Distancing Waste

“Distancing” is a useful concept when talking about disposables and other forms of waste in historical context. Distancing works on both a literal and a metaphorical level: both spatially and  mentally.  One way to paraphrase the concept is the adage “Out of sight, out of mind.”

This sense of the word comes from economic anthropologists, who use it in relation to consumption.  When we do not see the steps leading up to the things we buy in stores — food being grown and packaged, things being made and transported — we no longer see the consequences of our purchasing choices. Often it is difficult to find out the conditions under which goods are made, and the goal of “socially responsible consumption” is an effort to make buyers aware of the processes, winners and losers associated with goods.

In the case of waste, we feel more comfortable the more distant waste becomes and the less we have to think about it. However, while distancing can make us feel better about our discards, it also has dangerous consequences.  In the process of distancing goods and waste, the full implications of the consumer’s actions are obscured. When consumers do not  know or think about how harmful copper mining is to the earth, they are less likely to see the importance of repair and reuse for products containing or made of copper. When we don’t know or think about how electronics cause hazardous “leachate” (liquid that percolates down into the ground) in landfills, we are more likely to simply chuck an obsolete mp3 player in the trash.

The scale and complexity of economic globalization, the rise of corporations along with marketing and public relations departments, and the vast social inequities in the world today all enable and fuel distancing as a normal way of coping with consumption and waste.  Deliberate or not, distancing is a way of protecting ignorance about the consequences of our actions.

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