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Waste is a Design Flaw

By Jonny Finity

As a species, we often take for granted our superiority to the rest of the animal kingdom. We point to the great cities we have built; the mechanical systems that we have engineered; the enormous problems our magnificent brains have enabled us to solve. And yet…

Reminders of humanity’s success are easy to spot. The failures are harder to see, because – well, because we don’t want to see them. We spend a lot of time and money hiding the unwanted side effects of our “success.” “Not in my backyard,” we say. We build a wall around them; we bury them in a distant landfill; we throw them away.

I recently spent a week visiting Tulum, Mexico, a small beach town on the Caribbean Sea. It’s famous for its ancient Mayan temples, crystalline underground pools, and long, uninterrupted stretches of white sand and turquoise waters. And at one point, at least, all of that was probably true.

Today, the beaches (at least, the ones not swept daily by resort staff) are littered in a near never-ending stream of human-made debris. Plastic bottles, glass bottles, Styrofoam blocks, unmatched flip-flops — all discards from cruise ships, Caribbean islands, or who knows where.

A colleague used an expression recently that stuck with me, “Waste is a design flaw.” When we realize that we’ve built a world of cities that can’t live without landfills, do we consider drafting a new design? Or do we look for space to build more landfills?

Visiting the remains of ancient civilization makes me acutely aware of the legacy that we modern humans are collectively creating for ourselves. I think about the archaeologists born five hundred years from today who make careers out of studying us, and the things we left behind.

I wonder, will the Mary Leakey of tomorrow rejoice when she unearths a “modern” landfill, excited by the discovery of an airless tomb of vacuum-sealed secrets? Or will she sigh, resigned to a future spent scraping up potato chip bags and packing peanuts?

Landfills are, in effect, a time capsule of our flaws. They are giant trophy cases filled with tributes to failed designs.

Fortunately, we ARE humans. You know: builders of great cities, engineers of powerful machines, owners of magnificent brains. Maybe we’ll emerge from that drafting room with a plan to create products and packaging designed to be entirely recycled, reused, consumed, or composted. Or maybe we’ll be the stars of a case study in design failure from a textbook written for the next generation.

Jonny Finity is the Marketing and Communications Manager for Chittenden Solid Waste District (CSWD).

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