The ULS Report

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

September-October 1996
Volume 3, Number 5


Lifting the Lid on Garbage

What's really heading for the landfill? Is it the vast amounts of foam cups, disposable diapers, fast food packaging and plastic bags that we've been led to believe? The answer, at least according to the latest available EPA data, is "no".

Before we look at the information, a little lesson in trash math is in order. The EPA reports three different, but related, sets of numbers. The first, and largest, is solid waste generated. This is the total amount of refuse created in our homes and offices. Subtracted from this number is the trash recovered for recycling and composting. This leaves us with the stuff that isn't reused or recycled, which is known as discards.

Since discards are what ultimately end up underground, it's discards that we must examine. Here are the largest categories, collectively making up two-thirds of the waste headed for the landfill:

The Discard Dirty Dozen

Category Tons
% of
Yard Trimmings
Food Wastes
Corrugated Boxes
Miscellaneous Durables
Wood Packaging
Other Commercial Printing
Other Nonpackaging, Paper
Paper Folding Cartons
Glass Food Bottles/Jars
Clothing & Footwear

Source: EPA Characterization of Municipal Solid Waste
in the United States: 1994 Update

Surprisingly, even after composting and recycling are given their due, compostable and recyclable materials such as yard trimmings, food waste, corrugated boxes, newspapers and glass food packages (bottles, jars) account for five of the 12 largest discard items by weight. Collectively, these categories make up 38% of all discarded garbage.The reason is simple: We use far more than can be efficiently recycled.

Other weighty items include old furniture, used clothing, cereal and frozen food boxes, wood pallets, posters, cards, games and brochures. Not exactly what comes to mind when we talk trash.

What can be done to cut the clutter created by these categories? We're right back to our favorite message: use less stuff in the first place. Here are a few of our best waste prevention tips:

  • Buy higher quality, longer lasting furniture and appliances. Repair and renovate, rather than replace, older items.

  • Donate old clothing and furniture to charitable groups or hold garage sales.

  • Practice home composting, or talk to local officials about municipal facilities. And mulch those grass clippings!

  • Reduce the number of bulky boxes by purchasing products such as cereals and frozen vegetables in bags.

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    Coming Soon: e-lections

    First there was electronic banking. Then came e-mail. We're betting that the next e-normously inventive trend will be e-lections. From a waste prevention perspective, it couldn't happen too soon.

    Let's look at what's going to happen between now and November 5th. First, our collective mailboxes and doormats will be stuffed with letters, flyers and other paper pleas from local, county, state and federal candidates for government office. Then come the windshield notices, handbills, bumper stickers, newspaper inserts and other printed materials.

    Once we get to the polls, there's even more paperwork. Computer-generated voter registration rolls. Voter history cards. Signature cards. Proof of registration cards. And of course, the actual ballots themselves.

    What's more, many places that long ago replaced their paper-stuffed ballot boxes with paper-less voting machines are now switching to a new type of machine that reads pencil marks placed on paper ballot sheets. Back to the future!

    We can't forget about the energy used driving to the polls, either. Besides using fuel, cars and buses generate air pollution and greenhouse gases.

    With widescale penetration of computers into offices, factories and homes, there's a simple way to eliminate much of the paper nd pollution: on-line voting. Here's Just one of many possible electronic voting scenarios:

    1. At home or work, you fire up your Internet Web browser and check out the party platforms and news.

    2. Then, you head over to your voting district's Web site. After filling in your name, residence and social security number, the small camera on your monitor (technology currently available, no joke!) verifies your photo against the one on file with the Motor Vehicle Office in your state.

    3. You are allowed to move on to the ballot page, where you click on the candidates of your choice, press the send button and receive confirmation.

    That wasn't hard, was it? Of course, there are a few items to be worked out, but nothing insurmountable. Think of the benefits to people who can't easily get to polling places, or to people who can't get to their home district because they live somewhere else (e.g., students). Think of all of the paper that was saved and the gasoline that wasn't burned!

    Want to see a little bit of the future now? Check out the political parties' electronic propaganda:

    Don't forget to vote!

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    Auto Neurotica

    As Americans, we're not just proud of our right to vote. We're just as proud of the right to drive. In fact, the automobile has significantly shaped where and how we live, as it has led to the creation of suburbs, supermarkets and shopping malls. From an environmental perspective, it has also led to the destruction of millions of acres of farm and forest to accomodate this change of lifestyle, changing forever many habitats and ecosystems.

    One way to cope with suburban sprawl is to revitalize our cities so that people don't feel the need to become suburbanites. A new booklet entitled The Car and the City, written by Alan Durning and published by Northwest Environment Watch, provides some excellent ideas that can improve the quality of city life, enticing citizens to stay there. Here are a few of the more innovative and thought-provoking ideas that don't fight the need for cars, but rather our dependence on them:

    You can reach Northwest Environment Watch at 206-447-1880 or via e-mail.

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    By Dr. William L. Rathje

    Life on Mars! That was the tentative conclusion of a team of NASA scientists who examined an old chunk of Mars that hit Earth. The evidence was only a few fossilized microbes, but it led bookmakers in London to raise the odds of "intelligent life" somewhere among the billions of planets in the universe.

    If there is intelligent life out there somewhere in space, I wonder what they think of us. Consider what information about us they have to go on -- OUR GARBAGE IN SPACE. The May 11th issue of New Scientist reported that there are some 8,000 chunks of refuse orbiting the Earth which are large enough to track by radar. In addition, NASA estimates that there are another 400,000 pieces which are too small to be detected from the ground.

    Much of this material came from unplanned explosions, but a number of these items were intentionally discarded in space. During the repair of the Hubble Space Telescope, for example, a 400 pound solar panel was cut loose, and it is common for lens caps which protect sensitive instruments during launch to be jettisoned later. There have been, of course, many more mundane discards from American and Russian space missions. In 1990, an unmanned satellite that was recovered after orbiting Earth for nine years, for example, was found to be "speckled with urine and fecal matter."

    To some of us on Earth, this space garbage may sound like a laughing matter, but it isn't -- not if you are up there flying through it. At orbit speeds of 13,600 miles per hour, even tiny pieces of exo-junk can do considerable damage. This is why NASA is now hard at work trying to figure out how to protect the planned International Space Station (due date: 1998) from the space garbage it and the Russians created. Thankfully, NASA design engineers have also adopted the concept of source reduction, in an attempt to leave less garbage behind which can become potentially lethal weapons.

    And what's the view from Mars? Americans and Soviets have sent a large number of space things hurtling past the red planet. Three were planned as U.S. flybys (Mariner 4,6, and 7), the Russians lost contact with two probes (Mars 1 and Phobos 1), and three just plain missed orbit (Mars 7, Marsh 4, and our 1992 Mars Observer). Earth sent seven vehicles which achieved orbit. The Russian's Mars 2, 3 ,5 and Phobos transmitted to Earth for several days each. Our Mariner 9 kept in touch for one year, and the two Vikings called home for three years each. How many of these have fallen through the planet's relatively thin atmosphere, we don't know.

    Five "landers" were intentionally brought to the surface of Mars. The Russians' Mars 2 and Mars 3 landers alighted in dust storms and lost contact after 20 seconds; the Mars 6 lander crashed. The two U.S. Viking landers transmitted for a handful of years each. Now they are all space junk, except for Mariner 8, which became Earth garbage after a launch failure.

    If we look at all the Earth-generated debris in space as a great metaphor for the discard practices of humanity, there seem to be a few lessons: We -- Americans and Russians both -- created all our space gizmos with little thought that after they ceased to perform useful functions, they might come back to haunt us as garbage. Therefore, use as little stuff as possible, and craft your gizmos to serve as long as possible before they become refuse. Finally, there's gonna be gold out there to whoever figures out how to recapture, clean, reuse and recycle what we have already wrought.

    And the reason to clean up our space may be more than merely aesthetic. One vision of the form that intelligent life on other planets might take made it to movie theaters this summer as Independence Day. Light-years from the cute and lovable E.T., these aliens were mad as hell and bent upon eradicating the human race.

    The question the movie really didn't answer to my satisfaction was why the grudge against Earthlings? After reviewing how much space garbage we've created, I think I know the answer.

    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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    Reduction RoundupTM

    Green Acres. Farmers are using information from old military satellites to perform "precision farming." The data provides grid-by-grid information on soil conditions, increasing yields through the use of more precise, and thus reduced amounts, of persticides, hebicides and fertilizers.

    The ISO Man (and Woman) Cometh. The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) recently adopted the first global standards for measuring corporate efforts aimed at conserving resources. The ISO 14001 standard sets specific goals for reducing industrial waste, saving energy and recycling. Companies meeting the goals will receive certification. The standard was overwhelmingly approved in a vote by 36 countries.

    Garbage Catches the Bug. A new 1.2 million gallon plant in Dearborn, MI uses waste-eating bacteria to treat non-hazardous organic grunge such as food, shampoo, toothpaste and over-the-counter liquid medicines. The system is fast, cost-effective and environmentally safe. Call 847-291-1616 ext. 260 for details.

    Tower Power. A guest scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory has received patents for a system of towers that reduce pollution, pump out cool air and generate electric power. According to inventor Melvin Prueitt, 95 of the 650 foot-high structures could scrub half the air above Los Angeles. The cost? About $1 billion. For more info, call 505-667-7000.

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    ULS Day is November 21st

    And over 50 national, state and local organizations will be participating. If your group is interested, there's still time to sign up as an official sponsor. Call Bob Lilienfeld at 313-668-1690 for details. Don't wait too long, because the day is quickly approaching!

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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 Advisor: Tony Kingsbury

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    Copyright 1996 Partners for Environmental Progress

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