Clark County’s annual WasteBusters Challenge kicks off Friday with a talk by archeologist Doug Wilson, who contends that what we throw away may say more about us than what we keep. And we throw away an awful lot.
As chief archeologist at Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, Wilson studies what past people left behind there. But we can also learn from what today’s people discard, he said.
Wilson previously worked at the University of Arizona with the late Bill Rathje, who created the field of “garbology,” or the study of modern refuse to learn about culture.
Indigenous people here before European settlement left behind items made of stone and bone, Wilson said. Settlers left a greater variety of items, such as pottery from England and China, glass bottles and iron tools.
“In the later 19th century and early 20th century, with the railroad and mass manufacturing, there were a tremendous variety of products coming in,” Wilson said. “I can build a trajectory about how increasing consumerization and packaging has increased exponentially our solid waste.”
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, each person in the United States generated 4.51 pounds of waste per day in 2017, the most recent figures available. That’s up from 2.68 pounds per person per day in 1960.
Per capita waste generation peaked at 4.74 pounds per day in 2000, and has declined since. Why? Fewer people buy actual newspapers (gasp!) and instead get their news online. Plus, offices generate less paper; workplace memos and reports increasingly are transmitted electronically. Yet paper and cardboard still accounts for a quarter of the municipal solid waste stream, according to the EPA.
“We still have a lot of paper packaging and cardboard. Think of every time you get a package from Amazon,” Wilson said. “Hopefully those items are going in the recycling bin.”
The WasteBusters Challenge seeks to reduce how much we throw away, regardless of whether we’re tossing it in our blue bins or garbage cans. It begins Friday and continues through March 18.
The challenge offers three pledges: to reduce paper waste in the kitchen by using cloth napkins and towels; to reduce packaging waste by toting lunch in reusable containers; and to reduce food waste by eating up food before it spoils.
“Washington is set to reduce food waste by 50 percent by 2030,” said Jacob Ahrens-Balwit, a Clark County recycling outreach coordinator.
Food was 16 percent of Washington’s overall garbage — 779,555 tons — in 2015-16, according to the state Department of Ecology.
“We’re encouraging people to make stock or compost from trimmings. We’re hoping that people won’t send food to the landfill, or let it spoil in the refrigerator,” Ahrens-Balwit said.
Planning meals and making items ahead can help with reducing both food waste and packaging waste, he said. He makes a couple of quiches each week, and freezes one for later, so he has meals ready to pack for lunch.
“The pledges are guidelines,” Ahrens-Balwit said. “They are meant to be interpreted as works for an individual’s family or household.”
Participants 18 and older earn points for registering online at wastebusters.green and they accrue more points by inviting others to participate, posting updates on social media, answering questions, and completing such activities as waste audits. Prizes include an indoor smart garden and Instant Pot.
The 6 p.m. kickoff event at the Vancouver Community Library also offers incentives: free snacks and a raffle for items such as beeswax food wrap and a zero-waste starter kit.