News / USA

Trashing America's Throw-Away Culture

After a life-changing visit to the dump, Annie Leonard lobbies for tougher garbage disposal rules

Annie Leonard's interest in the world's garbage began after she visited a trash dump in New York City.
Annie Leonard's interest in the world's garbage began after she visited a trash dump in New York City.

Multimedia

Audio
Jan Sluizer

Annie Leonard has dedicated herself to changing America's throw-away culture.

The Berkeley, California resident has been obsessed with stuff for more than 20 years - both good stuff that is thrown out and toxic stuff that poisons the planet and its people.

Early awareness

Leonard grew up in Seattle, Washington, spending her summers in the forests of the Cascade Mountains. With her school promoting environmental issues, she grew concerned about the increasing numbers of clear cuts - areas where all the trees have been cut down. So it's no wonder she wanted to be a public lands and forest activist. The interest in stuff came later.

"It wasn't until I went to college in New York City that I became obsessed with garbage," she says.

'The Story of Stuff' outlines where trash comes from and where it goes.
'The Story of Stuff' outlines where trash comes from and where it goes.

Walking to class at Barnard College, it was hard not to notice the shoulder-high piles of garbage bags stacked along the city streets. Wondering what was inside, Leonard started what was to become a lifelong habit. She opened a garbage bag.

Nearly half the trash inside was paper. Her mind made the immediate connection to the clear cut areas of her beloved Northwest forests where the trees had been cut down for lumber and pulp. Her next stop was New York City's 890-hectare landfill, to see what else was being thrown away. She found mounds of appliances, shoes, clothing, electronics, books and food packaging as far as she could see.

"I was really struck by both the scale of it - how could we have created a society that is based on and dependent on so much destruction of resources, but also the secrecy of it," says Leonard. "How could I have gone all the way until I was nearly 20 before I'd ever been to a dump?"

Annie Leonard's interest in trash has taken her all over the globe. Here she is in Southeast Asia.
Annie Leonard's interest in trash has taken her all over the globe. Here she is in Southeast Asia.

Life-changing visit

That visit to the dump changed Leonard's life. For her senior undergraduate project, she wrote a paper on why New York City should not burn garbage in municipal incinerators and suggested alternatives for disposal.  At Cornell University graduate school, she studied city and regional planning with a focus on garbage.

Leonard spent the next 10 years with various environmental groups in Washington, lobbying for recycling programs and tougher regulations on trash disposal. But her success in Congress had an unexpected negative result in corporate boardrooms.

To avoid the new laws, Leonard says, many companies started to ship their regular and hazardous waste overseas. So she moved to Geneva, Switzerland, to work on a global campaign to stop the export of waste from the richest countries to the poorest. Her job was to track the waste from the United States to where it ended up in Africa, Latin America, and East and South Asia.

Trash Investigator

"I went to Bangladesh, for example, to interview farmers who had taken fertilizer that was contaminated with our hazardous waste and spread it on their farms," she says. "I went to South Africa under apartheid where United States companies were sending very toxic mercury waste that was dumped in a black township there where the people were not able to leave and had to use the water that had become contaminated for drinking and bathing and some cooking."

Annie Leonard wants to get the world's trash situation under control.
Annie Leonard wants to get the world's trash situation under control.

Leonard's 10 years as an investigator took her to dumps, mines, factories and sweatshops in 40 countries. She learned about the life cycle of every manufactured product she could - from cell phones to toothbrushes - and concluded that the world needed to know that cycle, too.

Considering how much of the world's trash comes from the United States, Leonard decided that the fight for a solution had to be centered there. So she settled in Berkeley, California, and started an educational campaign. She produced a 20-minute video for YouTube called "The Story of Stuff." She figured if she got 50,000 views, it would be a success.

"To my complete shock, I got 50,000 views in a day. We are now at over 10 million views from people in over 223 countries and territories, according to Google Analytics."

'The Story of Stuff'

Leonard also received more than 100,000 emails asking for more specific information. That's when she decided to put it all in a book, also called "The Story of Stuff." In it, she outlines where stuff comes from and where is goes. Looking at the five different stages, she followed products from extraction all the way to disposal.

Leonard has been accused of being anti-capitalist and anti-stuff, but insists that, actually, she is pro-stuff, although, she admits, most of her possessions are second-hand.

"I want us to appreciate and value and have reverence for our stuff more. I want us to look at something, whether it's an electronic gadget or a piece of furniture or a piece of clothing, and think about the effort and the energy and the material and the work that went into making that thing."

As she travels around the country, speaking at colleges, conferences and houses of worship, the 45-year old activist is often asked how she can maintain a hopeful outlook. She says it's because she is convinced that the toxic trash situation doesn't have to be as dire as it is now.

She points to emerging science fields such as biomimicry, where industries imitate nature to design more sustainable and healthier products. She also touts the burgeoning green chemistry movement, which tries to minimize the generation and use of toxic materials. But mostly, she says, she's hopeful that growing public awareness and desire for a new approach will bring about the changes she'd like to see.

You May Like

Mood Tense Ahead of Scotland Independence Vote

As race to persuade undecided voters continues, No voters say they believe life in Scotland will slowly improve and do not want to take a risk by endorsing independence More

South Africa’s 'Open Mosque' Admits Everyone, Including Critics

Open Mosque founder plans to welcome gay worshipers and allow women to lead prayers More

Ukrainian Activist in Despair About Future of Her Country

IrIna Dovgan, accused of being a spy and tortured by pro-Russian separatists, is appealing to UN Human Rights Council to support her country More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
NASA Picks Boeing, SpaceX to Carry Astronauts Into Spacei
X
September 17, 2014 4:20 AM
The U.S. space agency, NASA, has chosen Boeing and SpaceX companies to build the next generation of spacecraft that will carry U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station by the year 2017. The deal with private industry enables NASA to end its dependence on Russia to send space crews into low Earth orbit and back. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video NASA Picks Boeing, SpaceX to Carry Astronauts Into Space

The U.S. space agency, NASA, has chosen Boeing and SpaceX companies to build the next generation of spacecraft that will carry U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station by the year 2017. The deal with private industry enables NASA to end its dependence on Russia to send space crews into low Earth orbit and back. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video Future of Ukrainian Former President's Estate Uncertain

More than six months after Ukraine's former President Viktor Yanukovych fled revolution to Russia, authorities have yet to gain control of his palatial estate. Protesters occupy the grounds and opened it to tourists but they are also refusing to turn it over to the state. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Mezhigirya, just north of Kyiv.
Video

Video China Muslims Work to Change Perceptions After Knife Attacks

China says its has sentenced three men to death and one woman to life in prison for a deadly knife attack in March that left more than 30 dead and 140 injured. Beijing says Muslim militants from China's restive western region of Xinjiang carried out the attacks. Now, more than six months after the incident, residents in the city are still coping with the aftermath. VOA's Bill Ide has more from Kunming.
Video

Video Enviropreneur Seeks to Save the Environment, Empower the Community

Lorna Rutto, a former banker, is now an ‘enviropreneur’ - turning plastic waste into furniture and fences discusses the challenges she faces in Africa with raw materials and the environment.
Video

Video West Trades Accusations Over Ransoms

As world leaders try to forge a common response to the threat posed by Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria, there is simmering tension over differing policies on paying ransoms. In the past month, the jihadist group has beheaded two Americans and one Briton. Both countries refuse to pay ransom money. As Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London, there is uncertainty in the approach of some other European nations.
Video

Video Scotland Independence Bid Stokes Global Interest

The people of Scotland are preparing to vote on whether to become independent and break away from the rest of Britain, in a referendum being watched carefully in many other countries. Some see it as a risky experiment; while others hope a successful vote for independence might energize their own separatist demands. Foreign immigrants to Scotland have a front row seat for the vote. VOA’s Henry Ridgwell spoke to some of them in Edinburgh.
Video

Video Washington DC Mural Artists Help Beautify City

Like many cities, Washington has a graffiti problem. Buildings and homes, especially in low-income neighborhoods, are often targets of illegal artwork. But as we hear from VOA’s Julie Taboh, officials in the nation's capital have come up with an innovative program that uses the talents of local artists to beautify the city.
Video

Video US Muslim Leaders Condemn Islamic State

Leaders of America's Muslim community are condemning the violent extremism of the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria. The U.S. Muslim leaders say militants are exploiting their faith in a failed effort to justify violent extremism. VOA correspondent Meredith Buel reports.
Video

Video Bedouin Woman Runs Successful Business in Palestinian City

A Bedouin woman is breaking social taboos by running a successful vacation resort in the Palestinian town of Jericho. Bedouins are a sub-group of Arabs known for their semi-nomadic lifestyle. Zlatica Hoke says the resort in the West Bank's Jordan Valley is a model of success for women in the region.


Carnage and mayhem are part of daily life in northern Nigeria, the result of a terror campaign by the Islamist group Boko Haram. Fears are growing that Nigeria’s government may not know how to counter it, and may be making things worse. More

AppleAndroid