She has the power to investigate where our stuff comes from, and where it goes after we throw it ‘away’. Her determination to get to the bottom of the Story of Stuff has her digging through landfills all over the world. She can communicate powerfully, making fun little videos that attract millions of viewers.
Annie Leonard produced a little animation, Story of Stuff, seven years ago. By now, the twenty-minute video has been seen over 15 million times! The Story of Stuff, later also published as a book, evolved into the Story of Stuff Project, launching a series of short animations on different subjects, such as Story of Electronics, Story of Cosmetics and Story of Bottled Water.
Leonard loves to dig into trash. “It’s one of my favorite activities when I travel,” she says. “I love to see what people throw away: there’s no better way to get to know a family, a community, a country…. We should look more into our own trashcans, and see that very little of what we throw away is really disposable.”
As a little girl, Annie made her first connection about the story of stuff from seeing chopped down forests in the countryside and cardboard in her trashcan. Then she visited Fresh Kills, the dump island floating outside Manhattan. Over 50 years, Fresh Kills swallowed more than 11,000 tons daily. “When they shut it down in 2001, the mountain of waste was 25 times taller than the Statue of Liberty,” recalls Annie. “It really impacted me and gave me lots to think about. Who could have conceived this monstrous system? How do we allow for this to continue happening? I didn’t even begin to understand. It took me 20 years to make the connection.”
According to Leonard, each year we generate 25 million tons of e-waste as a result of a system that needs to change. “No matter how much we try to reduce the amount of waste in our trash can, the largest waste is produced by industry,” she continues. “That’s where social pressure and political action are key. We need laws of productive responsibility for the whole world. 80% of the impact of a product in decided in the design phase.”
She traveled to Bangladesh, India and Haiti, where she completed the story of our stuff, our system. In her book, she makes the connection between the deforestation in the Amazon and Indonesia, the removal of the mountaintops in West Virginia, the tar sands in Alberta, and the disposal of waste in remote places, out of our view.
“I don’t like that they call me anti-consumerist,” says Leonard, “I think there’s plenty of negativity in the world already.” The combination of Annie’s disarming smile, together with the simple animation by Free Range Studios, and her well-researched, straightforward message are quite captivating. No wonder she’s become a celebrity.
In the Story of Stuff video you discover fascinating facts about our consumption habits, such as how 99% of the things that we buy stopped being used after six months. “I do want to denounce the effect of hyper-consumerism, which happens when we take more resources than what we need, and that the planet can sustain. With 5% of the population, the US consumes 30% of the world’s resources, and produces 30% of the waste. One doesn’t have to be a math genius to realize that we would need three to five planets if all 6,800 million Earth inhabitants were to copy the consumerism of the American dream.”
A paradigm shift is needed. “People are changing their relationship to stuff,” continues the author. “We don’t need to posses and accumulate things, but simply have access to them: sharing them, reusing them, exchanging them, prolonging their use so that they don’t end up in a landfill… and creating community in the process.”
Leonard’s Story of Stuff takes you to an underside look at our manufacturing and consumption patterns in five steps: extraction, production, distribution, consumption and disposal, in a very entertaining and eye-opening way.
“There’s a fundamental truth, that what we call ‘waste’ are mostly resources. All of it mixed up is not good for anything. We end up burying them in a landfill, or what’s worse, burning them. If we separate them, we will be able to use them again. That’s why it’s important to know our own trash, to dig into it to see how much we can reuse. It’s a fascinating activity.”
Change is inevitable. “The question is not whether we will change, but how we will change. Will we do it gradually, with relative effort, but voluntarily? Or will we do it suddenly and by omission?”