Photograph of a landfill

We say we throw our trash away. But, where is 'away'?

Yesterday I was meeting with a few scientists down at the University of California, Irvine. Like any other campus, there were plenty of trash cans. Except they weren’t called trash cans. Some were labeled “recycling” and others were named “landfill.” It struck me how a simple shift in what we name something can make such a difference in how our mind sees it. Trash is a vague concept whereas landfill is a specific location with a concrete meaning and has an extremely different connotation from the word “trash.” If it’s trash, then we can say we’re “throwing it away.” Trash goes to that invisible place called “away.” If it’s landfill, then it goes in the, you know, landfill, the most unglamorous place of all.

Over the weekend a Mylar balloon landed in my yard. It reminded me of the idea of away. People like to release balloons into the sky as a celebration. The balloons are carried “away.” But the balloons don’t really go away. They don’t go anywhere; they stay here on Earth, sometimes in people’s yards, but most often balloons released into the sky end up in the ocean. This is why I’ve always hated balloons. To me, they represent society’s collective decision to not see how much we waste; to pay as little attention as possible to that place we’ve decided to label “away.”

Carbon pollution is one more of our “aways.”

We turn on the light to see, but all the wires that wind from the switch, through the wall, across town to the power plant that releases the colorless, odorless, heat-absorbing gas remain in the invisible realm of our “away.” We know it’s there because instruments such as NASA’s Atmospheric Infrared Sounder (AIRS) and Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2) do see it. But carbon dioxide gas and the heat it traps aren’t going away, not any time soon, not until we start to change the way we see our world.

Because there is no such thing as “away.” The only thing that’s real is here.

Recycling and landfill bins.
Recycling and "landfill" bins on the campus of the University of California, Irvine.View larger image

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Thank you,

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