Scenes From a Shutdown

credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images

This is what a linear economy looks like when it is broken.

Single-use packaging is oh so convenient, and essentially makes much of our modern life possible. But it is a linear system, where it goes from the store to the customer, who then has to do something with it. First, we just threw it away, then we learned not to be a litterbug, then we were trained to recycle. In all cases, we depend on the kindness of strangers, usually paid for through taxes, to pick it up, empty the bins, and take it to the landfill or try to recycle. It is a line, from cradle to grave.

garbage on street

© Win McNamee/Getty ImagesRecently, while writing a post about how hard it is to make that linear system circular, I looked at Getty Images to find some photos and discovered what happens when the government isn't there to pick up the garbage.

garbage in front of white house

© Win McNamee/Getty Images

Some of the photos are extraordinary, a city covered in garbage – all these beautiful federally controlled and maintained parks and properties, a complete mess. It becomes a graphic demonstration of how the taxpayer essentially subsidizes the food industry, which sells us the packaging but takes no responsibility for dealing with it after the fact. Shut down the government and the fast food ecosystem breaks down in front of your eyes.

garbage overflowing

© Win McNamee/Getty Images

This is not something that came naturally; we had to be carefully taught. As Heather Rogers noted in Alternet:

I think it's important to acknowledge what's happened on the cultural level in terms of indoctrinating people to disposability. A lot of effort has been made to teach people to throw things away. It's not something that that comes natural to people. It's just use something and discard it, that's something we've had to learn how to do.
garbage on street with gulls

© Win McNamee/Getty Images

Leyla Acaroglu has described how this is key to the economics of a hyper-consumption lifestyle:

We are set to see a perpetuation of the addictive cycle that has led us to the mess we are in — that being the all-pervasive disposability practices that designers replicate, governments try to manage and clean up, and everyday citizens like you and me have to accept all of it as normal.
kid biking in garbage


And now we are seeing what happens when things are not normal. As Acaroglu has noted:

Countries spend billions of dollars every year to build and manage landfills that just compress and bury this stuff. While people complain about dirty cities and giant ocean plastic waste islands, producers continue to deflect all responsibility for the end of life management of their products, and designers are complacent in the perpetuation of stuff designed for disposability.
food truck garbage

© Mark Wilson/Getty Images

I would have hoped that the food truck industry would take some responsibility and put out some garbage bags, but they are just as complicit; it is someone else's problem, not theirs. But don't get me started on the scourge of food trucks.

garbage in dark

© Win McNamee/Getty Images

Washington is such a beautiful city to visit, with so much to see. But now it is hard to see past all the garbage, almost entirely composed of single-use packaging. But it is now easy to see how much our fast food system depends on taxpayer funding to work. Perhaps it is time to take this off the backs of taxpayers and have big fat taxes on every single-use container, a true user and producer pay system. Otherwise we might all end up buried in this stuff.