Radio host discusses issues of consumer waste in U.S.

By Tressa Versteeg

Garbage goddess Tess Vigeland, host of public radio’s Market Place Money, spoke about American consumption and how much we throw away before an audience in Kagin Commons Wednesday night.Vigeland spoke about her experience this past September carrying her trash with her for two weeks in an effort to better grasp the concept of consumerism’s effects on the environment. She dubbed the drill “Tess’s Trash Challenge.” The challenge earned her a variety of nicknames, she said, including Bag Lady, Dumpster Diva, Mess Vigeland and Trash Vigeland.

“Have you really thought about how much garbage you generate?” Vigeland asked the audience.

The trash challenge raised questions about how sustainable the consumption-driven lifestyle of the American middle class really is.

“How long can we promote what is really a throw-away society?” she asked.

According to Vigeland, the population of the United States’ has risen 60 percent since 1960. However, the trash thrown away has increased 180 percent. On average, each person produces four and a half pounds of garbage a day, contributing to the 42 million tons of garbage that the country produces every year.

“I didn’t believe that statistic until I started carrying my trash around,” she said.

Vigeland said that alternatives to generating waste need to be easily accessible to the consumer. It should be, “easy, cheap, and palatable to recycle and compost. We need to make it easier than to throw stuff away,” she said.

During her trial, Vigeland found that most of her waste was created at work because only glass, plastic bottles, and white paper could be recycled. One item that appeared frequently in her bag was an iconic empty Starbucks cup.

“We throw away, but away is a place and something we just don’t think about,” she said.

Vigeland also discussed the significance of landfills within the consumer waste problem. New technologies allow landfills to be more easily concealed; however new landfills encourage more consumption. Trash is also exported to neighboring countries to make more room. Minnesota exports 33 percent of its trash. “Zero waste is never going to happen, especially in this country,” she said.

Vigeland also stressed the effects of excess packaging. She said that people can “pre-cycle” buying in bulk and choosing products that minimize packaging.

“All these little changes do eventually add up to something,” she said.

Vigeland also emphasized the importance of consumer pressure on manufacturers. Wal-Mart, for instance, is taking initiatives to cut back on unnecessary packaging following consumer pressure. By 2025, the company says, Wal-Mart intends to be “package neutral” and recycle and compost as much material as possible.

Even so, she said, a greater national plan is needed to encourage alternatives to waste generation. Switzerland, for instance, heavily taxes garbage disposal and has free recycling. Germany fines citizens who don’t recycle paper, plastic, glass and aluminum.

“There is a ridiculous system for recycling [in the United States], because there is no system.that’s just frankly stupid,” she said.

But the root of the problem may be cultural, as well, and that may be more difficult to combat, Vigeland said, especially in lieu of President Bush’s 2001 decree that shopping is patriotic.

“We make money to be happy. Is it making us happier?” she asked.

Audience questions covered a variety of issues, some local, such a nearby garbage incinerator controversy, to farm subsidies.

One reccuring theme throughout the session was about how individuals could take action, either as consumers or activists.

Vigeland ended in a response to those questions, stating that people, not policy, are what have changed things in the past.

It will take “an awareness and a desire on the part of the American consumers to change things,” she said.