Have You Thrown Something Away Today?

by James H. Wandersee and Renee M. Clary

It is considered admirable when people pick-up litter and discard their own trash.  Clean cities and homes are considered progressive and inviting.  We are frequently admonished to “dispose of our trash properly.”

Society uses the word trash to include things that are broken, empty, soiled, redundant, outdated, obsolete, dangerous, obstructive, smelly, ugly, worthless, and useless.

After all, consider the alternative. Who among us would willingly choose to be a hoarder? Hoarders are characterized not only by their unbounded compulsion to acquire a large number of possessions that they don’t really need, but also by their failure to reduce that set to a reasonable size. Often, a hoarder’s own living space becomes so cluttered with possessions and so littered with their associated waste that it no longer can be traversed or used for its intended purposes—thus impeding the hoarder’s mobility, health, safety, social interactions, and quality of life.

Do we, as major city-dwellers, live in a hoarder’s house? Well, ecology means, literally, “study of the house” and it focuses upon all the relationships among and between “house members” and the environment. Planet Earth is the world population’s shared “house.”  Surely we ought to keep it clean, right? So, aren’t we compelled to “throw away unwanted and unneeded things” in order to do that? But…what do we really mean when we say that?

Dating back to 1983, our research group has been studying the public’s concept of “away.” We first read about this idea in Barry Commoner’s book: “The Closing Circle.” His Second Law of Ecology states: “Everything must go somewhere.” We find that factual statement to be both elegantly simple and deeply profound—we consider it to be the first principle for green living.


“Away” is, in some ways, a human delusion—a false belief or opinion that we have all learned and invoked since childhood. Is there really a great void somewhere, into which an infinite number of items can vanish? Or, is the term merely a convenient rationalization that we employ to avoid confronting the unpleasant reality that nothing we discard simply disappears. Maybe in the illusory world of the magician that can happen, but not in the real world in which we live.

Every whisker that goes down the drain when we shave, every litre of petrol that we combust to power our vehicles, every dead skin cell that we wash away when we bathe, every incense molecule we launch to “freshen” the air, every pound of body weight we lose when we are on a diet, truly does go somewhere. Matter is conserved.

For decades, science educators have focused their teaching on making the public scientifically literate. The underlying reasoning has been that a scientifically literate citizenry can and will make sound personal and political decisions about scientific issues. The problem is that even when people are capable of doing so, they often do not use what they know! In other words, scientific literacy is necessary but not sufficient for environmental activism and for practicing green living.

To understand the public’s challenges in understanding of concept of “away,” let’s use concept mapping. Thousands of concept map-based research studies have been conducted in science education world-wide. A concept map is a graphic representation of the relationships between related concepts. Concepts are placed on the map hierarchically—from most inclusive (at the top) to least inclusive (at the bottom).  All of the labeled lines connecting the labeled concept ovals comprise a network of meaning which we, the science education researchers and mapmakers, have constructed, based on data we have collected.

Although concept maps represent improved explanations of human understanding, they remain inferential approximations of what people actually think and know—since scientists cannot directly examine people’s brains to determine what each has learned during his/her life to date about a particular topic. Test scores, for example, are a weak proxy measure for what people actually know. Our maps are based on clinical interview data and have been “self-validated” by our interviewees.

Examine Concept Map #1. It depicts the complexity of the term “waste.”  Waste is a rather subjective human concept. We assert that progress in environmental stewardship can occur when what we once considered waste is viewed as something we now want to use, because we have new ways of using it. Note that this map also provides five terms that the people we studied considered to be equivalent in meaning to the word “waste.” We found that each term actually originated with a different shade of meaning—showing how multi-faceted human thinking about waste really is.  The more analytical we can be about the diversity of ascribed human meanings associated with the term “waste,” the better society can “manage” various categories of waste.

EarthScholars Research Group Concept Map 1

Examine Concept Map #2. It depicts the intellectual complexity of the reasoning we may use to justify our saying that we threw something away or something we used to have went away.

We may, for example, invoke a chemical explanation. A chemical change leading to some thing’s apparent disappearance can be a natural one, such as when iron rusts or when a log decays.  The apparent chemical disappearance of something can also be triggered by human activity, such as the acid rain resulting from smoke-stack emissions from coal-fueled electric power plants, It is noteworthy that we often think we have solved a problem by getting rid of something when, in actuality, we have really created a new problem elsewhere!

A physical change leading to a thing’s apparent disappearance can be enabled by a change of statesuch as when water evaporates from the fabric while our clothes are drying on a clothesline in full sun.  We understand this water to “go away” via a physical process.

The illusion of something’s disappearance can be enabled by a change in size—such as when the engraved inscription on a gravestone is no longer legible because the stone’s surface has gradually been worn away through weathering.  Yet, we know the stone didn’t really disappear; it was just reduced to small particles.

The illusion of something’s disappearance can also be caused by a change in concentration, such as when the smoke from a campfire reaches skyward. It becomes diluted by the surrounding air and, at some distance away, is no longer visible—yet the molecules of smoke (a gaseous suspension of combustion products and particles in air) are still there.

For example, cigarette smoke contains over 4,000 chemicals, including 43 known cancer-causing (carcinogenic) compounds and over 400 other toxins. These include nicotine, tar, and carbon monoxide, as well as formaldehyde, ammonia, hydrogen cyanide, arsenic, and DDT.  If we air-out a room that formerly held smokers, we say the smoke is gone, but actually it went somewhere. We just pretend that it is gone forever!

The illusion of something’s disappearance can even be caused by a change in position, such as when birds disappear due to seasonal migration or when the Moon appears to be getting smaller every night (waning). As the Moon moves in space, different parts of it face the Sun. This means that different portions of it are lit up for us to see across the lunar cycle.

An apparent disappearance of energy can actually mask its transformation from one type of energy into another—such as when the gravitational force of falling water turns the water turbine of an electrical generator at a dam site to produce electricity, or when ice cubes cool a drink by removing heat from the beverage and disappear as they do so.

In addition to applying our scientific understanding to explain what “away” means, we may also invoke various psychological explanations—often to assuage any guilt we may feel about behaving wastefully.  Although it appears on Concept Map #2., we shall see that Concept Map #3. is devoted to elaborating those psychological ideas.

EarthScholars Research Group Concept Map 2


Examine Concept Map #3. It depicts ways people rationalize discarding their own waste and make claims about things “going away.”

One “away” justification that people use may occur when a conscious sensation falls below a sense-organ-detectable threshold value. Examples include: A person may claim that an odor has gone away if her nose is unable to detect it, once it has been masked by a fragrance emitted from a room air freshener.

Smokers often fail to self-detect that their cigarette smoke has been absorbed by the room’s drapes, upholstered furniture, walls, and even their own clothing, due to dulled olfactory acuity. The smoke didn’t really go away; instead it went somewhere and was absorbed.  Rudolf E. Noble (2000) studied “environmental tobacco smoke uptake by clothing fabrics” and found that synthetic fabrics (e.g., polyester) were the only ones that absorbed less smoke.

Humans also justify their own “away” behaviors by invoking a change in responsibility. The examples that follow explain how this may happen.



EarthScholars Research Group Concept Map 3

Examine Photograph #1. The boy in this photograph perceives that he has disposed of his metal beverage can properly in one of the park’s trash containers. So now, in his mind, that soft drink can has become the city sanitation department’s responsibility, not his.


Photo 1 Image Credit: EarthScholars Research Group

Examine Photograph #2. Another person donates his old automobile to a charity and transfers ownership to it. He feels he has no legal or moral responsibility for that car any longer. It has now “vanished” from his life, and someone else can worry about its environmental impacts.


Photo 2 Image Credit: ll3.ppht.com

Examine Photograph #3. This image illustrates the passage of time rationale. The girl in the photograph points to the curbside storm drain where she saw a man dump the used motor oil from his auto engine. That was two weeks ago, and because it rained since then, she thinks that all the oil he poured down this drain has now dissolved in the rainwater that followed.

Photo 3 Image Credit: EarthScholars Research Group

Actually, oil does not dissolve in water and, instead, it persists and gets washed into lakes, rivers, and streams, and ultimately into the oceans, A single litre of motor oil can pollute 250,000 gallons of water. In the US, used motor oil is the largest single source of water pollution in nature. Americans spill 180, 000, 000 gallons of motor oil each year into the nation’s waters! Storm drains are designed exclusively for run-off water—not waste disposal.


We hope the examples and explanations we have provided helped you to understand the content of our three concept maps.

The startling conclusion from inspecting our set of concept maps is that matter and energy really don’t “disappear” or “go away.” Terms expressing surprise, such as “side effects” and “spillover,” reflect the tunnel vision of those who insist on taking an “out of sight, out of mind” position on humanity’s interactions with the biosphere.

We can no longer afford such irresponsibility, but must learn to conduct intellectually honest cost/benefit analyses of our environmental stewardship behaviors—analyses that take into account everything that we “throw away” or “discard.”

We must also teach others to confront their “away” misconceptions.  We have found that even children can develop sophisticated concepts of “away” (and the concomitant value of personal responsibility), when provided with appropriate learning experiences.  For example, children are seldom taught how a city’s underground sewer and storm drainage systems work, what happens to their garbage once waste disposal trucks haul it away, where their own life-generated garbage is right now, how long various components of their own waste stream take to break down, what happens to plastic packaging after it enters the world’s oceans, and so on. When we fail to teach children such key environmental back-stories, we unwittingly enable bad environmental stewardship. Wasteful behaviors endanger precious environmental and natural resources that can impact the quality of all human life on Earth.

Finally, we wish to call our readers’ attention to Kurt Cobb’s (2007) inverted graphic entitled an Ecological Economist’s View of US GDP.

Photo 4 Image Credit: EarthScholars Research Group

Cobb’s diagram is an atypical representation of a country’s GDP (gross domestic product), because many economists today ascribe relatively low importance to natural and environmental resources in explaining sustainable growth of national and world economies.

However, Kurt Cobb argues that Liebig’s Law of the Minimum, which stresses the importance of limiting factors for the growth of organisms can be applied to economies as well. He suggests that the two environmental and natural resources that most limit economic growth are food plus the fossil fuels needed today to produce enough food.

Thus, in his view, the agriculture and mining sectors of the GDP are actually the foundation of the US economy. He writes, “The entire economy stands on the shoulders, as it were, of agriculture, forestry, and mining (especially the extraction of oil, gas, coal and uranium) and on the utilities that deliver the energy mined in usable form.”

Conversely, the bloated and over-compensated Finance sector’s workforce doesn’t drive the nation’s economy, its two fundamental resource sectors and their workforces do.

We are balancing an ever larger total economy on agricultural and mining sectors that, on a relative basis, are already very small…and shrinking. Admittedly, we are getting more efficient, but Cobb is worried that we are becoming ever more vulnerable to oil and food supply disruptions. He says, “Of course, the United States could import food, if the size of its agricultural sector declined without a corresponding increase in productivity. But such a strategy wouldn’t work if every country pursued a conscious policy of shrinking its agriculture, or if worldwide food production plunged abruptly because of poor harvests.”

This is why we think every world citizen needs to understand the future implications of participating in a “disposable society,” a society that:

(a) harbors delusional views about “waste” and flawed concepts about personal responsibility for reducing waste, and

(b) displays environmental  apathy or amnesia by over-consuming and throwing valuable resources “away.”


About the Guest Writers:

DR. JAMES H. WANDERSEE — botanist, FLS, FAAAS–is the W.H. LeBlanc Alumni Association Professor of Biology Education in the College of Education at Louisiana State University and Chair of the Teaching Section of the Botanical Society of America. His website is EarthScholars.com

DR RENEE M. CLARY—geologist, FGS–is the Director of the Dunn-Seiler Geology Museum and Assistant Professor of Geoscience Education in the Department of Geosciences at Mississippi State University. Her website is EarthScholars.com


Authors’ Notes: The particular kind of concept mapping used in this article is called Novakian concept mapping, invented at Cornell University in 1978. We have been using it in our work for over three decades.

If you are interested in learning more about how to do concept mapping, as it is done in the field of science education, you may be interested in these books.

Fisher, K.M., Wandersee, J.H., & Moody, D. (Eds.). (2000). Mapping biology knowledge.  Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers. [Hardcover, 224 pages; also published in paperback, 2002].

Mintzes, J. J., Wandersee, J. H., & Novak, J. D. (Eds.). (1998). Teaching science for understanding. [Educational Psychology Series: 360 pages]. Orlando, FL:  Academic Press.

Concept mapping software for PC and MAC computers (“CmapTools”) is available for free download at http://cmap.ihmc.us/

The Fourth International Conference on Concept Mapping was held in Chile in 2010. See http://cmc.ihmc.us/


Other posts you may be interested in: 

1. Plant Blindness: What research says by James H. Wandersee & Renee M. Clary

2. The Bridge Between Ecological Knowledge and Green Living by James H. Wandersee & Renee M. Clary

3. Teach Me About Soil by James H. Wandersee & Renee M. Clary

4. A Green Lesson from Mumbai about Food Packaging by James H. Wandersee & Renee M. Clary

5. Janet Unruh: Recycle Everything Why We Must, How We Can



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Posted by on Aug 8 2011. Filed under Behaviour Change, Waste Management. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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