As Americans, we produce 250 million tons of municipal solid waste annually. Factor in a little over 307 billion people, and we get an average of 4.5 pounds of waste per person per day. Ouch
. Now, if we isolate the holiday season, this daily average would be much higher, considering that Americans generate an additional five million tons of waste during the holidays
. Of that, four million tons come from shopping bags and wrapping paper alone.
Sometimes statistics just don't do it for me. Numbers hardly have the visual power of that of say, the largest landfill
in the United States. Moreover, material waste is especially easy to overlook during the holidays, amidst allure, anticipation, appetite and anxiety associated with delicious and beautiful things.
Nevertheless, as environmentally conscious citizens, I trust that we will take into account these numbers — we're the kind of people that look out for these numbers, after all. One of my goals this holiday season is to opt for gift bags instead of wrapping paper, so that I can reuse them next year. The concept is simple enough. If everybody cuts back just a little, a lot less waste will end up in our landfills. We'll consume less energy, Mother Earth will be happier, and we can be content knowing that we have the privilege to understand the real idea behind the giving season.
But what about those who do not have the opportunity to cut back? Consider Detroit. According to the Detroit Rescue Mission Ministries,
there are over 18,000 homeless people in need of shelter every night. Thirty percent of them are chronically homeless, and twenty five percent are children. Currently, families constitute forty nine percent of the number of homeless persons per year, and over 10,000 will become homeless at least once during the next year in Wayne County.
These people do not experience the blissfully wasteful holidays that we do each year. (Or for some of us, the blissfully wasteful-but-trying-to-cut-back holidays.) What do the numbers of homeless people have to do with environmental issues, you might ask. Well, I'll tell you. The answer is: everything.
As a nation, we are often perceived and portrayed as one big consumer — the wealthiest and the most wasteful. Our habits are of pressing importance since they have implications for the entire globe. At the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen that is currently wrapping up, the United States has been one of the main objects of discussion in terms of setting goals to cut back collective carbon emissions, and therefore reduce global warming (the ultimate objective).
Too often, though, we overlook the problems within our problem. As a nation, we might average out to be one big consumer, but there are millions of marginalized people within the statistical pool that hardly have the most basic resources like food, shelter and water. Some people argue that overtly environmental issues, like those being discussed in Copenhagen, should take a back-seat to national issues like poverty. But how can you separate the two? The finite amount of resources that we have come from the environment, travel within the environment, and ultimately go back to the environment in the form of waste, along with other byproducts like greenhouse gases.
If we make it a goal as a nation to house all of the homeless and to feed all of the hungry, for example, then as a whole we would be using more total resources and energy if at the same time we were to maintain our current middle class habits. How is it possible to cut down on material consumption so intimately connected to cultural tradition, like the holiday season? How can we say that the welfare of our poor and our environment is not worth it?
It seems that the holidays are more complex than we ordinarily think.