‘Seeing’ Is Believing: The Power of First Hand Experience to Encourage Buying Second Hand
Originally published on my website at alexacsmith.com
“Some will open your heart, others will open your eyes.”
~C. C. Aurel
“During the sweltering month of July, I treated myself to a dreamlike trip to the mystical destination of Molokai, Hawaii. Unlike any other Hawaiian island notoriously populated by tourists, Molokai is an isolated gem with a rich, local culture and open landscape to reflect and heal. As gorgeous as the scenery may be, it conceals some hidden blemishes. One day, my friends and I decided to go down to the shoreline of jagged volcanic rocks and crystal blue waters to pick up litter. Assuming the small, eco-conscious population of Molokai, I braced myself with a small bag to store the scraps that had washed up on the rocks.
Once I ventured a few feet inland, a world of waste was exposed among the kiawe trees protecting the shoreline. Old Sprite and A&W cans with distinctly 1950s design stuck out like a sore thumb. We even spotted a “plastic shrine” made of fishing nets and broken buoys ironically set up by one of the residents as a reminder of the immortality of plastic. Given the remoteness of this island, the amount of trash was quite staggering.
Consequently, I began to ponder my own accountability to prevent this tragedy. Now when I pick up a bottled coffee or can of La Croix, I visualize its afterlife and eventual journey to the washed-up shores of a forgotten island. Is it really worth a few moments of blissful caffeination from a Dunkin’ Donuts bottled coffee for thousands of years of environmental havoc?
My epiphany illustrates the capability of the senses, in this case a horrific anti-ecological sight, to awaken a concern for plastic waste. By visually intaking the effects of our purchasing habits, inspiration for zero-waste solutions can strike in a multitude of ways.”
In the past couple of days, I have found myself engrossed in conversations about the concept of “away.” In the environmental sense, what does away even mean?
If we ship the waste from our garbage bins to a landfill two miles from our home, does that constitute as away? Or what if we send our recyclable goods to a sorting facility 25 miles north? Best yet, what if we send unsellable secondhand clothing compressed into 1,000 pound pallets to countries in the Global South, such as Ghana and Chile, so they can drown in it…
Is that away?
In our western, first world, overly consumptive, underly conscious societies, we can instinctually dissociate ourselves from the consequences of our waste — that’s what landfills are for, right? But just because things are sent to a landfill doesn’t mean they’re gone by any stretch of the imagination (you may have heard about 25 year old hotdogs and ears of corn that were still easily identifiable in landfills in Arizona).
Plus, these landfills are not bottomless voids, and they do in fact fill up and reach capacity — meaning that new and more and bigger landfills must be created. But eventually, we will run out of room to keep digging trash pits.
This is why so much of our waste in the United States is either incinerated, which has its own catastrophic environmental effects, or shipped overseas to developing countries. Because there is not enough space in our homestead, we ship 60,000 tons of textile and apparel waste to the Atacama Desert in northern Chile. It’s why we shipped our plastic waste off to China for decades and why we continue to ship off our electronics waste.
So many of us don’t understand the scale of waste production because it doesn’t end up in our backyards! But what if you were forced to compile the 5 pounds of trash that the average American produces on a daily basis on your property? You would probably be more apt to conserve resources, use fewer disposable products and send less to landfill.
This is precisely the inspiration for some of the most successful circular business leaders and environmental entrepreneurs. Many of them have had up front encounters with waste, including:
- Kresse Wesling: co-founder of Elvis & Kresse who was inspired to design her upcycled luxury bags from decommissioned firehoses after a tour of a London fire brigade
- Alex Schulze & Andrew Cooper: co-founders of 4Ocean, a brand supporting clean seas through making bracelets of rescued plastic water bottles, which launched after a surf excursion gone awry
- Ellen MacArthur: founder of the illustrious circular economy research non-profit, Ellen MacArthur Foundation, who was inspired by her award winning sailing expeditions which forced her to conserve resources by all means
“For all of these zero-waste and circularity advocates, the sense of sight was a reliable muse for economic overthrow and fear for failure to change our customs. From their first-hand encounters, these leaders delved themselves into research of business models, source materials, and financially viable reuse strategies. For Wesling, it was heaps of firehoses; for Schulze, plastic-laden beaches; and for MacArthur the scarcity of sailing sparked her resource conservation.
So although the reliability of sight may be contested in religious and spiritual contexts, its capacity to increase awareness of environmental issues is irrefutable. By increasing personal relevance and providing relative scale, our eyes give us the clarity necessary to reverse the trend of trash.”
To read this chapter (and the rest of my chapters) in its entirety, check out my book, An Economic Eclipse: Shifting Toward a Sustainable Future by Eliminating Waste, on Amazon!