Our waste speaks of us

Our waste speaks of us

Our waste speaks of us

It is often said that social networks know everything about us. You are not the only ones. Detailed information about our diet, our routines, our social life, our consumption habits and even our worldview can be extracted from the trash can. Our residue allows us to draw seemingly counterintuitive conclusions, such as those noted by University of Arizona archaeologist and anthropologist William Rathje as early as the 1970s: It is in times of scarcity that most waste occurs.

Rathje, father of an unusual scientific discipline called basurology, documented that in 1974, amid a beef shortage, “three times more meat was thrown away than in times of plenty”. Something similar happened the following year with the consumption of sugar, which was accumulated and wasted in American households, coinciding with a period when its price doubled. The archaeologist devoted a significant part of his career to promoting the Garbage Project (Garbage Project as if it were a dysfunctional superhero squad), an attempt to infer behavioral patterns in human societies from what is found in their garbage dumps. To Rathje we owe such significant insights as that the city of New York has risen by about two meters in garbage accumulation since its inception, or that 13% of all garbage in western cities is newsprint.

If this insightful pioneer were still active (he died in 2012), he would today confirm to what extent the current supply crisis, triggered by the pandemic and exacerbated by the war in Ukraine, has confirmed the perverse link between scarcity and waste. Albert Vinyals, university professor and expert in consumer psychology, confirms that the story the trash can tells is as true as it is human: β€œIt has to do with an impulse that comes from the instinct to survive. It causes us to stockpile products that are scarce or that we expect to be scarce but that we don’t use regularly.”

It’s not even about speculative practices, about accumulating a certain product in order to do business with it in the medium term. “That might be perverted behavior, but with a rational basis,” explains Vinyals, “but what takes place in practice is compulsive buying processes that respond to a state of induced panic.”

About a quarter of the sunflower oil imported into Spain comes from Ukraine. “This is a significant amount, and it is perfectly logical and understandable that the Russian invasion would lead to a slowdown in imports and the consequent inventory collapses,” says Vinyals. No longer so rational is that “demand for this product among people who do not consume it regularly skyrockets, making scarcity a self-fulfilling prophecy.” than under normal circumstances, because “the compulsive shopper will find a product they don’t like, don’t need, or have hoarded, regardless of factors such as expiration date. As a result, part of the waste ends up in the trash can.

“Most of our purchasing decisions are based on emotions,” says Vinyals. This leaves us vulnerable, as the expert explains, “to the suggestion created in us by the so-called ad populum fallacies, generalized and trivial views that we take for granted without real reflection.” When we hear that a product will become scarce in the medium term, as toilet paper was in the early days of lockdown, we tend to hoard it.

Vinyals concludes that these punctual dysfunctions tend to be corrected as the collective intelligence (and consequently the individual intelligence) adjusts to the new situation and returns to its consumption patterns. “I’m not denying that there could be an objective supply problem in the circumstances of war, but I wonder what would happen if people took these predictions literally and educated themselves on the large number of products derived from these grains and start accumulating them to the same extent as sunflower oil.” Rathje has the answer: if something like this happened, our cities’ landfills would be filled with corn derivatives.

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