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Economic Perspective: Are We A Throw-Away Society?

NC State College of Agriculture and Life Sciences professor Dr. Mike Walden working in a recording studio.

By Dr. Mike Walden


“Today’s program asks if we are a throw-away society. Mike, I am constantly amazed at the amount of waste the people on our street, including us, discard every week. Of course this waste has to go somewhere, and it’s always controversial in a locality when a new waste dump is proposed.”

“Are we simply using too much stuff, or is the stuff we’re using designed to break down so we have to buy more?”


“Well this is actually not a new issue. The earliest book that I can find on the topic of waste, and waste being a problem in society was actually written about 100 years ago in about the 1920’s. And this was in reaction to at that time when people had something they didn’t want, like a refrigerator, they just threw it out in a ravine, maybe in a creek in the woods. There was no organized pick-up, if you will, of trash and waste.”

“So we’ve gotten better on that respect in the sense that in most communities, if not all communities, there is some organized system of weekly pick-up of trash. For example, where we live there are places in our county where we can take bigger items, electronics et cetera so they’re disposed of in a safe way, but that still doesn’t answer the question of, ‘Is there a better way?’”

“And I think people are beginning to think about that, and for example there are some, particularly in the design area, who are saying, ‘We have to think about the materials that we put into particularly durable products, and make sure that they are able to perhaps be broken down and reused, or that they can be disposed of in a safe way. That the materials are not inconsistent with a safe environment.’”

“Some say that we need a better organized way of taking discarded products and giving to charities, or even controlling our impulses to have the newest and the latest. Now the ultimate, perhaps, incentive, to worry more about waste is to have a tax on waste. So for example, if you and I had a refrigerator that was 15 years old, and we got a new one, we would have to pay some sort of a fee to make sure that that old refrigerator was taken care of, disposed, or given to charity in a safe way, and the notion there that is if people faced a cost of getting rid of waste in a non-safe way they’re going to think twice about that.”

“So this issue in no way is settled, but I do think society as a whole is thinking more about it. So I that’s a plus.”

Mike Walden is a William Neal Reynolds Distinguished Professor and Extension Economist in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at North Carolina State University who teaches and writes on personal finance, economic outlook and public policy.