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Why Worry about Waste?

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Is trash just an inconvenience, or is it a reminder that our present society has some very misplaced values and priorities. Does God care about trash? What can it teach us about His coming Kingdom?


Will we ever find a solution to the problem of trash?

It was not really a crash—more like a thud. I flicked on the lights and hurried down the stairs to investigate. I opened the front door, turned on the porch light, and scanned the front yard. Nothing. Finally, I returned inside and went back to bed.

The light of day revealed the story. Trash was strewn all over the grass in front of our house near the highway. Skid marks showed where the reckless, speeding driver had slid off the road, nicked my neighbor's mailbox and pulverized mine, then plowed into my full trash bin, scattering garbage all along the ditch. He left behind a busted headlight as a souvenir.

Our garbage bin—at least it had been one before it was reduced to puzzle pieces—had been brim full the night before, put out in anticipation of the city's weekly garbage pickup. But now, broken bits of the bin were everywhere. And smelly and slimy garbage—my garbage! I looked at the filthy mess for a long time in disbelief. Finally, I got to work collecting and bagging the garbage again. This time, it made it safely to the dump.

In our modern, post–industrial world, garbage rarely becomes an issue until it is on our doorstep, so to speak—or scattered over our front lawn, assaulting our senses. And yet, we produce a prodigious amount of it, especially in the United States. Ecology writer Heather Rogers observes, "In 2003 Americans threw out almost 500 billion pounds of paper, glass, plastic, wood, food, metal, clothing, dead electronics and other refuse" (Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage, p. 2). While rich cities all over Western Europe and North America produce large amounts of garbage, America leads the pack. University of Michigan economics professor Richard Porter found that household per capita municipal solid waste production had grown from 2.7 pounds per person per day in 1960 to 4.3 pounds per person per day by 1996 (The Economics of Waste, p. 1). Statistics from the Environmental Protection Agency confirm that this is still roughly what we produce today.

Trash can quickly grow from a minor annoyance to a grievous health hazard. About 2,300 landfills dot the American landscape, including one—Fresh Kills Landfill, in New York City—so enormous it can even be seen from space (Rogers, p. 1)! Newer landfills have installed barrier liners to keep dangerous chemicals from reaching ground water, but even the best physical barriers will eventually break down through natural deterioration,

Even if trash is incinerated, it poses a serious health risk. "As of the year 2000, according to the United Nations Environment Programme, municipal waste incinerators were responsible for creating 69 percent of worldwide dioxin emissions" (Rogers, p. 5). Dioxins are extremely dangerous chemicals that go airborne or linger on ash when paper and plastic are burned together.

The effect of trash can be devastating. In Bangladesh, for example, "plastic bags have clogged and destroyed drainage systems, causing such major flooding that the government outlawed the manufacture of disposal synthetic totes in 2002" (Rogers, p. 8). Northern Arizona University professor Jacqueline Vaughn points out that, in some cases, an unofficial "scavenging industry" has developed around landfills. Trash–pickers face dangers from injuries while scavenging or from the "garbage mafia" that rules its territory with violence and intimidation (Waste Management, p. 111).

Surprisingly, the export of trash has grown into a big business. In 2002, more than $1 billion of American trash was sent to other countries for "processing." What happens to it? An estimated 80 percent of e–waste (high–tech castoffs like computers and cell phones) ends up in poor areas of Asia and Africa. Guiyu, China, is considered the "center of e–waste recycling; dumping and burning has rendered the local water not potable for drinking, and the river there has 200 times the acceptable levels of acid and 2,400 times the acceptable level of lead" (Vaughn, p. 109).

Most of us in Western nations may be largely shielded from the world's trash problem. After all, for many, a garbage truck comes by once a week or so to pick up our trash and haul it away, out of our lives forever. But is it really gone? Or is it just out of sight, at someone else's front door?

Waste Throughout History

Waste management has been a concern for thousands of years. In the Indus Valley in Pakistan, archaeologists have found evidence of ancient methods, dating back to 2500bc, for removing household waste. "Drinking water flowed into houses in troughs; liquid wastes went out in separate troughs; and solid waste was dumped into a pile outside the house or into street–corner bins and was then taken out of the city by regular municipal employees" (Porter, p. 2). Around 500bc the first landfills appeared in Greece, and "edicts forbidding littering were promulgated two centuries later" (ibid.).

Modern recycling programs have had some success, and technologies exist to lessen the amount of waste deposited in landfills or incinerated. One Israeli company has developed a process using plasma gasification melting technology to change municipal waste into "inert by-products such as glass and clean energy… the solid material that is produced by the process can be used by the construction industry for tiles and blocks" (Vaughn, p. 99).

As of April 2011, more than 500 of the approximately 2,300 landfills in the U.S. were collecting methane gas for later use as fuel. On a smaller scale, farms around the world are using anaerobic biogas digesters to extract methane gas from livestock manure and make it available as a cooking fuel.

What will the future bring? Will recycling, composting and even high-tech solutions provide a way out of our trash dilemma? Or will the growing population and globalized economy produce more and more garbage beyond what our world can handle?

Stewardship, from the Beginning

The Bible has a lot to say about the environment and how to treat it. And it all starts in the beginning. When God gave the first human beings a healthy and thriving environment to live in, He gave them responsibility to care for it: "Then the Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to tend and keep it" (Genesis 2:15). The human family was given dominion over the environment (Genesis 1:28), but also was charged with keeping, protecting, and guarding it for future generations. Mankind was given the job of stewardship of the earth.

So, ask yourself: how are we doing as the stewards of our home? Are we taking care of it as God intended? True Christians are not called to be "radical environmentalists" in the political sense we often think of today, but rather are to be faithful stewards that can be entrusted with the whole world at Christ's return (Revelation 5:10).

How deeply does God care about the environment? Notice that He gave the ancient Israelites a very basic instruction regarding hygiene: bury your waste! "You shall have an implement among your equipment, and when you sit down outside, you shall dig with it and turn and cover your refuse. For the Lord your God walks in the midst of your camp, to deliver you and give your enemies over to you; therefore your camp shall be holy, that He may see no unclean thing among you, and turn away from you" (Deuteronomy 23:13–14).

God intended to dwell with His people, and did not consider a filth-filled environment appropriate for them. As His people were to be clean spiritually and mentally, He also intended for them to keep their environment physically clean. Even in warfare, God told the Israelites to remember the environment: "When you besiege a city for a long time, while making war against it to take it, you shall not destroy its trees by wielding an ax against them; if you can eat of them, do not cut them down to use in the siege, for the tree of the field is man's food" (Deuteronomy 20:19). God did not want the Israelites to pursue a "scorched earth" policy. Even in a time of warfare, He wanted them to think about the future and about the trees of the field that provide food and sustenance.

Why did God care about these small physical details? Because obedience to His laws and statutes brings the blessings of long life and freedom from disease. God outlines a way of life that promotes sustainable use of the land, so it can be used and enjoyed for successive generations.

By contrast, in our consumption-crazed culture today, we sometimes pursue our desires with reckless abandon, not considering how our choices will affect the lives of generations yet unborn. What kind of world will the next thousand years bring? More trash polluting our land, poisoning our water, and floating in our oceans? Or is there a solution to our garbage mess?

A Thousand Years of Trash?

Jesus Christ will soon return to this earth, to set up His government and rule all nations (Revelation 2:27). What will the world be like under the just reign of Christ? Jesus Christ will certainly not take a "hands-off" approach to waste management in His Kingdom. God wants the whole world to be like the Garden of Eden again (Isaiah 51:3). As people turn from their old selfish ways, God promises that repentant sinners will have their sins forgiven and their land healed (2 Chronicles 7:14). He will heal the waters so fish will thrive again (Zechariah 14:8; Ezekiel 47:8–9).

How can we know that God will not want His Kingdom to be littered with decaying trash? One passage in the book of Ezekiel describes a prophesied event from which we can draw an important principle. During the Millennium, the nations of Gog and Magog will lead an attempted rebellion against God, but will soundly be defeated. Notice how Scripture describes the aftermath of that uprising: "'For seven months the house of Israel will be burying [the bodies of those killed in the war], in order to cleanse the land… They will set apart men regularly employed, with the help of a search party, to pass through the land and bury those bodies remaining on the ground, in order to cleanse it" (Ezekiel 39:12–14).

God wants the land to be clean! He does not want decaying refuse to mar the landscape and pollute mankind's food and water supplies. Indeed, in His Kingdom the whole world will be cleansed from the decay and corruption so prevalent in our present age. As the Apostle Paul wrote, "For the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God" (Romans 8:19). How soon we need that day to come!

True Waste Management

What, then, will waste management in God's Kingdom look like? Interestingly, Ezekiel 39 gives us perspective. Conservation will be a byword. Notice that, after the attempted rebellion described in Ezekiel 39, the Israelite nations will for seven years not need to chop down trees from the forest—they will be using materials left on the battlefield for fuel (Ezekiel 39:9–10). God does not waste anything, and He will teach human beings to do the same.

Many people are familiar with Isaiah's prophetic description in which men will "beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks" (Isaiah 2:4). Certainly this is a depiction of peace—of the end of war. But have you ever thought about what else this prophecy is telling us? Under Christ's direction, people will be using—and reusing—materials, instead of just discarding them when broken or not needed. Metal weapons will be recycled into farm implements!

It is interesting to note that, in the same prophecy, Isaiah condemns ancient Israel for falling into a wasteful consumer-driven mentality: "Their land is also full of silver and gold, and there is no end to their treasures; their land is also full of horses, and there is no end to their chariots" (Isaiah 2:7). Are our nations today that much different? Our "chariots" are cars and our "treasures" are household goods, which we purchase and discard at an ever-faster pace, tempted by an advertising industry dedicated to fueling our ever-growing sense of "need" to spend and use and throw away, again and again.

Trashing Our Health?

Major waste disposal sites may remove their trash from public view, but concentrating so much trash in one place greatly increases the risk of health problems. Scientific studies continue to highlight serious health risks for those who live near waste management sites. People who live near solid waste or “landfill” sites face increased risk of cancer, birth defects, respiratory or lung problems, skin ulcerations, memory loss and depression. Those living near waste incinerators face increased risk of cancer and birth defects, as well as mental health problems. Children are most at risk, along with those who consume meat, milk and vegetables produced near the sites.

Food produced near waste disposal sites will collect toxic chemicals from the environment and then concentrate them. Plants do this in their fruit, while animals do this in both their milk and their muscle (the meat we eat).

Although the waste disposal process releases only minimal amounts of chemicals into the air, there appears to be a dose-response effect on the human body, meaning that the longer one lives near a site, and the closer one lives to the site, the higher the risk becomes for developing health problems. Many chemicals build up in the body over time, with effects not felt until years after the first exposure.

—Scott Winnail

Are you stuck on the consumer merry-go-round? Or are you learning to be a good steward of the blessings God has given you, as you prepare for the Kingdom of God? Jesus Christ warned, "Take heed and beware of covetousness, for one's life does not consist in the abundance of the things he possesses" (Luke 12:15). Wise King Solomon found that consuming does not satisfy: "All things are full of labor; man cannot express it. The eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing" (Ecclesiastes 1:8).

Despite this long-held knowledge, our modern capitalist society is largely built around "planned obsolescence"—a deliberate plan to keep consumers buying new things! Some years ago, a friend of mine described his experience working for a clock manufacturer. The company engineered each clock to wear out in a pre-planned period of time shortly after its warranty had expired! Additionally, when an old clock did wear out, it was cheaper to buy a new one than to repair the old one.

What is wrong with this system? It feeds on more and more consumption, and generates more and more waste! "Consumption lies at the heart of American life and economic health, and intrinsic to consumption is garbage… The world of trash did not always exist as it does today. In the nineteenth century refuse was sorted, municipal waste was composted, and all kinds of materials that left the home as discards were extensively reused. But with industrialization and two massive world wars the production system was radically transformed, and so too was garbage" (Rogers, p. 9).

Imagine the difference it would make if most household goods were crafted to last for 20, 30 or even 50 years! Think of how this would change consumers' attitudes toward spending. And what if it were consistently less expensive to repair broken items instead of casting them away? That change alone would dramatically reduce the volume of garbage in our municipal waste streams. Consider this November 2009 data from the United States Environmental Protection Agency: In 2008, 31 percent of the municipal solid waste generated in the United States came in the form of packaging and containers—that amounts to 76,760,000 tons of garbage, just from constantly buying new stuff! (Municipal Solid Waste Generation, Recycling, and Disposal in the United States: Detailed Tables and Figures for 2008).

The EPA report also reveals that Americans are tremendous wasters of food. In 2008, 13 percent of the total garbage produced in the country was in the form of food scraps. That comes to about 31,790,000 tons of food thrown away in one year. Another 13 percent of total waste in 2008—about 32,900,000 tons—came from yard trimmings (ibid.).

Truly, modern society has been seduced into adopting a culture of wastefulness. Thankfully, this will change under the rule of Jesus Christ in the Millennium.

What About You?

What role will today's Christians play in the Millennium? Ruling under Jesus Christ, they will be given responsibility to teach all of mankind a way of life that emphasizes wise stewardship of natural resources. "And the Lord said, 'Who then is that faithful and wise steward, whom his master will make ruler over his household, to give them their portion of food in due season? Blessed is that servant whom his master will find so doing when he comes. Truly, I say to you that he will make him ruler over all that he has" (Luke 12:42–44). Christians who practice wise stewardship today, taking good care of what God has given them, are preparing for their future in the Kingdom of God! May God bring that day soon, when "everyone shall sit under his vine and under his fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid" (Micah 4:4).

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