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

    Video Democrats Clinton, Kaine Offer 'Very Different Vision' Than Trump

    In a jab at Trump, Clinton says her team wants to 'build bridges, not walls'; Obama Hails Kaine's record; Trump calls Kaine a 'job-killer'

    Turkey Wants Pakistan to Close Down institutions, Businesses Linked to Gulen

    Thousands of Pakistani students are enrolled in Gulen's commercial network of around two dozen institutions operating in Pakistan for over two decades

    AU Passport A Work in Progress

    Who will get the passport and what the benefits are still need to be worked out

    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.
    In State of Emergency, Turkey’s Erdogan Focuses on Spiritual Movementi
    X
    July 22, 2016 11:49 AM
    The state of emergency that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has declared is giving him even more power to expand a purge that has seen an estimated 60,000 people either arrested or suspended from their jobs. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports from Istanbul.
    Video

    Video In State of Emergency, Turkey’s Erdogan Focuses on Spiritual Movement

    The state of emergency that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has declared is giving him even more power to expand a purge that has seen an estimated 60,000 people either arrested or suspended from their jobs. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports from Istanbul.
    Video

    Video Scientists in Poland Race to Save Honeybees

    Honeybees are in danger worldwide. Causes of what's known as colony collapse disorder range from pesticides and loss of habitat to infections. But scientists in Poland say they are on track to finding a cure for one of the diseases. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Wall Already Runs Along Parts of US-Mexico Border

    The Republican Party’s presidential nominee, Donald Trump, gained the support of many voters by saying he would build a wall to keep undocumented immigrants and drugs from coming across the border from Mexico. Critics have called his idea impractical and offensive to Mexico, while supporters say such a bold approach is needed to control the border. VOA’s Greg Flakus has more from the border town of Nogales, Arizona.
    Video

    Video New HIV Tests Emphasize Rapid Results

    As the global fight against AIDS intensifies, activists have placed increasing importance on getting people to know their HIV status. Some companies are developing new HIV testing methods designed to be quick, easy and accurate. Thuso Khumalo looks at the latest methods, presented at the International AIDS conference in Durban, South Africa.
    Video

    Video African Youth with HIV Urge More Support

    HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, is the top killer of teens in sub-Saharan Africa. But many youths say their experience with the virus is unique and needs to be addressed differently than the adult epidemic. VOA South African Correspondent Anita Powell reports.
    Video

    Video Poor Residents in Cleveland Not Feeling High Hopes of Republican Convention

    With the Republican Party's National Convention underway in Cleveland, Ohio, delegates and visitors are gathered in the host city's downtown - waiting to hear from the party's presidential candidate, Donald Trump. But a few kilometers from the convention's venue, Cleveland's poorest residents are not convinced Trump or his policies will make a difference in their lives. VOA's Ramon Taylor spoke with some of these residents as well as some of the Republican delegates and filed this report.
    Video

    Video Pop-Up Art Comes to Your Living Room, Backyard and Elsewhere

    Around the world, independent artists and musicians wrestle with a common problem: where to exhibit or perform? Traditional spaces such as museums and galleries are reserved for bigger names, and renting a space is not feasible for many. Enter ArtsUp, which connects artists with venue owners. Whether it’s a living room, restaurant, office or even a boat, pop-up events are bringing music and art to unexpected places. Tina Trinh has more.
    Video

    Video With Yosemite as Backdrop, Obama Praises National Parks

    Last month, President Barack Obama and his family visited some of the most beautiful national parks in the U.S. Using the majestic backdrop of a towering waterfall in California's Yosemite National Park, Obama praised the national park system which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. He talked about the importance of America’s “national treasures” and the need to protect them from climate change and other threats. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
    Video

    Video Counter-Islamic State Coalition Plots Next Steps

    As momentum shifts against Islamic State in Iraq, discussions are taking place about the next steps for driving the terrorist group from its final strongholds. Secretary of State John Kerry is hosting a counter-IS meeting at the State Department, a day after defense ministers from more than 30 countries reviewed and agreed upon a course of action. VOA Pentagon correspondent Carla Babb reports.
    Video

    Video Russia's Participation at Brazil Olympic Games Still In Question

    The International Olympic Committee has delayed a decision on whether to ban all Russian teams from competing in next month's Olympic Games in Brazil over allegations of an elaborate doping scheme. The World Anti-Doping Agency recently released an independent report alleging widespread doping by Russian athletes at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. So far, only Russian track and field athletes have been barred from the Summer Games in Brazil. VOA's Zlatica Hoke has more.
    Video

    Video Scotland’s Booming Whisky Industry Fears Brexit Hangover

    After Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, Scotland’s government wants to break away from the United Kingdom – fearing the nation’s exports are at risk. Among the biggest of these is whisky. Henry Ridgwell reports on a time of turmoil for those involved in the ancient art of distilling Scotland’s most famous product.
    Video

    Video Millennials Could Determine Who Wins Race to White House

    With only four months to go until Americans elect a new president, one group of voters is getting a lot more attention these days: those ages 18 to 35, a generation known as millennials. It’s a demographic that some analysts say could have the power to decide the 2016 election. But a lot depends on whether they actually turn out to vote. VOA’s Alexa Lamanna reports.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora