The ULS Report TM

Helping people Use Less Stuff by conserving resources and reducing waste.

May-June 1996 Volume 3, Number 3


Stepping Lightly Into Spring

It's springtime, when a person's fancy turns to...the great outdoors. There are all sorts of things to do, like gardening, athletics, boating, biking and joy riding. And there are also all sorts of ways to have fun while using less stuff, thereby reducing the impact we make on the environment.

As usual, most of our tips involve lots of old-fashioned common sense. While all save natural resources, many save financial ones, too. What a deal!

Let's start at home...

There are plenty of things you can do to save resources in and around your home:

Moving to the garden...

Did you know that up to 15 percent of your town's waste is comprised of lawn clippings, yard debris and other organic matter? So, what you do outside can have a tremendous impact on your community's landfill capacity and disposal/sanitation budget.

--Check and repair leaky hoses, faucets and connections.

--Put your sprinklers on timers and water only very early in the day or in the evening. If possible, switch to drip irrigation. You'll reduce water evaporation and run-off.

--Aerate your lawn to increase water penetration and air flow to the roots.

--Control weeds to reduce water consumption. If you can put down a pre-emergent, do so. Better to prevent weeds than to have to pull or kill them.

--Put potted plants in non-porous containers that reduce water evaporation. Glazed ceramic and plastic both work. (They last longer, too.)

--Mulch and spread lawn clippings. Compost what's left.

--Tune up and clean the mower; replace the plugs; and use a file to sharpen, rather than replace, the blades.

--Rent or borrow tools. (Don't forget to return them!)

And on the road.

--Clean salt and dirt off your car or bike, touch up scratches, wax and seal. A clean machine is a long lasting machine!

--Get a tune-up and properly inflate tires. Efficient vehicles reduce energy consumption and pollution while saving $$.

--Walk, jog, roller-blade or take your bike.

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Ask Bill and Bob

A few times you've written that recycling isn't always the best thing to do. How can that be? -- Mrs. N. Tucker, Nashville, TN

From a broad perspective, a critical environmental objective is to minimize the resources consumed and pollution created. While recycling is one way to do this, source reduction (using less stuff) often does a more effective job -- since minimizing materials creation and usage is better than having to find new ways to keep using materials once they are produced. (Remember: Recycling is a manufacturing process that, like all processes, consumes resources and can generate pollution.)

Here's a good example. Europeans tend to buy laundry detergents in refill bags, which are very lightweight. The bags contain only about 25% recycled content. Americans prefer sturdier rigid bottles, which contain almost twice as much (48%) recycled plastic. Which is the more resource-conserving option?

We used the widely recognized Bousted life cycle inventory (LCI) database to find out. To compare apples to apples, we looked at how much packaging it took to provide the detergent needed to do 1000 loads of laundry. We then converted all of the material, energy, production, transportation and disposal costs of that packaging into energy units -- BTU's. Here's what we found:

Life Cycle Energy Needed to Wash 1000 Loads of Laundry

Container Type Total Lbs. % Recycled Content Total LCA BTUs BTUs if 100% Recycled
Refill Bag
Refill Bottle

The bag consumes 73% less energy than does the bottle, making it the conservation winner. What's more, the bag is still the winner by 51% even if the bottle could be made entirely of recycled plastic! The reason has to do with the total amount of material needed to do the job: You can't recycle enough bottles to be as resource efficient as the bags.

Keep in mind that if you buy rigid plastic containers, it's still better to use ones made with recycled content than those made entirely of virgin plastic (and of course to reuse and recycle them). But overall, when it comes to conserving resources, light makes right.

I'm trying to start a composting program in my small town. Where can I learn more about how to do so? -- Jan Ensing, Freeport, MI

Your question couldn't be more timely, Jan. Lots of people have called or written asking the same thing. One of the best resources we've found is the Cornell University Media Services Resource Center. Write to them at 7 Business & Technology Park, Ithaca, NY 14850 or call 607-255-2080. Here is a synopsis of three of their composting publications:

Composting to Reduce the Waste Stream: A Guide to Small Scale Food and Yard Waste Composting-1991, Explains how to construct and maintain a compost pile. Produced by and available from the Northeast Regional Agricultural Engineering Service, Cornell University, 152 Riley-Robb Hall, Ithaca, NY 14853; 607-255-7654, $7.

Municipal Compost Management Home Study Program - 1991, An approach to designing, and managing a composting system for municipalities. Available from the Home Study Program, Warren Hall, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY 14853; 607-255-2226, $95.

Yard Waste Composting for Municipalities - 1989, Slide set produced by the Cornell Agricultural & Biological Engineering Department, $49/loan $18. Call 607-255-2080.

Two other resources you might try are Composting News, Ken McEntee, Editor, 13727 Holland Road, Cleveland, OH 44142, 216-362-7979; and The Composting Council, 114 South Pitt Street, Alexandria, Virginia 22314, 703-739-2402.

Got a question? Write us: Ask Bill & Bob

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Got Any Trashy Testimonials?

If your community has a Pay-As-You-Throw (PAYT) waste reduction program, the EPA would like to hear about it. Call Bram Duchovnay at 617-674-7391 to find out how to put your town's name in lights and help inform others about starting their own PAYT efforts.

For reference, nearly 2,000 communities have adopted some variation of the PAYT idea (also called unit pricing or variable-rate pricing). The idea is simple: Give people an incentive to reduce and recycle their waste by billing them directly for the amount of trash they generate. Thus, families save cash when they cut trash.

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SR in the OR

By Dr. William L. Rathje

Garbage and health have always been closely related, but the relationship has been anything but simple. The issue of health spawned the public outcry which led to the first systematic street cleaning and garbage collection services around the turn of the century.

Fears over public health have also been the bulwark supporting the new features that adorn today's state-of-the-art landfills. Such health concerns have helped to protect us from most of the risks of refuse; but, on the opposite side of the coin, health concerns have also led to more garbage being generated.

One of the very first disposables was invented for health reasons: Disposable cups appeared nearly one hundred years ago in train stations to replace the drinking vessel attached by a chain to water buckets -- a tin cup that everyone used communally. That simple throw-away, which was designed to protect the public from other people's germs, has now burgeoned to the point that contemporary U.S. hospitals are synomymous with deluges of disposable discards.

From "ER" on TV to real-life ORs (Operating Rooms), hospitals epitomize some of the most crucial dramas acted out in America -- even when it comes to the tense and ironic relationship with garbage. Garbage begets health concerns and health concerns beget garbage! Can anything be done to reduce health concerns and source reduce garbage at the same time?

Just when the situation looks bleakest in TV dramas, a hero appears. The difference is that in real life the hero is a heroine -- Holly Shaner, an OR nurse at a hospital in Vermont. Holly, who has always been concerned about the amount of garbage generated by hospitals, homes and offices, had a seminal insight.

Before an operation, doctors order the specific materials they will need for that operation, which are delivered in due course to the OR. The nurses then carefully unpack everything so that it is ready for surgery. The packaging is left where it lands. As soon as the patient is wheeled into the OR, the packaging automatically becomes, and is treated as, RED BAG HAZARDOUS WASTE! Because of this designation, it must be specially handled and disposed of in a most costly manner.

Holly thought that this was a totally inappropriate and expensive end for these packages. She suggested a solution -- get the packaging out of the OR before the patient appears. Voila! The packaging is no longer RED BAG, and can be discarded with other everyday wastes, or even recycled. Among those hospitals adopting this simple procedure, disposal costs have been reduced by 40 percent or more.

Holly, who is still an OR nurse in Vermont, and her husband now consult with other hospitals and organizations to reduce their discards. Seminal source reduction (SR) insights such as this are few and far between. Holly, how does it feel to have had a big one?

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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Where's the Waste?

If you think that garbage is mostly a household phenomenon, you're in for a surprise. The 209 million tons of municipal solid waste generated annually represents only about 1.5% of all trash. Annual U.S. trash generation totals about 14 billion tons!

As shown below, the majority of waste is classified as industrial non-hazardous -- packaging & pallets, paper, metals, building & construction debris, sludge, etc. Importantly, what we do as consumers can help to reduce this waste.

Gross National Trash

Category % of Total Millions of Tons
Municipal Solid Waste
Industrial Non-Hazardous
Oil & Gas Waste
Mining Waste
Hazardous Waste

Source: Green Business Letter, U.S. EPA

Here's a downloadable pie chart of the same data:

Every purchase decision that we make affects the amount of resources used by processors, packagers, energy producers, manufacturers, miners and millers. Thus, by buying smart with using less in mind, we significantly enhance resource conservation efforts.

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Reduction Roundup

From Landfill to Lighting -- Environmental Technologies Inc. of Calgary, Canada will be developing two small power production facilities in China. The energy will come from gas extracted from local landfills. The company expects to generate a total of 2.6 megawatts of power.

Drink Your Milk -- The U.S. Department of Energy and Envirocare of Utah, Inc. will be reducing the danger of toxic waste by encasing radioactive lead in melted recycled plastic made from milk jugs and other recycled plastic. The plastic stabilizes the waste, preventing migration and contamination of the environment.

Testing Your Metal -- Steel makes up 95% of all the metal made in the world. The industry generates roughly 5% of all human-produced greenhouse gases, as well as a variety of noxious byproducts. Professor Donald Sadoway at M.I.T. has developed a new steel-making technique that reduces the use of carbon and thus produces oxygen, and not carbon dioxide, as a byproduct.

Electric Vehicle Market Energized -- Honda announced that it is joining General Motors in marketing electric vehicles in California. The 2 door, 4 passenger Honda vehicle will be powered by nickel-metal hydride batteries, have a top speed of 80 mph and range of about 125 miles. It will be available for purchase in Spring, 1997. Pricing and other details have yet to be announced.

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ULS Day News

We now have over 25 ULS Day participants lined up! If your non-profit group would like to participate, please call us at 313-668-1690. Attention trade groups and associations: We would love to have you join us as well. Call to find out how to become a financial sponsor.

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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

The ULS Report, Use Less Stuff, Reduction Roundup and the ULS logo are trademarks of Partners for Environmental Progress.

1996 Partners for Environmental Progress

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