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

Photogallery Early Nigeria Results Show Buhari Leading; Tampering Concerns Mount

One local group monitoring polls is concerned politicians might use security agencies to 'fiddle with the election collation process' at state level More

UN: 7,300 Civilians Killed in Boko Haram Insurgency

A senior UN humanitarian official tells the United Nations Security Council 1,000 people have been killed this year More

Turkish President Warns Iran About Trying to Dominate Middle East

Warning comes amid growing concerns inside Turkey that it will be sucked into a sectarian conflict with its neighbor 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.
Film Tells Story of Musicians in Mali Threatened by Jihadistsi
X
Greg Flakus
March 30, 2015 6:48 PM
At this year's annual South by Southwest film and music festival in Austin, Texas, some musicians from Mali were on hand to promote a film about how their lives were upturned by jihadists who destroyed ancient treasures in the city of Timbuktu and prohibited anyone from playing music under threat of death. As VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Austin, some are afraid to return to their hometowns even though the jihadists are no longer in control there.
Video

Video Film Tells Story of Musicians in Mali Threatened by Jihadists

At this year's annual South by Southwest film and music festival in Austin, Texas, some musicians from Mali were on hand to promote a film about how their lives were upturned by jihadists who destroyed ancient treasures in the city of Timbuktu and prohibited anyone from playing music under threat of death. As VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Austin, some are afraid to return to their hometowns even though the jihadists are no longer in control there.
Video

Video With Coalition Airstrikes, Iraq Entering 'Last Page' of IS Battle

American warplanes joined Iraq's battle against the so-called 'Islamic State' in northern Iraq late Wednesday, as Iraqi ground troops launched a massive assault on Tikrit. Analysts say the offensive could take the coalition a step further towards Mosul, the largest city held by Islamic State forces. Others say it could also deepen already-dangerous sectarian tensions in the region. VOA's Heather Murdock has more from Cairo.
Video

Video Philippines Wants Tourists Spending Money at New Casinos

Tourism is a multi-billion dollar industry in the Philippines. Close to five million foreign visitors traveled there last year, perhaps lured by the country’s tropical beaches. But Jason Strother reports from Manila that the country hopes to entice more travelers to stay indoors and spend money inside new casinos.
Video

Video Civilian Casualties Push Men to Join Rebels in Ukraine

The continued fighting in eastern Ukraine and the shelling of civilian neighborhoods seem to be pushing more men to join the separatist fighters. Many of the new recruits are residents of Ukraine made bitter by new grievances, as well as old. VOA's Patrick Wells reports.
Video

Video Islamic State Prisoners Talk of Curiosity, God, Regret

Islamic State fighter, a prisoner of Kurdish YPG forces, asked his family asking for forgiveness: "I destroyed myself and I destroyed them along with me." The Syrian youth was one of two detainees who spoke to VOA’s Kurdish Service about the path they chose; their names have been changed and identifying details obscured. VOA's Zana Omer reports.
Video

Video Germanwings Findings Raise Issue of Psychological Testing for Pilots

More is being discovered about the co-pilot in the crash of Germanwings Flight 9525 in the French Alps. Investigators say he was hiding a medical condition, raising questions about the mental qualifications of pilots. VOA's Carolyn Presutti reports.
Video

Video Hi-tech Motorbike Helmet's Goal: Improve Road Safety

In cities with heavily congested traffic, people can get around much faster on a motorcycle than in a car. But a rider who is not sure of his route may have to stop to look at the map or consult a GPS. A Russian start-up company is working to make navigation easier for motorcyclists. Designers at Moscow-based LiveMap are developing a smart helmet with a built-in navigation system, head-mounted display and voice recognition. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video DOJ: Illinois National Guard Soldier Tried to Join ISIS

U.S. federal law enforcement agents arrested two suburban Chicago men accused of trying to join ISIS overseas, while also plotting attacks in the United States. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports from the Midwest state of Illinois, one of those arrested is a soldier of the Illinois National Guard.
Video

Video New Wheelchair Is Easier to Use, Increases Mobility

Traditional push-rim wheelchairs create a lot of stress for arm, shoulder and neck muscles and joints. A redesigned chair, based on readily available bicycle technology, radically increases mobility while reducing the physical effort. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Liberia's Almost Last Ebola Patient Grateful but Still Grieving

Beatrice Yardolo was to make history as Liberia’s last Ebola patient. Liberians recently started counting down 42 days, the period that has to go by without a single new infection until the World Health Organization can declare a country Ebola-free. That countdown stopped on March 20 when there was another new case of Ebola, making Yardolo’s story a reminder that Ebola is far from over. Benno Muchler reports from Monrovia.
Video

Video Cambodian Land Grabs Threaten Traditional Communities

Indigenous communities in Cambodia's Ratanakiri province say the government’s economic land concession policy is taking away their land and traditional way of life, making many fear that their identity will soon be lost. Local authorities, though, have denied this is the case. VOA's Say Mony went to investigate and filed this report, narrated by Colin Lovett.
Video

Video Space Program Status Disappoints 'Last Man on the Moon'

One of the films that drew big crowds last week at the annual South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, tells the story of the last human being to stand on the moon, U.S. astronaut Eugene Cernan. It has been 42 years since Cernan returned from the moon and he laments that no one else has gone there since. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports.

VOA Blogs

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More