Instead, realize that most of what we consider "garbage" is actually recyclable or compostable (every size and shape of bin now exists). And the remainder? That's where the real excitement begins. Revolutionary companies that are rethinking the way we approach trash have begun emerging. Allow me to share a few with you.

I recently spoke on a trends panel at Opportunity Green with Tom Szaky of Teracycle. Known for pedaling worm poop (used as highly effective plant fertilizer) in previously used plastic beverage bottles, I had no idea that his company was taking trash so seriously. They are literally commoditizing trash -- finding value in what others throw away, and on both ends no less! They are brilliantly double dipping -- getting paid for collecting the packaging of products like CapriSun juice packs and Stoneyfield yogurt containers and then turning them into useful everyday products like pencil cases and binders that are sold at stores like Target. The pencil case was actually Target's biggest seller during the back-to-school mayhem.

Etsy has been taking the longtail approach to this for a while, creating a market place for individuals who realize that turning old items into new offerings can be lucrative and rewarding. But if you want to try it at home, Ready Made Magazine has myriad ideas for reinventing anything.

Simple Shoes has found a soleful solution for incorporating car tires into the outsoles of their shoes. Turns out tires are exceedingly durable (translation: unless re-used they'll spend an eternity in landfill) and the treds add great traction. Six pairs of men's size 9 shoes come from one single car tire. And then remember to bring all of your old sneakers (any brand is acceptable) to Nike so they can turn them into sport courts for schools and disadvantaged communities through their reuse-a-shoe program.

OEcotextiles sheds new light on detritus, innovatively turning pineapple husk debris into elegant window shears. Coconut shells were being used as buttons and bowls long before Fijians decided to forgo cannibalism. Now those shells are being turned into everything from flooring to high design wall tiles. In Iceland the coveted salmon is prized for every part (much like Native Americans respected their kill and maximized the usefulness of each buffalo). Even the skin is turned into gorgeous ichthyological "leather" wallets, cuffs and clothing.

Delphine is a letterpress company that is making adorable cards, calendars, and stationary with soy-based inks on 100% recycled cotton, the majority of it coming from the garment industry. With Americans throwing away more than 68 million pounds of clothing annually, the camisole to cardstock venture is a bodacious diverter. This got me thinking about all of my sweaters with holes that I cannot fathom tossing. So I put this article on pause and did a little DIY project with my kids. We turned the cashmere into crazy decorative pillows and have enough left over to make a bunch of gifts, which will end up saving us quite a bit of cash.

Last week I was part of a national panel of judges for Google"s Juicy Ideas Competition, a collegiate competition that challenges students to "create value while communicating a message of environmental responsibility through the use of imagination, innovation and creativity around the use of a 'throw-away' item." While I can't reveal anything quite yet, I can tell you that I am excited about this next generation of idealists -- the thinkers that have made the real shift to seeing the value in everything that exists, and taking responsibility for the current by-products of human life.

While all these companies and individuals have the right intention by finding marketable solutions for our waste, one thing to keep in mind before starting a new venture is that not every re-use ends up being beneficial to the planet. William McDonough refers to unfortunate mixes as "monstrous hybrids." Combining biological and technical nutrients into one item compromises both systems. Take for example a tee-shirt made out of polyester derived from plastic bottles and textile industry cotton by-products. It sounds like an ingenious idea, but by uniting these, the entire shirt becomes a new problem. Alone, the cotton would biodegrade and the polyester could be recycled into a new item. Pure plays or products that can easily be disassembled to find their next iteration are the way to go.

So look out for these trashy trend-setting companies, and particularly look for products that consider their end-use from the beginning -- closing the loop is what it is all about. And spread the news, trash talk is one bit of gossip worth spreading -- trite as it may sound, someone else's trash is another person's treasure... or handbag, or drapery, or soda bottle, or...

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