The ULS Report TM

Helping people conserve resources and reduce waste by Using Less Stuff

March-April 1996 Volume 3, Number 2

Earth Day Issue!


The Secret Life of a Hamburger

Let's say that you've just finished having lunch at your favorite fast food place. You get up from the table and take the tray to the trash receptacle. As you open the little swinging door and watch the garbage glide into the waiting bin, you notice how many burgers, wrappers and boxes have piled up. What a waste, you think. Why can't this place do something about it?

But how much of the waste and resources used are represented by what you see in the trash? 60%? 70%? 80? How about 1%! Approximately 99% of all the waste actually occurs before you even eat the burger! How, you might ask, is that possible?

We'll begin with the bun, which is principally flour. Flour starts out as grain, which has to be grown using water, fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides and sometimes fungicides. The seed is sown, and the grain harvested, using tractors, threshers and combines. It took plenty of raw materials to make these machines, and it takes plenty of fuel to keep them running. And while running, they produce air pollutants and carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas which can lead to global warming.

The grain is transported by truck or rail to storage sites, milled into flour, stored in warehouses and sent to bakeries. Milling and baking require energy to produce dough and buns, which are then wrapped and shipped to fast food stores. Between every step, all of the transportation burns fuel and again produces pollutants.

Other farm products that went into your burger include tomatoes, onions, cucumbers and lettuce. The tomatoes and cucumbers required further processing to be turned into ketchup and pickles, respectively.

You might ask where's the beef? Once again, we start with grain, which is used for feed. After vast amounts of food and water are fed to the cattle, it's off to the stockyard for sale, and then on to the processing plant. At the plant, cattle are slaughtered and rendered, with the beef cut, packaged, cooled and shipped to warehouses in energy-intensive refrigerator cars and trucks.

At the warehouse, the meat is aged, ground into patties, boxed, frozen and stored. It is then shipped in freezer trucks to restaurants where it's kept cold until ready to cook (with energy, of course). At this point, the bun, pattie, condiments and packaging all come together to bring you the final product.

We should also point out the resources needed to produce the wrappers and boxes themselves. Paper is processed from trees, using large amounts of water, chemicals and non-renewable resources. Plastic is processed from oil or natural gas, also utilizing non-renewable resources. Both materials require energy to produce and ship, resulting in carbon dioxide generation and some air or water pollution.

By now, it should be very apparent that the resources used and waste generated at stages we don't see are far greater than those we do notice when confronting the restaurant's trash bin. In fact, ecologists generally agree that each link in the food chain increases resource use by a factor of 10. This means that if we ate the grain, and not the meat, we would save about 90% of the resources and reduce an equal amount of waste.

From this analysis, it's fairly obvious that a full-scale, cradle-to-grave look at a particular issue produces very different conclusions than a simple "which package is better?" approach. The technical term for such an examination is Life Cycle Assessment, or LCA for short.

We're not going to tell you to give up meat completely. But we do have a few suggestions that apply Life Cycle thinking to help you easily reduce waste while saving resources and money:

Bon appetit!

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Attention Teachers

The National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) has just released a source reduction curriculum entitled An Ounce of Prevention. It's designed for middle schools, and covers the topic from A to Z, with lessons addressing trash generation, packaging, household hazardous waste and Life Cycle Analysis. There's even a role playing game where students act as officials and must develop a plan to reduce their state's garbage.

It comes with a nifty poster based on our hamburger story. (The ULS staff acted as technical and production advisors to the NSTA.) You can get a copy by writing to: An Ounce of Prevention, Campaign #2714, P.O. Box 1206, Midland, MI 48641-9823. Include your name, address, school, grade and choice of hard copy or disk version (specify Mac or IBM). The latter uses a lot less stuff!

If you just can't wait and would like to try your hand at downloading the curriculum, you can do so from here .

If you'd like a preview and have Adobe Acrobat Reader handy, you can download and read the Curriculum Guide .

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Ask Bill and Bob

I keep reading that companies are making their packaging lighter and lighter. Is this really true, and how can you find out? -- M. Kline, Philadelphia, PA

We decided to examine a package that we thought was already pretty light -- yogurt containers -- to see what we could learn. We called Dannon, which kindly provided us with some very detailed statistics. By redesigning the cups and using plastic resins that could be "lightweighted," current containers use between 22 and 40% less plastic than their immediate predecessors, saving 5.9 million pounds/yr. The Dannon folks added that the lighter weight meant they could use outer cardboard packaging that contained almost 10% less material, too.

If you're interested in what manufacturers are doing, call the 800 number on their packages. Organizations that can also provide info include the Grocery Manufacturers Association (202-337-9400) and CONEG, the Council of Northeast Governers (202-624-8450).

Got a question? Write us: 
Ask Bill & Bob

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Take a "Bite Out of Garbage"

By Dr. William L. Rathje

As a means of decreasing household garbage, the waste of once-edible food has not attracted the kind of attention focused on recycling newspapers. The reason is simple. We often leave newspapers out in plain sight after reading them and can easily see how quickly they literally "stack up." On the other hand, no people I know pile their food waste up in a corner of the kitchen. As a result, we have no sense of overall food waste quantities, even though they are sizable.

According to refuse sort records, the average household wastes between 10 and 15 percent (by weight) of the solid food it purchases -- nationwide, that is enough food to feed everyone in Canada. This waste figure includes just the once-edible food that the Garbage Project's student sorters have held, weighed and recorded; it does not inlcude food debris (such as bones, peels, rinds, etc.) and is not corrected for whatever food was ground down garbage disposals.

This discard of food is a weighty waste of money. In addition, once-edible food alone represents 10 percent of the household refuse destined for disposal. In landfills, food waste occupies a fair-sized portion of the space, as can be documented by 10-year-old heads of lettuce and the 20-year-old guacamole that have been exhumed by Garbage Project excavations. As a result, once-edible vittles represent an opportunity ripe for source reduction.

There are several specific behavior patterns which are associated with high rates of food waste. Most are obvious. It should come as no surprise, for example, that fresh produce is wasted at ten times or more the rate of processed fruits and vegetables, and foods that are used frequently (such as the slices from standard loaves of bread) find themselves in the trash much less often than foods which are used only sporadically (e.g., hot dog buns or muffins).

My favorite pattern, however, is not so obvious: households which purchase the highest proportion of processed foods waste the highest percentage of fresh foods. (Note: This doesn't mean they waste the most fresh food, but only that they waste the highest percentage of the fresh food they purchase.)

This odd pattern has a simple explanation -- "The Fast Lane Syndrome." When those afflicted by it go shopping, they buy fresh produce, convinced that they will find the time to make nutritious, home-cooked meals from scratch. Knowing their hectic lifestyle, however, they also buy prepared foods as back-ups.

At the end of the week, the packaging from the prepared foods is in their garbage, and the lettuce in their refrigerators is blue and gooey. Sound familiar? If it does, then you and I are a lot alike. If we can be a little more honest with ourselves, we will be able to take a "bite out of our 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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Making the Most of What You Have

You've just discovered a run in your pantyhose. Do you: A. Throw them away; B. Use them to buff the floor and polish the furniture; C. Strain the lumps out of paint with them; or D. Use them to clean your dentures? If you answered B, C or D you're right! You can find even more uses for old lingerie by picking up a copy of Polish Your Furniture with Panty Hose by Joey Green (Hyperion, 1996).

Multiple use, reuse and durability are key waste prevention concepts. The more ways to use a single product, the fewer total number of products that you have to buy. This is a great way to use less stuff and save money at the same time. Here are a few other tips from this little book:

Toothpaste: polish silverware, silver or gold; clean piano keys; remove crayon from walls; remove scratches from glassware; fill small holes in walls.

Vinegar: Kill bathroom germs; clean drip coffee pots; repel ants; add to azaleas.

Wait 'til you find out what can be done with kitty litter!

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Reduction Roundup

For the Birds -- What do you get if you cram chicken droppings and pine bark into smoke stacks? According to the TVA Environmental Research Center, you reduce toxic industrial emissions by 70 to 100 percent for chemicals like methyl ethyl ketones and acetone. The biofilters apparently digest virtually all of the toxins.

A Cold Reception -- Elstar Manufacturing of Derbyshire, England has developed a refrigerator that uses hydrocarbons rather than CFCs to keep stuff cool. CFCs have been identified as key actors in ozone depletion. The hydrocarbons are ozone-benign.

Water and Oil Can Mix -- Inventor Rudolf Gunnerman has invented a way to create a diesel-like fuel that consists of 55 percent water and 45 percent naptha, a rather inexpensive petroleum derivative. It's being used in Nevada, and is awaiting a similar blessing from federal agencies. Tests indicate the stuff produces 70 percent less pollution than regular diesel fuel.

The Last Straw -- A group of Utah farmers are marketing a new building product. They have transformed what was once wheat-waste (whew!) into compressed, affordable wallboard. Since it has a solid core, the board is more fire-retardant than sheetrock. It's also lighter, easier to install and reusable.

Tax Time -- Help save resources by getting your tax forms on-line. Click here to go to the IRS forms page.

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ULS Day Update

Many of you have asked when ULS Day will be this year: Thursday, November 21, 1996. (It's always one week before Thanksgiving.) Quite a few organizations have expressed interest in joining us. There's plenty of time to get involved, so call us at 313-668-1690.

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The ULS Report is a bi-monthly publication of Partners for Environmental Progress. Send e-mail to

Snail mail address: P.O. Box 130116, Ann Arbor, MI 48113
Phone: 313-668-1690
Fax: 313-930-0506

Editor: Robert Lilienfeld
Technical Advisor: Dr. William Rathje
Editorial Advisors: Tony Kingsbury

Feel free to reduce, reuse and recycle this newsletter and its contents. (But please give appropriate credit when referencing our material.)

1996 Partners for Environmental Progress. The ULS Report and Reduction Roundup are trademarks of Partners for Environmental Progress.