Stumbling Toward Enlightenment

Gatherings from the Internet

by barenose

Where Plastics Go to Kill

IT’S AN OIL SPILL. Only solid, and far more deadly. The average liquid spill of petroleum will kill marine life for a year, maybe 10. But it could take 400 years for that petroleum-based six-pack ring holding your beer to break down. Each year, undegraded plastic chokes to death some 100,000 whales, dolphins, seals, manatees, plus an unknown number of sea turtles and about 2 million birds. And once it has broken down, it becomes deadlier still. Continue reading

by barenose

Waste Not, Want Not

We’ve finally reached a point where we can’t keep hyperconsuming—and that’s a good thing.
—By Bill McKibben

—Photo: Chris Jordan

Mother Jones May/June 2009
ONCE A YEAR OR SO, it’s my turn to run recycling day for our tiny town. Saturday morning, 9 to 12, a steady stream of people show up to sort out their plastics (No. 1, No. 2, etc.), their corrugated cardboard (flattened, please), their glass (and their returnable glass, which goes to benefit the elementary school), their Styrofoam peanuts, their paper, their cans. It’s quite satisfying—everything in its place.

But it’s also kind of disturbing, this waste stream. For one, a town of 550 sure generates a lot—a trailer load every couple of weeks. Sometimes you have to put a kid into the bin and tell her to jump up and down so the lid can close.

More than that, though, so much of it seems utterly unnecessary. Not just waste, but wasteful. Plastic water bottles, one after another—80 million of them get tossed every day. The ones I’m stomping down are being “recycled,” but so what? In a country where almost everyone has access to clean drinking water, they define waste to begin with. I mean, you don’t have a mug? In fact, once you start thinking about it, the category of “waste” begins to expand, until it includes an alarming percentage of our economy. Let’s do some intellectual sorting:

There’s old-fashioned waste, the dangerous, sooty kind. You’re making something useful, but you’re not using the latest technology, and so you’re spewing: particulates into the air, or maybe sewage into the water. You wish to keep doing it, because it’s cheap, and you block any regulation that might interfere with your right to spew. This is the kind of waste that’s easy to attack; it’s obvious and obnoxious and a lot of it falls under the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act and so on. There’s actually less of this kind of waste than there used to be—that’s why we can swim in most of our rivers again.

There’s waste that comes from everything operating as it should, only too much so. If carbon monoxide (carbon with one oxygen atom) exemplifies pollution of the first type, then carbon dioxide (carbon with two oxygen atoms) typifies the second. Carbon monoxide poisons you in your garage and turns Beijing’s air brown, but if you put a catalytic converter on your tailpipe it all but disappears. Carbon dioxide doesn’t do anything to you directly—a clean-burning engine used to be defined as one that released only CO2 and water vapor—but in sufficient quantity it melts the ice caps, converts grassland into desert, and turns every coastal city into New Orleans.

There’s waste that comes from doing something that manifestly doesn’t need doing. A hundred million trees are cut every year just to satisfy the junk-mail industry. You can argue about cutting trees for newspapers, or magazines, or Bibles, or symphony scores—but the cascade of stuffporn that arrives daily in our mailboxes? It wastes forests, and also our time. Which, actually, is precious—we each get about 30,000 days, and it makes one a little sick to calculate how many of them have been spent opening credit card offers.

Or think about what we’ve done with cars. From 1975 to 1985, fuel efficiency for the average new car improved from 14 to 28 miles per gallon. Then we stopped worrying about oil and put all that engineering talent to work on torque. In the mid-1980s, the typical car accelerated from 0 to 60 mph in 14.5 seconds. Today’s average (even though vehicles are much heavier) is 9.5 seconds. But it’s barely legal to accelerate like that, and it makes you look like an idiot, or a teenager.

Then there’s the waste that comes with doing something maybe perhaps vaguely useful when you could be doing something actually useful instead. For instance: Congress is being lobbied really, really hard to fork over billions of dollars to the nuclear industry, on the premise that it will fight global warming. There is, of course, that little matter of nuclear waste—but lay that aside (in Nevada or someplace). The greater problem is the wasted opportunity: That money could go to improving efficiency, which can produce the same carbon reductions for about a fifth of the price.

Our wasteful habits wouldn’t matter much if there were just a few of us—a Neanderthal hunting band could have discarded six plastic water bottles apiece every day with no real effect except someday puzzling anthropologists. But the volumes we manage are something else. Chris Jordan is the photographer laureate of waste—his most recent project, “Running the Numbers,” uses exquisite images to show the 106,000 aluminum cans Americans toss every 30 seconds, or the 1 million plastic cups distributed on US airline flights every 6 hours, or the 2 million plastic beverage bottles we run through every 5 minutes, or the 426,000 cell phones we discard every day, or the 1.14 million brown paper supermarket bags we use each hour, or the 60,000 plastic bags we use every 5 seconds, or the 15 million sheets of office paper we use every 5 minutes, or the 170,000 Energizer batteries produced every 15 minutes. The simple amount of stuff it takes—energy especially—to manage this kind of throughput makes it daunting to even think about our waste problem. (Meanwhile, the next time someone tells you that population is at the root of our troubles, remind them that the average American uses more energy between the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve and dinner on January 2 than the average, say, Tanzanian consumes in a year. Population matters, but it really matters when you multiply it by proximity to Costco.)

Would you like me to go on? Americans discard enough aluminum to rebuild our entire commercial air fleet every three months—and aluminum represents less than 1 percent of our solid waste stream. We toss 14 percent of the food we buy at the store. More than 46,000 pieces of plastic debris float on each square mile of ocean. And—oh, forget it.

These kinds of numbers get in the way of figuring out how much we really waste. In recent years, for instance, 40 percent of Harvard graduates have gone into finance, consulting, and business. They had just spent four years with the world’s greatest library, some of its finest museum collections, an unparalleled assemblage of Nobel-quality scholars, and all they wanted to do was go to lower Manhattan and stare into computer screens. What a waste! And when they got to Wall Street, of course, they figured out extravagant ways to waste the life savings of millions of Americans, which in turn required the waste of taxpayer dollars to bail them out, money that could have been spent on completely useful things: trains to get us where we want to go—say, new national parks.

Perhaps the only kind of waste we’ve gotten good at cutting is the kind we least needed to eliminate: An entire industry of consultants survives on telling companies how to get rid of inefficiencies—which generally means people. And an entire class of politicians survives by railing about government waste, which also ends up meaning programs for people: Health care for poor children, what a boondoggle. Continue reading


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