TWENTY-FIVE students are piled into Room 109 of the Problem Solving and Research Center, talking trash.
They’re saying the culture we live in is built around waste. Everything is disposable: the plastic forks they ate lunch with earlier, their clothing, even the computers they’re typing on. It’s all made to be obsolete — used, tossed, and replaced with something new.
“We don’t even know where our trash goes after we put it out on the curb,” one student points out. The others nod. The thought “Why don’t we know where our trash goes?” seems to hang in the air.
Professor Andrew Smith sits in the midst of the discussion circle taking it all in. He’s been teaching this course, called Philosophy of the Environment, at Drexel University for seven years now. In that time, a lot has changed. The first class he taught had 17 students, mostly in the humanities. Now the class consists of mostly environmental sciences and environmental studies students.
We don’t even know where our trash goes after we put it out on the curb.
For him, the thought maybe isn’t so heavy, because he’s thought about it before. About a week earlier, he and I were sitting in the lobby of Paul Peck talking about waste, litter, and how it all ties into our society’s environmental philosophy when he’d brought up putting garbage on the curb.
“For us it just disappears,” he said. “This is an absolutely new phenomenon. Until 40 or 50 years ago, the garbage didn’t disappear. Someone in our community had to deal with it, which meant that we had to be very careful about what we threw away.”
His course, for the most part, focuses on what a cultural transformation towards living sustainably would look like and how what is really sustainable doesn’t leave a trace. At the beginning of the term, students buy a book titled “What We Leave Behind” by Derrick Jensen and Arick McBay.
Its basic premise? Waste didn’t exist until the arrival of a plastic world.
We live according to disposability and convenience. Waste has never been so integral a part of our cultural identity or our everyday routines.
I AM SITTING in the Starbucks on The Summit’s ground floor on a Wednesday afternoon watching students order drinks. Plastic cup after plastic cup appears behind the counter as names are called.
Most customers stop at the counter before they leave to grab a lid, a coffee sleeve, two or three sugar packets, maybe a napkin in case of spillage.
I pay particular attention to those people who are sitting inside the shop and drinking from disposable cups. This tiny fragment, this culture of convenience, is the kind of thing Smith was talking about.
Starbucks customers use more than 4 billion disposable coffee cups per year. And these coffee cups? They cannot be recycled.
In 2014, Adam Milner, author of “Junkyard Planet: Travels in Billion Dollar Trash Trade” and Bloomberg View columnist published an article on this topic.
Milner discusses Starbucks’ 2008 consumer report, in which the company set a goal of serving 25 percent of its beverages to customers in personal, reusable tumblers by 2015. After personal tumbler usage came in at 1.9 percent in 2011, the company lowered its 2015 goal to 5 percent — and again came up short at 1.6 percent of users, fewer tumblers than had been used initially in 2011.
“Recycling seems like a simple, straightforward initiative but it’s actually quite challenging,” Starbucks’ recycling and environment page reads. “Not only are there municipal barriers to successful recycling in many cities, but it takes significant changes in behavior to get it right.”
STARBUCKS ISN'T the only food provider on Drexel’s campus using this grab-and-go disposable method.
Saxbys. Chipotle. Blaze. Chick-fil-A. Shake Shack. Wahoo’s. Joe.
Nearly all businesses use packaged materials nowadays, whether it be for to-go items or the convenience of fast and easy clean-up.
According to the EPA, containers and packaging alone account for nearly a quarter of the materials reaching U.S. land landfills today.
In fact, the EPA’s Sustainable Materials Management Program, which seeks to reduce the impact of waste materials on the environment, recommends that businesses take active steps to reduce customer waste by doing things like placing disposable options behind the counter, offering discounts for those who order in-house, and replacing disposable containers with reusable ones where possible.
While disposable packaging is certainly more convenient for these businesses in the short term, it may not always be cheaper.
The Ghirardelli Chocolate Co. produces chocolates at the company’s only manufacturing facility in California. Prior to 2007, it spent nearly $520,000 a year on the 580,000 cardboard boxes it used for distribution. With the help of Stopwaste.org, the company switched to plastic bins and has saved almost $2 million in packaging costs.
Of course, people are also opting for disposable products, for their own convenience, at a personal level. Disposables are household favorites.
Take the Swiffer Wet Jet for instance. Its initial purchase price sits at around $20. And in order to get any use out of it, the customer throws another $5 to $10 at the company for liquid and cotton cleaning pads. Let’s say the lifespan of the average Wet Jet is about four years and every month you need new cleaning products. How much does the Swiffer Wet Jet end up costing then?
For contrast, a Bissell steam mop, depending on the buyer’s preferences, usually costs somewhere in between $90 to $150. It may cost the user a little extra time and effort to clean the Bissell’s reusable cloth, but it’s cheaper in the long run.
THE SCHUYKILL RIVER runs adjacent to Drexel’s main campus and as a neighbor serves many roles.
A practice field for the crew team. A photo subject for those walking over the Spring Garden Street Bridge. And for some, the litterbugs at least, a de facto trash can.
Most of Philadelphia’s storm drains lead directly into the city’s waterways. This means that trash that might end up on the ground — gum wrappers, bags of chips, bottles of soda, anything — can end up in the Schuylkill or the Delaware.
Jonathan Liu, a 2016 graduate of Drexel’s architectural and civil engineering program, says that most trash flows into a river usually happens right after a big storm.
“Trash littered on the streets washes into inlets and out storm drains directly into the river,” Liu explained.
In 2015, Liu worked for the Philadelphia Water Department in the Office of Watersheds as a Drexel co-op. Usually, his job was to collect data from inlets around the city, but on certain days he’d get assigned “skimming duty” with a higher-up in the office.
Aptly named, “skimming duty” involves skimming along the Schuylkill for floatables that bob along in its waters. They might be things like water bottles, plastic bags or discarded wrappers. Things you’d see on the street, Liu said.
The system operates twice a week when the weather permits and is powered by Drexel co-ops.
In an attempt to keep the Schuylkill cosmetically clean, the Water Department launched the Floatables Skimming Program in 2006. As of June 30, 2013, this team had removed 7,173 tons of trash from Philadelphia’s waterways, with two operational boats; one operating above the Schuylkill’s dam and the other operating below.
Below the dam sails the R.E. Roy, a 39-foot skimmer boat. R.E. Roy does this in two ways: it coasts through matts of debris that float along the river, which will move the trash into buckets on its sides as water passes through. The design of the ship makes it capable of creating a current strong enough to push floatables onboard, through the grated buckets. In 2013 R.E. Roy operated March to November and removed 22.61 tons of debris and floatables from the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers.
A smaller pontoon boat, unnamed, navigates the Schuylkill upstream of the dam. It was responsible for the collection of 13.7 cubic yards of floatables during 2014. This is the one Liu has experience with. He went out on the skimming boat, as he calls it, dozens of times while he worked at Philadelphia Water.
“It’s like a treasure hunt for trash and random junk along the river,” he explained, noting that sometimes the hunt can get competitive between the two or three co-ops on duty.
“Sometimes you’ll find some really unexpected things like car axles, public trash cans, free cones, free basketballs, inflatable animals and stuff like that,” Liu noted.
He said his time cleaning the Schuylkill made him more concerned about the environment.
“Recently, the Schuylkill has gotten a lot cleaner. Beavers are starting to come back to the river again. But there’s still a ton of trash flowing into the river,” Liu said. “Usually, sewer water gets treated at PWD treatment facilities, but our sewer and stormwater infrastructure is old and Philly is constantly growing.”
The city’s older, combined sewer-and-stormwater lines weren’t designed to handle the volume of sewage they do today. So when Philadelphia gets a good amount of rainfall, the surge of water can tip them into overflow mode, which causes some of the contents to go directly into the river.
Philadelphia Water is responsible for more than 72,500 active inlets across the city. They have 32 dedicated inlet cleaning crews who remove around 9,058 tons of debris from these inlets per year. The average amount removed from each inlet was 250 lbs.
Unfortunately, these cleaning crews can’t catch all the trash that ends up in them.
“Hence, more litter in our rivers,” Liu explained. “That’s our drinking water by the way. You drink from the river you litter in. Philadelphia Water does more than a fantastic job cleaning and treating that water, so that it’s acceptable for consumption, but littering doesn’t make the job any easier.”
USING HIS PEN as his trash skewer, Mayor Jim Kenney created Philadelphia’s first ever Zero Waste and Litter Cabinet on Dec. 20, 2016. With this move, Philadelphia joined the ranks of other cities like New York and Los Angeles setting a “zero waste goal.”
What this means is that by 2035, Philly officials hope to increase the city’s trash diversion rate to 90 percent by finding new and innovative ways to reduce the city’s garbage.
According to Nic Esposito, the Zero Waste and Litter Cabinet’s director, a lot of the ideas being kicked around to achieve this goal will go into a city report that will be published for the public in July.
What he could talk about were a couple of objectives that different committees on his cabinet were leaning towards as pilot programs.
“We’re looking at data. We're looking at how to communicate the message. We’re looking at viable waste reduction programs and techniques. We’re looking at enforcement. And we’re also looking at the behavioral science behind all of this,” Esposito said, adding that the council was really interested in getting to the heart of issues on both the waste and litter side.
One of the ideas he was most excited about was expanding upon a litter index the Streets Department conducted in 2007. It was done using statistics from only a few neighborhoods due to a shortage of staff and resources and mostly written down on paper.
Working with new pattern-tracking technology, Esposito said his cabinet's goal was to create a more comprehensive litter index.
“If a lot of other city departments can take part in that we can get the clearest data possible on where litter problems are, how they’re happening and how to address them,” Esposito said.
And then also make that information public, which i think is really important, so the citizens can kind of see how their streets and neighborhoods rank up against others and where they can take action to change,” he continued.
Zero Waste and Litter will pilot this litter index in two neighborhoods this spring, plotting all the litter they find to create a digital map of the data.
If the program succeeds, it will be no small feat. It’s estimated that the city annually cleans up around 15,000 tons of illegal debris.
If you’re not in the habit of thinking about waste in such large quantities, this number might be a little hard to conceptualize. For comparison, a fully grown polar bear weighs nearly one ton. A set of killer whale testicles weighs approximately one ton. In one very unique case in 2012, a Rhode Island farmer’s prize-winning pumpkin weighed in at just over one ton at Frerich’s Farm 2016 Weigh-Off.
The amount of trash the Streets Department picks up in Philadelphia equates to 15,000 of any of these objects.
SEVEN DAYS a week maintenance workers clean the streets of Drexel University.
They sweep the streets with brooms and dustpans and biodiesel-fueled vehicles. They power wash gum and dirt off of sidewalks. They clear weeds. They remove stickers from poles. They scrub graffiti away. And in the fall, they clear leaves, if they find any, from open spaces.
Maintaining “Clean and Safe Streets” is part of the University City District’s development plan. Over the course of 2015, an estimated 154,736 bags of trash were collected — that’s 424 bags of trash per day.
Students notice. According to Katherine Colby, a Drexel junior, UCD’s work makes the campus visibly cleaner than neighborhoods she’s visited near Temple.
"People always tell me Philly’s dirty and I’m like, I live in University City,” Colby said.
Colby is from the Bahamas. She came to Drexel to study environmental sciences in 2013. Her curly brown hair is tucked beneath a Drexel BEES hat in a ponytail.
Comparing the two countries — she's picked up on a pattern.
“The more commercial areas tend to be cleaner,” she said. “But around fast food places and lower income residence areas it tends to get a lot dirtier.”
Colby spent her last co-op in the Bahamas working for an organization like the National Park Service for the United States. There, she said, there was so much litter that the people she worked with needed student groups and volunteers to help them clean up marshes and other parts of the ecosystem.
One thing Colby noticed is that there’s a dialogue between parents and kids about litter.
“I think a lot of kids now have been taught not to litter,” she said, noting that she used to work as a kids’ camp counselor. In this position, she noticed that the kids with parents who were constantly cleaning up after them, tended to be more careless about what they dropped on the ground.
One organization is trying to stop such carelessness in Philadelphia by teaching kids not to litter before they get in the habit of it — Keep Philadelphia Beautiful, an affiliate of Keep America Beautiful. It helps orchestrates projects in the physical and visual improvement of neighborhoods in the city.
One of KPB’s biggest initiatives is presenting interactive workshops on litter and recycling in schools throughout the city of Philadelphia’s elementary, middle and high schools. In 2016, it taught more than 1,800 students about the detrimental effects of litter and why and how to recycle.
“We think of our education as environmental education but also civic education as well,” said Michelle Feldman, KPB’s the executive director, who has been leading the organization for about five years.
She said that over the years they’ve found that different messages work for different audiences and different age ranges. For high schoolers, the message that really drives recycling home for them is that in the long run, it can save money. For smaller kids, she said they want to talk about how litter can hurt animals.
But Feldman makes sure to emphasize that kids aren’t the only ones KPB is working with. The organization encourages Philadelphia citizens to take charge of cleaning up their own communities. KPB even publishes an annual Community Cleanup Resource Guide, a compilation of programs and tips and planning resources to help Philadelphia citizens plan their own effective service days.
“Nothing gets adults talking like trash,” Felman said. “It’s a pet peeve that I’ve seen so many people have. Once you open up that can of worms, everybody has a trash story.”
Some are less fun than others.
Feldman said she’s heard about people trying to work together to clean up trashy vacant lots in their neighborhoods and coming into conflict with drug dealers, who use these areas to stash their goods.
“I’ve heard a lot of stories trying to clean up a lot on their block and drug dealers have been like ‘What are you doing? You can’t do this. We hide our stuff here,’” she said. “I’ve heard a lot of not-fun stories about that.”
But the stories aren’t all bad. She said the funniest ones are about the creative ways kids and their families recycle trash instead of throwing it away — making piggy banks out of milk jugs and little critters out of toilet paper rolls.
KPB likes to encourage people to reuse materials before they throw them away.
“Trash is such a complicated and complex issue,” she said. “It requires a multi-pronged approach.”
One of these approaches is helping people focus on cleaning up their own blocks. With the help of 230 volunteers from all over Philadelphia, KPB removed more than 4,600 pounds of debris from streets in 2016.
“We’re not gonna solve this problem unless everyone’s involved — residents, citizens, businesses,” Feldman reflected, “We all have a responsibility to keep our neighborhoods clean and I think it’s only gonna be solved with a comprehensive plan that involves everybody doing their part.”
No one, she says, can do it all.
“We’re not gonna solve this problem unless everyone’s involved — residents, citizens, businesses,” Feldman reflects, “We all have a responsibility to keep our neighborhoods clean and I think it’s only gonna be solved with a comprehensive plan that involves everybody doing their part.”
No one, she says, can do it all.
BACK IN PHILOSOPHY of the Environment, another discussion is occurring.
This one is about the human preference for convenience. Smith lectures that while living disposable lives full of take-out utensils and throw-away packaging may seem optimal now, it is under no illusion sustainable. Especially if the estimated 7.4 billion people on Earth all adopt such a lifestyle.
A slide Smith points to suggests that humans normalization of plastic has to do with our fear of death.
“Plastics are built to last,” it continues. “We fear natural processes outside of our control like aging, death, decomposition, and consumption by others. So we fabricate more permanent materials.”
In thought, he paces back and forth in front of his students, one hand on top of his head.
“This culture is killing the planet,” he says, half to himself and half to his classroom.
The students seem frustrated at this proposition. Partly because it is true and partly because they’re confused about what they can do to stop it.
“I’m kind of frustrated with the authors because they don’t offer any solutions to fix this,” one student says.
Smith responds that that is completely natural.
“We are a solution-oriented institution,” he says. “[And] the authors don’t have solutions. They are trying to disrupt the way we think about ourselves and the world that we live in.”
In particular, to think more about our waste and how it contributes to the world we live in. To think more about how we use compartmentalization to build a wall between the causes and effects of our actions.
And our inactions.
“We look to sovereignty to correct these kinds of things,” Smith continues. “And typically they regulate things that are bad for us. But in this day and age, I think it’s worth asking — who’s in control?”