Talking Trash With Annie Leonard

Annie Leonard’s 20-minute web video “Story of Stuff” highlights the effects of overconsumption at home and overseas and encourages people to consider where “away” is the next time they throw something there.

| November/December 2009

  • Annie Leonard's "Story of Stuff" web video promotes simple living.
    Photo By Dorothy Hong

Annie Leonard’s 20-minute web video “Story of Stuff” went viral in 2007 with more than 6.5 million hits, re-awakening Americans’ idea of simple living. Her provocative, fast-paced video highlights the effects of overconsumption at home and overseas and encourages people to consider where “away” is the next time they throw something there. Leonard has turned her video’s success into an online environmental justice movement, The Story of Stuff Project, where she serves as director. Leonard also just penned a book of the same title, slated for release in March 2010 by Free Press of Simon and Schuster. With more than 20 years of work in environmental health and justice, including work with Greenpeace International, Leonard’s expertise is well-regarded; she was named one of Time magazine’s “Heroes of the Environment” last year.   

What inspired you to make “The Story of Stuff” video?

I grew up in Seattle, at that time a green and luscious city. My family would go camping every summer. This was in the days before DVD players in the back seats of family cars numbed young passengers, and I’d look out the window, studying the landscape for the whole drive. Each year, I noticed that the stores and strip malls reached a bit further and the forests started a bit later than the previous year. I wondered where all those forests were going. I wondered how I could stop them from going away entirely.

It turned out to be fortuitous that I went to college in New York City, even though at the time it seemed an odd place to go for environmental studies. My college campus was on 116th Street and my dorm room was on 110th Street. Every morning I would groggily walk those six blocks, staring at the piles of garbage that line the city’s streets every dawn. Ten hours later, I’d walk back to my dorm, staring at the empty sidewalks. 

I became increasingly intrigued with this microcosm of materials flow. My curiosity got the best of me; I started looking into the trash each morning to see what was in those never-ending piles. It was mostly paper. Paper! That is where my beloved forests were ending up. In the U.S., 42 percent of industrial wood harvest is used to make paper. About 40 percent of the stuff in municipal garbage is paper, all of which is recyclable or compostable if it hasn’t been treated with too many toxic chemicals. By simply recycling, rather than trashing, this paper, we could reduce our garbage by 40 percent, which would also drastically reduce pressure to cut forests and help with climate change. 

Once I realized that those morning trash piles were nearly half paper—were once forests—I was determined to find out where they were going. So I took a trip to the infamous Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island. Coving 4.6 square miles, Fresh Kills is one of the largest dumps in the world. When it was officially closed in 2001, some say its volume was greater than that of the Great Wall of China; its peaks 25 meters taller than the Stature of Liberty. I had never seen anything like it. I stood at its edge in absolute awe. As far as I could see in every direction were couches, refrigerators, boxes, apple cores, used clothes, stuff. You know how a gory car crash scene makes us want to turn away and stare at the same time? That is what it was like. I just couldn’t comprehend this massive mountain of materials, reduced to muck, by some system obviously out of control. I knew this was terribly wrong. I didn’t understand both how we could have developed a system based on such rapid destruction of the earth’s resources and how it could be so well hidden. So I vowed to investigate it further and share what I learned along the way. 

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