The Journey of Stuff

Supply chain. It’s something so basic that surrounds each of us every day, yet most of us go on completely oblivious to its existence. The supply chain is what brings us every material thing we have ever come in contact with.

TravelPT - longest wharf in Hawaii

Kaunakakai wharf, the longest wharf in Hawaii. The barge lands here and the pipes at the right of the picture are the gas lines that bring fuel from delivery to the big tanks in town.

The first time I ever thought about the supply chain was on a travel assignment in Chicago. I rented a room in this guy’s apartment who was a higher-up for one of the major shipping companies in their “supply chain management” division. You might ask, “What really is supply chain management?” I did ask. He explained that he was in charge of all the shipping for an electronics company – ALL the shipping. Let’s say that the electronics company wants to make and sell some phones, they first must receive all the parts or materials for the manufacturing of the phone. After assembling all the parts, the completed phones may need to be shipped to a different plant for distribution, from there they ship out to stores and customers. I had never, ever thought of all these steps that go into the making of absolutely everything we buy, and I have rarely thought about the supply chain since.

Living on a rural island has again pulled back the curtain on the path things take to get to us and also the path they take when we are done. Molokai’s supply chain relies on a barge that comes two times per week – Mondays and Thursdays. If you hit the grocery store on a Sunday night, before the barge arrives the next morning, you are likely to find the selection of meats and other perishables has been picked over and doesn’t offer much. Timing your grocery trips with the arrival of the barge offers greater selection, and greater crowds. I learned several weeks into my stay on Molokai that the gas prices will drop just before the boat comes in that refills the island’s gas tanks – a handy tip for purchasing another commodity that I rarely ever considered how it got to me. Everything ever manufactured has taken a trip to its final owner – this trip is just far more visible on Molokai.

Up at the Molokai Dump, the bulldozer gets ready to turn trash into a mountain.

Up at the Molokai Dump, the bulldozer gets ready to turn today’s trash into a mountain.

On the other end of the supply chain is my weekly trip to the dump. I try to be very environmentally conscious, recycle everywhere, limit the plastics I use in every way I can, but had never personally had to take my trash to a dump. Every week, I go to the dump and head up the steep dirt road to the top of the hill where I throw my trash in a pile. Up on top of this mountain of trash (pu’u opala  – loosely, trash mountain in Hawaiian), there is a bulldozer driving around, flattening the trash and occasionally adding dirt. As I return to the dump week after week, the area where I throw my trash has shifted slightly to a different part of the hilltop. Week-by-week, on Saturdays before 2:30 PM, I do my part in building this mountain of trash one bag at a time. With only 8,000 people on the island of Molokai and only locally owned businesses, I get to see consumer waste and disposal slowed to a more easily observable scale and managed by one guy in a bulldozer. Over 13 weeks on Molokai, I have been unable to tell how much higher the mound has gotten, but on my last trip to the dump, I saw one clear sign of the accumulation of trash – a crew was beside the hill rolling out huge layers of black plastic to prepare for the next layer of the hill to be built of new trash.

In my time on this small island, I was able to watch the boat come in weekly with supplies, buy those supplies from the store, take the refuse of those supplies to the dump, and watch that refuse get flattened into the ground by a dude in a bulldozer. Seeing this much of the supply chain in full display has strengthened my efforts to recycle and, more importantly, to just. use. less. If a small island of 8,000 is able to build a mountain out of trash, what can a city of millions do?

From this point, I could preach on-and-on about how I feel regarding our culture of consumerism and how wasteful small bottles of water are. Instead, I’m going to stop here and only remind you that with every product you buy, you are in some way contributing to a mountain of trash somewhere. Indulge this Thanksgiving weekend, take advantage of deals for holiday shopping, but do consider where goods come from and where your waste is going.

Update 8/27/2016 – On our return to Molokai pu’u opala has noticeably grown. Several weeks ago, a group of 200 people collected 12,000 lbs of trash from a 3.5 mile stretch of coastline. This trash is in many languages and comes from allover the Pacific. Reminder: Trash on land goes to the ocean, trash in the ocean lands on a faraway beach…. when animals don’t eat it first.

Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *