In 2010, the EPA reported a record-high recycling rate of 34.1% in the U.S. Recycling and composting prevented 85.1 million tons of waste from entering landfills, up from just 15 million tons in 1980.
In this modern era of biodegradable packaging, reusable grocery bags and widespread recycling, why should we care about waste? Well, despite the growing power of the environmental movement, Americans are still generating 250 million tons of trash each year.
In order to truly change this, we have to go deeper than external behaviors and look at the roots of our consumer culture: our beliefs. Purchasing a new item, using it for its designated purpose, then disposing of it is a pattern that most of us see as harmless and normal. So, what can we do about this? How can we change the way we look at waste and stop the cycle of consumption?
A few years ago, filmmakers Shantel Hansen and Dave Rizzotto set out to address this issue by documenting the work of those who create or survive using waste. They traveled the country for five months, gathering the stories of innovative companies and individuals and editing the interviews into webisodes. The final product was “Redefining Waste,” a documentary series designed to motivate viewers to reflect on their recycling habits, consumption patterns and relationships with waste.
Each two- to three-minute episode provides a quick portrait of one program or person. Locations range from Vermont to California, and feature stories of individual entrepreneurs, grassroots programs and major companies.
“When we started this project, we knew it would be interesting — but that’s an understatement,” says Rizzotto. “We met people who convert waste water into fuel, people who make musical instruments from scrap metal and people who build homes out of used tires. There’s a virtual underground of those who are changing the way we use and repurpose our resources.”
“Earthships,” one of the most popular episodes to date, tells the story of Michael Reynolds, a spirited architect who constructs sustainable homes from recycled materials. In the short, Michael explains his vision, displays his work and shares his thoughts about waste.
“We invented garbage,” Reynolds says. “There is no such thing as waste or garbage in nature with plants and animals. It’s only in our scheme of things that this is an issue.”
As of April 2012, the series’ YouTube channel has approximately 8,500 views and website traffic is consistently increasing. But, beyond promoting the popularity of the series and hoping to expand its reach, the filmmakers see the documentary as a platform for discussion about the definition of “waste” itself.
“When we become this throwaway society, what does this mean? How is our identity impacted? What do we really value and why?” Hansen, the producer of the series, asks. “I believe that we are ready for a change, but we need some encouragement and inspiration to shift our behaviors. That’s why I created this documentary.”
Perhaps if we can redefine waste, we can redefine consumption, and ultimately reduce our impact on the ecosystems of the earth.
Andrea Rooney is a writer, activist and performing arts enthusiast based in Fort Collins, CO. She is the New Media Specialist for “Redefining Waste,” a green documentary Web series. She is also is serving as a congressional intern for U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, and is working on her Bachelor’s Degree in Journalism, which she will receive in May 2012 from Colorado State University. In her free time, she dances, practices yoga, sings and enjoys the outdoors. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.