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How Cities Can Lead the Fight Against Trash

Ideas for helping cities better manage their enormous waste streams.

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I awoke at dawn in my Times Square hotel, stepped into the bathroom, and with a shudder starting thinking of Jeremy Irons.

Not after looking in the mirror – far from it – but because the night before I’d heard him talk about the massive amount of plastic there is in the world, overflowing from landfills, spewing toxins in the air when burned, floating in massive flotillas in the oceans, stubbornly refusing to biodegrade. And there it was at my sink – the comb I’d requested, wrapped in plastic, the toothbrush, the razor. All handed to me, for good measure, in a plastic bag.

I went to make coffee, and the filter was plastic. The Styrofoam cups were also sheathed in plastic, as if that suggested they were fresh and clean, ready to be used for the first time and then tossed. I balled up all the plastic and stuffed it into my bag. Not that hauling it back to Brookline would make much difference. But I couldn’t bring myself to throw it out.

Irons, with his shoulder-length, salt-and-pepper hair and dark aviator glasses, was in town for a special screening of his documentary film Trashed, as part of the New York Times Energy for Tomorrow conference. The focus of the gathering was building, and for the most part retrofitting, sustainable cities. That included the ways that cities can better manage their enormous waste streams. Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced a new initiative with 100 restaurants, from Chipotle to Dan Barber’s Blue Hill New York, to divert 20,000 tons of daily refuse from landfill to compost.

Yet like so much in sustainability, there’s a question of scale at work here. Irons’ documentary detailed, quite depressingly, the magnitude of the many tons of stuff we throw out every day worldwide.

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The 64-year-old, England-born actor says he want to make a film about a problem that was solvable, and thought he might use his celebrity to open doors and raise awareness. He also found garbage quite visually compelling, and that it is. The film opens with him navigating a towering, overflowing pile of trash at a beach near Beirut. Steaming, smoky, leaky landfills all over the world are shown, trash getting bulldozed, trash getting picked over, trash being circled by squawking seagulls, filling up waterways of Indonesia, and oozing slime into various nooks and crannies of the planet. We see whales so full of toxins they have stopped reproducing, and sea creatures strangled and contorted by six-pack holders and twine.

Not even burning trash and turning it into energy is the solution, Irons says, because the smokestack technology inevitably fails, and dioxins are released that do widespread damage just like Agent Orange.

It doesn’t take long to begin thinking: Great. Another intractable problem – what to do with all the garbage in the world – and more about our lifestyle to feel guilty about. But before it all gets completely overwhelming, Irons turns the cameras to solutions – San Francisco’s successful recycling program, for example, which employs hundreds of people in well-paying jobs, separating trash and packing water bottles into giant bales to be shipped overseas as manufacturing material. (San Francisco has 80 percent recycling, New York 50 percent, and America-wide 30 percent). A store in the UK has all goods in big bins for shoppers to scoop into carry-in sacks, removing the need for packaging at the front end. "We have to rethink our attitudes toward the way we live," Irons says.

The role of cities seems to be mostly as administrator, setting the framework for recycling and composting and diversion from landfills. Cities can also pass ordinances limiting the excessive packaging that most manufacturers insist accompany products. And of course they can ban plastic bags (something that has not actually happened in New York, where large sugary drinks were for a time contraband).

I’ve long compartmentalized the global garbage problem, believing that the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions is mankind’s No. 1 task at the moment. I feel bad for the plastic-choked albatross, but an overheated planet will throw all life into chaos; litter on the ground will be the least of our problems. There’s only so much political will and policy energy to go around. It’s the same reason the chatter about driverless cars is a distraction.

Yet there’s no denying sustainable cities must continue to include garbage in the sustainability agenda, right alongside green buildings and bike sharing programs and energy retrofits. We’ve certainly seen with smoking how quickly cultural mores can change, with minimal municipal prodding.

 Maybe New York’s booming-business hotels, for example, could be asked to quit wrapping coffee cups in plastic. Every little bit helps.

Top image: Yuriy Chertok /Shutterstock.com

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