January-February 1996 Volume 3, Number 1
Throwing Away Less Organic Material
We prefer to take a more holistic, life-cycle perspective. While trees *are* a renewable resource, they are generally grown on a low-diversity, monoculture-type farm. It's not uncommon for fertilizers and pesticides to be applied to promote growth, or herbicides used to control unwanted species. Trees are also regularly watered to help ensure quick and continued growth. Thus, Christmas trees are really a crop, and not truly a forest.
While artificial trees are not renewable, we suspect that the amount of resources consumed over the life of a reusable tree are significantly less than the resources consumed when buying many live trees over many years. Thus, we'll stick with our recommendation: buy a live tree which can be planted, or an aritificial tree, before purchasing the more standard tree. (Mulch it if you do!)
As for the carbon dioxide issue, we're not sure that the reduction from Christmas tree farming is that significant. And taken to its logical extreme, this line of reasoning becomes silly, since it implies that it would be better to clearcut all of the Earth's forests, let them re-grow for a few years, and then cut again, re-grow, etc.
By the way, if anyone has produced a broader life cycle analysis (LCA) on Christmas trees, we'd love to see it. (More on LCAs in general in the next issue.)
Stop Junk Mail Forever is a little booklet published by Good Advice Press. Here are a few of the many tips included:
The Worms Crawl In...
The worms come in small plastic boxes. Food scraps are added, then left alone while the worms do their thing. The result is a high quality, high-nitrogen fertilizer which, when cut with a little peat moss, makes for great plant food. Contact Worm World at 412-356-2397 or write them at 26 Ihnat Lane, Avella, PA 15312.
Paper or Plastic?
The answer, unfortunately, is it depends. The material that consumes the fewest non-renewable resources (or conserves the most) during the whole life of that material, from cradle to grave, is probably the better choice. But getting to the point where one has enough information to make a choice can be tricky.
Take bags. While plastic ones are derived mainly from natural gas, a non-renewable resource, they weigh seven times less than paper bags. This means that the extra fossil fuel used to produce and transport paper bags offsets the fact that they come from trees, a renewable resource. The real answer? Reuse both.
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Proper packaging is critical to the source reduction of solid waste. Nowhere is this truer than in the packaging of garbage itself. Seattle's "pay as you throw" strategy is based on this very premise. Residents are charged for their discards based on the number and size of garbage containers they regularly fill, with every additional container costing exponentially more than the previous one. When Seattle inaugurated the system in 1981, the average household filled three-and-a-half 32-gallon garbage cans a week. By the early 90's the average was only a little more than one 32-gallon can.
Seattle and the cities which have copied its system are the good news. The bad news is that the process seems to be able to work in reverse, not unlike a Parkinson's Law of Garbage: Garbage expands to fill the receptacles available for its containment. The Garbage Project has documented one example.
In hopes of cutting labor costs and worker injuries, many municipalities have installed systems which provide residents with special garbage containers that trucks can empty mechanically. Since large households must be accommodated, most cities end up choosing very large (90 gallon, usually) wheeled containers. In 1980, Phoenix adopted such an automated system.
City data from 1975 through 1990 showed that while average household size shrunk by one-quarter, discards per household remained unchanged: In other words, Phoenicians in 1990 were each producing one-third more refuse than their 1975 counterparts. Later, when Tucson adopted automation, garbage-generation rates of households in Garbage Project sample areas shot up by one-third in only a few months -- comparable to the apparent increase in Phoenix.
The dynamics of Parkinson's Law of Garbage are quite simple. When people have small garbage cans, many of the larger kinds of garbage that they have on their hands -- yard debris, old cans of paint and bags of clothing, all awaiting some special action such as the construction of a compost pile, a hazardous waste collection day, or a trip to a charity outlet -- do not get thrown away. But large garbage mausoleums on wheels present a new option. Before long, what was once an instinctive "I'll just put this in the garage" becomes an equally instinctive "I'll bet this will fit into the garbage."
In fact, the items which account for most of the increase in discards are of serious concern. For example, in areas with curbside collection of recyclables, newspapers represent a significant new occupant of the larger garbage cans, probably because the cans represent an easier alternative than separation. Another important addition to discards is household hazardous wastes. Their substantial increase is the highest in concentration in Tucson's first garbage pickup after the weekend, when most household and auto improvement chores are done.
Seattle's garbage container enhancement of source reduction contained within it the key to understanding the source reduction dilemma of Phoenix and Tucson: Parkinson's Law of Garbage!
Dr. William L. Rathje is Professor of Archaeology at The University of Arizona and Director of The Garbage Project. The Project studies contemporary cultures by digging up their landfills and examining the resulting debris.
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Join Us for ULS Day 1996
The First Annual ULS Day was a smashing success! Thanks to our participants, as well as to the obviously growing interest in source reduction, we estimate that our message was received almost 175 million times!
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Bright Spot in Lighting -- New sulfur vapor lamps may save huge amounts of electricity throughout the world. The lamps produce light much more efficiently than incandescent, fluorescent, mercury vapor or sodium bulbs and closely resemble sunlight. Contact Fusion Lighting at 301-251-0300.Return to Index
Hold the Ketchup -- A mixture of soybean oil and diesel fuel is being used in some cities to reduce bus emissions and petroleum consumption. A Cincinnati study has found that a 20/80 mixture of soybean oil to diesel fuel can reduce carbon monoxide by 12 percent and hydrocarbon emissions by 21 percent. The exhaust not only smells cleaner, it reminds people of cooking french fries. Contact the National Diesel Board, 314-634-3893.
Food for Thought -- According to the Cornell Waste Management Institute, little attention gets paid to food waste composting. To change that, the Institute is creating a food waste educational program for businesses and other institutions. For more information, contact Jean Bonhotal at 607-255-8444 or email@example.com.
It's a Gas -- NASA has invented a device which uses a new class of catalysts to convert toxic carbon monoxide to non-toxic carbon dioxide at room termperature. The device, which might help reduce vehicle emissions, has no moving parts, requires no energy to operate and lasts a long time. Contact NASA at 202-358-4043.
Attention Wal-Mart Shoppers -- Wal-Mart has opened what it calls an environmental demonstration store in City of Industry, CA. The building employs state of the art skylights which track and direct sunlight to needed areas, solar panels for power, and an air conditioning system based on evaporative-cooler condensers. Annual energy savings are expected to be about 1.3 million kilowatt hours, which translates to a $75,000 reduction in operating costs. Pretty cool.
The ULS Report is a bi-monthly publication of Partners for Environmental Progress. Send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.