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Is it a bad idea to throw garbage down the public garbage chute? Sustainably speaking, garbage "dumps" & toxic incinerators don't seem like a sustainable method over time. Although maybe someone will invent a carbon zero incinerator/power generator one day and they can fuel it with all the junk from the dump.

But if I am trying to live sustainably currently, do I just have to avoid buying anything that will one day turn into "garbage"?

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In general most collected garbage will be either incinerated or end up in land fills.

The garbage that is "recycled" (like PET bottles, say) is usually downcycled (into carpets, say).

A well-known motto is

  1. Reduce
  2. Reuse
  3. Recycle

(in that order)

As for point one, there are more and more products, which are sold with a lifetime warranty. This might be primarily for marketing purposes, but the warranty at least keeps the manufacturer partially accountable for their product. Disposable or low-quality products are never sold with a lifetime warranty, because they're expected to be "chucked" rather sooner than later.

For point two, there are initiatives which try to help consumers reuse certain packaging. Second-hand books/clothes/furniture is one obvious aspect. Another would be large-scale reuse of glass bottles.

For point three, the "last resort" is to buy and throw away products which are recyclable. Organic materials (food, in particular) can be composted.

Ultimately, the consumer has the power of choosing more sustainable products and less waste is always more sustainable than more waste...

  • 3
    "less waste is always more sustainable than more waste..." All waste is not equal. Some types of waste are more hazardous, or more expensive to dispose of, or even use materials that are more scarce. Otherwise, great answer! :-) – Highly Irregular Jun 12 '14 at 4:18
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Your first priority when living sustainably is to reduce the extent to which you rely on others for anything, since they may not share your priorities. If you get your food or energy from others you have to worry about how they got it. If you give your garbage to others to dispose of, you have to worry about how they will dispose of it.

Reducing your garbage comes in three broad areas

  • replace large things (cars, furniture, electronics, clothes) less often, try to buy used, repair things instead of replacing them
  • reduce, reuse and recycle in your day to day life (buy things with less packaging, compost and recycle what you can, use yogurt tubs to store leftovers instead of throwing yogurt tubs away and buying Tupperware, etc
  • change the way you get rid of things when you're finished with them - such as taking things apart to enable recycling, selling or giving away instead of dumping, etc.

You have to consider the lifetime impact of some things. A new couch every 5 years vs every 10 years means 5 extra couches over 50 years - this far outweighs what you do with your egg cartons and yogurt tubs. That said, the list above contains items that don't conflict with each other. You can expect your car or couch to last longer (my couch is over 20 years old at the moment) AND reuse your yogurt tubs AND buy local food that was sustainably raised and delivered to you without packaging. It all adds up.

Also, some choices naturally reinforce others. When I go to the farm to pick up my vegetable share and buy eggs, I'm reusing the plastic bags and egg cartons from the previous visit. That's easy to do there, harder to do at the supermarket, harder still at a restaurant where you don't see what they throw away on your behalf. Thinking about the big picture changes a lot of behaviors at once.

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