We feel bad when we throw out things that shouldn’t have become trash (like uneaten, past-its-prime produce) or expend resources needlessly (like leaving lights on when we’re away). This guilty feeling is deeply ingrained; the origins of the expression “waste not, want not” can be traced to the 1500s.
But we do waste, in ways big and small. The result is this shocking fact: Of the minerals, fossil fuels, foodstuffs, and other raw materials that we take from the Earth and turn into products, about two-thirds ends up as waste. And, more likely than not, that waste is part of a larger environmental problem.
“Plastic trash drifted into rivers and oceans; so did nitrates and phosphates leaching from fertilized fields. A third of all food rotted, even as the Amazon was deforested to produce more,” writes senior environment editor Robert Kunzig in “Is a world without trash possible?,” the cover story in this issue. And the biggest waste-caused problem? Climate change is what happens when “we burn fossil fuels and scatter the waste—carbon dioxide—into the atmosphere.”