Give people a century of cheap energy, unlimited water, and abundant forests, and it's no surprise that the result is a throwaway society. That's no excuse, but it does explain how we got here. Packaging-and products themselves-are just so cheap that it can be simpler to toss and replace them than to design and build things that last. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the typical American produces about 5 pounds of trash a day, and the nation as a whole about 260 million tons per year. And the rest of the world is nearly as profligate. Garbage dumps outside cities like Buenos Aires and Mumbai are themselves cities, with nightmarish parallel ecosystems of families who spend their days and nights combing through mountains of refuse for enough scraps to eke out another day of existence.
Meanwhile, the things we throw away are neither gone nor forgotten. Industrial chemicals that saturate everything from magazine pages to discarded toys leach into groundwater, and nonbiodegradable plastics float on the surface of the ocean until they're eaten by unsuspecting turtles or sea birds. And the garbage that is biodegradable ferments into methane and other greenhouse gases that distort the atmosphere.
Now contrast this system with that of the natural world, where refuse, whether feces, dry leaves, or the remains of a lion kill, is processed by scavengers, insects, and microorganisms or is broken down by the elements and returned to the food chain. Every creature's waste is another's vital raw material. Viewed through nature's lens, the throwaway society is outrageously inefficient, since most of what we throw away contains energy that could be used, among other things, to improve the lives of the people now sifting through it for a living. Thankfully, that day is just about here, as a series of new technologies capable of either eliminating waste or putting it to use hit the market. This decade will see the birth of "waste-to-energy" as a viable industry that's both big and, since its energy source-garbage-is free, potentially very profitable.