Is our throwaway economy headed for the junk heap of history?
In their book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, American architect William McDonough and German chemist Michael Braungart conclude that waste and pollution are to be avoided entirely. â€œPollution,â€ says McDonough, â€œis a symbol of design failure.â€
The challenge is to re-evaluate the materials we consume and the way we manufacture products so as to cut down on waste. Restructuring the transportation system has a huge potential for reducing materials use as light rail and buses replace cars. For example, 60 cars, weighing a total of 110 tons, can be replaced by one 12-ton bus, reducing material use 89 percent.
Savings from replacing a car with a bike are even more impressive. Urban planner Richard Register recounts meeting a bicycle-activist friend wearing a T-shirt that said, â€œI just lost 3,500 pounds. Ask me how.â€ When queried, he said he had sold his car. Replacing a 3,500-pound car with a 22-pound bicycle obviously reduces fuel use dramatically, but it also reduces materials use by 99 percent, indirectly saving still more energy.
Cutting the use of virgin raw materials begins with recycling steel, the use of which dwarfs that of all other metals combined. In the United States, virtually all cars are recycled. They are simply too valuable to be left to rust in out-of-the-way junkyards. With the number of cars scrapped now exceeding new cars sold, the U.S. automobile sector actually has a steel surplus that can be used elsewhere in the economy.
The U.S. recycling rate for household appliances is estimated at 90 percent. For steel cans it is 65 percent. For construction steel, the figures are 98 percent for steel beams and girders but only 65 percent for reinforcement steel.
Beyond reducing materials use, the energy savings from recycling are huge. Making steel from recycled scrap takes only 26 percent as much energy as that from iron ore. For aluminum, the figure is just 4 percent. Recycled plastic uses only 20 percent as much energy. Recycled paper uses 64 percent as muchâ€”and with far fewer chemicals during processing. If the world recycling rates of these basic materials were raised to those already attained in the most efficient economies, world carbon emissions would drop precipitously.
The rates of paper recycling in the top 10 paper-producing countries range widelyâ€”from China and Finland on the low end, recycling less than 40 percent of the paper they use, to Japan and Germany on the higher end, each between 70 and 80 percent, and South Korea, which recycles an impressive 91 percent. The United States, the worldâ€™s largest paper consumer, is far behind the leaders, but it has raised the share of paper recycled from roughly 20 percent in 1980 to 59 percent in 2009. If every country recycled as much of its paper as South Korea does, the amount of wood pulp used to produce paper worldwide would drop by more than one third.
In the United States, only 33 percent of garbage is recycled. Some 13 percent is burned and 54 percent goes to landfills, indicating a huge potential for reducing materials use, energy use, and pollution. Among the larger U.S. cities, recycling rates vary from 25 percent in New York to 45 percent in Chicago, 65 percent in Los Angeles, and 77 percent in San Francisco, the highest of all.
One way to encourage recycling is simply to adopt a landfill tax. For example, when the small town of Lyme, New Hampshire, adopted a pay-as-you-throw (PAYT) program that encourages municipalities to charge residents for each bag of garbage, it dramatically reduced the flow of materials to landfills, raising the share of garbage recycled from 13 to 52 percent in only one year, simultaneously reducing the townâ€™s landfill fees, and generating a cash flow from the sale of recycled material. Nationwide, more than 7,000 U.S. communities now have PAYT programs.
In addition to measures that encourage recycling, there are those that encourage or mandate the reuse of products such as refillable beverage containers. Finland, for example, has banned the use of one-way soft drink containers. A refillable glass bottle used over and over requires only 10 percent as much energy per use as recycling an aluminum can. Banning nonrefillables is a quintuple win optionâ€”cutting material use, carbon emissions, air pollution, water pollution, and landfill costs simultaneously.
Bottled water is even more wasteful. In a world trying to stabilize climate, it is difficult to justify bottling water (often tap water to begin with), hauling it long distances, and then selling it for 1,000 times the price of water from the kitchen faucet. Although clever marketing has convinced many consumers that bottled water is safer and healthier than tap water, a detailed study by WWF found that in the United States and Europe there are more standards regulating the quality of tap water than there are for bottled water. In developing countries where water is unsafe, it is far cheaper to boil or filter water than to buy it in bottles.
Manufacturing the nearly 28 billion plastic bottles used each year to package water in the United States alone requires the equivalent of 17 million barrels of oil. Thisâ€”combined with the energy used to refrigerate and haul the bottled water in trucks, sometimes over hundreds of milesâ€”means the U.S. bottled water industry consumes roughly 50 million barrels of oil per year, equal to 13 percent of U.S. oil imports from Saudi Arabia.
The production, processing, and disposal of materials in our modern throwaway economy wastes not only materials but the energy embodied in the material as well. The throwaway economy that has evolved over the last half-century is an aberration that is now itself headed for the junk heap of history.
Adapted from "World on the Edge" by Lester R. Brown. Full book available online at earth-policy.org.