Bundles of junk mail, piles of sparkling water cans and stacks of plastic containers of all shapes and sizes: Todd Eklof and his wife Peggy have collected it all.
Since Earth Day 2019, the couple has only disposed of food waste and other garbage that might rot. They’ve saved all other waste, packing it away in boxes every day and eventually dumping the more than 30 boxes they have accumulated into their front yard.
“Every meal we eat has an impact … and you can see that here,” Todd Eklof said.
A pastor at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Spokane, Eklof said he considers himself a visual learner. He hoped the project, which involved him storing garbage in his adult daughter’s childhood bedroom, his garage and his basement, could show how much waste an environmentally conscious couple can produce.
The Eklofs are vegan, shop with reusable bags and use solar panels, but even with their efforts to reduce their consumption and compost organic waste, they still produced hundreds of pounds of garbage over the past year, most of which was plastic. Todd said even those who have the means to reduce the amount of garbage they produce, cannot possibly avoid it.
“If you want to live the good life, even just an adequate life, it comes wrapped in plastic,” he said.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, about 35.4 million tons of plastic was produced in 2017, the most recent year the EPA published data about waste. Almost 27 million tons of the plastic produced in the United States that year ended up in a landfill.
Plastics and glass are two of the products becoming increasingly difficult to recycle. Many recycling facilities in the area do not accept or no longer have buyers who are willing to purchase glass. Fewer and fewer types of plastic are recyclable as well.
As of January, Spokane County narrowed the types of plastic it accepts to only Nos. 1 and 2. Other governments and private companies that recycle or dispose of waste are discussing limiting what they accept in the next year, as other countries that used to accept and recycle U.S. waste stop doing so.
When Eklof saw the amount of waste just he and his wife produced in a year, he said he anticipates every family must at least accumulate the same – or more.
“Just imagine if this was in the yard of every house in the neighborhood,” he said.
The average amount of garbage a person produces per day has been increasing since the EPA began recording how much waste was produced at the local level.
In 1960, the average person generated about 2.7 pounds of waste per a day. That amount increased for the next 30 years, peaking in the early 2000s, with the average person producing 4.6 pounds of waste daily.
That has dropped slightly over the past few years, with the most recent data available at the agency, from 2017, showing the average person produces 4.5 pounds a year.
This is not the first time the couple has taken drastic steps to show how much waste is produced in a year. In 2006, Todd saved junk mail for a year, eventually accumulating 55 pounds.
His wife, a Spokane Public Schools teacher, said she anticipated they would receive less junk mail than they had in the past because of the increase in online advertisements and email promotion.
He said the couple has been environmentally conscious for decades, even more so since their children were born. Their oldest is now 28.
“What kind of place are we going to leave for our children?” she asked. “I feel almost apologetic, like we haven’t done a good job, and now the next generation is going to have to take care of things that we haven’t done very well.”
In addition to the year’s worth of trash in their front yard, which the couple hopes to find a way to transport and educate people, she has created packets of Earth Day activities for children in their neighborhood.
He said if no one is interested in using what they have collected as an educational display, they’ll recycle what they can and dump the rest. Unless there are significant reforms to industries responsible for the packaging on everyday items, he doesn’t anticipate saving a year’s worth of garbage again.
He said he knows the average person can only do so much to reduce the amount of waste they produce, but hopes the image of how much they have collected will inspire people who do have the power and means to take action.
“What we hoped to create was an image of just how much waste we produce,” he said, “so that the good people of this world who are tackling our greatest challenges can do something.”
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