The ULS Report TM
Helping people Use Less Stuff by conserving
resources and reducing waste.
Volume 5, Number 3
As the saying goes, it's not just what you grow, it's how you grow it. The typical gardener with a green thumb is proud of how beautiful everything looks. We'd like to create the chance for you to earn a second green thumb based on how little waste can be created along the way: Sort of the more environmentally friendly way to make lawns and gardens lush and green.
Two Green Thumbs Up!
Why are we so concerned about the lawn and garden? EPA figures show that a whopping 15 percent of municipal solid waste is yard waste -- clippings, trimmings, leaves, branches and the like. This amounts to about 31 million tons of stuff annually!
The good news is that with a little foresight, most of this waste can not only be eliminated, but actually used to make for healthier lawns and gardens that are both easier and less expensive to maintain. Here's how:
- If you cut your own grass, buy a mulching mower, which chops the clippings into tiny pieces that stay on the lawn rather than being raked up or bagged. There are many advantages:
- There's nothing to throw away.
- Mulch acts as fertilizer, keeping your lawn thick and healthy.
- Since you fertilize less, you save money and reduce the potential for runoff into streams, groundwater and aquifers.
- You save time, since there's nothing to rake or bag and fewer fertilizing occasions.
- If you have a very small yard, consider a person powered reel-to-reel mower. If this is impractical, consider an electric mower. It's quieter and cleaner than gas-powered models. Also, any pollution created by electric mowers occurs at the power plant, which is regulated for emissions. The same can't be said for gas mowers, which emit pollution individually and uncontrollably. (We remember an EPA study a few years back indicating that mowers were worse polluters than cars!)
- Reduce the amount of area covered by grass. This will cut back on the amount of lawn to be mowed, as well as the quantity of fertilizers and weed killers needed to keep grass healthy. Put beds of ground-cover, such as pachysandra or English ivy around trees. This is good for the trees too, since you won't have to mow as closely and trees are less likely to be whacked by the mower.
- When watering, consider the following:
- Check all hoses, couplings and faucets for leaks, and fix as necessary.
- Adjust sprinklers as appropriate so that you don't water the street, sidewalk or house.
- If you have an automatic system, check that the heads are clean, in proper working order and unobstructed by stones, fallen branches, etc. We've seen too many sprinklers aimed permanently at passing cars, rather than at thirsty plants.
- Water in the early morning or evening, not during the heat of the day. This way, water will soak into the ground, rather than simply evaporating into the air.
- Use timers to ensure that lawns aren't over-watered.
- Controlling weeds helps reduce water consumption. The best thing to do is to prevent weeds from growing. To do so, use a crabgrass "pre-emergent" in the early Spring. Pre-emergents cover bare spots and prevent weeds from getting a toe-hold in your lawn. Also, seed and water bare spots so that grass grows in before weeds do.
- A good way to reduce waste is to grow plants that are easy to cultivate in your area. For example, melons don't do well in the North, as cool August nights and early frosts seriously reduce the chances of a ripe crop.
- Stick to local plant species. Even if foreign varieties do well, they may end up doing too well. Plants with no natural enemies can thrive to the point where they begin displacing local species, creating all sorts of problems. (Just ask your friends in the South about kudzu!)
- If plants call for bright sun, don't expect that they'll do well in the shade. Many tomato crops have been wasted by suburban farmers who hoped that a little shade would be alright -- it's not! The same works in reverse -- many an impatien bed has shown less than optimal results when planted in too much sun. Plants tend to become lanky, with few flowers.
- It is very important to protect young seedlings. Shelter them by covering with paper bags, or for a see-through shelter, slice the bottoms off plastic milk jugs and place the jugs over tiny plants. Cut the bottoms into strips and use as markers. Recycle when done.
- Save old seeds. The life expectancy of many common seeds is quite long, such as beans (3 years), cucumbers (5 years), lettuce (6 years) and peppers (2 years).
- Grow vegetables your family will eat. A bumper crop of zucchini may be pretty to look at and make you feel good, but if it's not eaten, it'll just go to waste.
- Reduce water use by covering beds with lots of compost or mulch. Use soaker hoses and drip systems rather than sprinklers. Also, try to create level beds, eliminating water runoff.
- Reduce weeds by (a) seeding heavily; (b) looking for plants that block weed growth by sprouting early, quickly, and producing large leaves or numerous branches; and (c) weeding when the ground is wet so the roots pull out easily. This last point is especially helpful for weeds with very deep taproots like dandelions and pigweed.
- Look for simple and effective ways to reduce the use of harsh or hazardous chemicals. For example, one way to cut down on the need for fungicides is to keep from overwatering, since wetness encourages fungus growth.
- Before using insecticides, try spraying aphids and other garden pests with soapy water. If you have problems with slugs or snails, put out a pan of something naturally attractive to them, like white vinegar. We hear that beer works quite nicely, as well.
Return to Index
For more than 35 years, our communities have been diligently working to solve their most pressing local environmental problems -- too much trash and too little space; suburban sprawl; and contamination of local groundwater, streams, and rivers. The weapon of choice? Recycling. In fact, since 1960, we have seen the recycling rate soar from 6 percent to over 27 percent today. The mantra has been "Think Globally, Act Locally."
Global Warming Will Change the Rules
This new-found recycling ethic spawned a whole new morality play in which heroes and villains were clearly delineated. For example, under this world view, only the devil himself would build or live near a landfill. Organic, "natural" products were to be preferred to "synthetics." Plastics were bad; paper was good. And, of course, recycling was the preferred way to handle waste, especially versus incineration or dumping.
But now, along comes global warming. We are waking up to the fact that the world's citizens, and particularly we Americans, are producing and releasing into the atmosphere far too much carbon dioxide (CO2), a major greenhouse gas considered to be the leading actor in the climate change drama. And let's face it: the potential for huge changes and disruptions in the planet's climate and ecosystems is a far bigger concern than where to site the next landfill or whether to choose paper or plastic at the supermarket. Obviously, then, it is time to change our focus and begin to seriously concern ourselves with the issue of climate change.
While this sounds simple, actually reducing carbon dioxide production is fraught with problems. For one thing, the potential for dramatic climate change seems very distant, making it hard for individuals to get a grip on the situation. For another, no one owns the atmosphere or makes a living from it, so there is no direct incentive for anyone to fight very hard to protect it. (This scenario is referred to as the tragedy of the commons, a term coined by famed ecologist Garrett Hardin.)
But the biggest problem of all is the fact that preventing global warming will require us to completely retool our belief system and create a new morality play, since solutions run counter to many of our most cherished beliefs regarding the environment. In an incredible twist of irony, this new environmental ethic will turn our current notions regarding heroes and villains on their heads:
Reduction, not recycling, is job one.
The key culprit in the global warming debate is the burning of fuels such as oil, gas, coal and wood for production, transportation, heating and cooling, etc. Besides providing energy, when ignited these fuels also produce carbon dioxide, water vapor, other gases and particulates. As we reported a while back, the mathematics of CO2 production are rather astounding: Although a gallon of gasoline weighs only eight pounds, burning it creates about 22 pounds of carbon dioxide, since chemical reactions which occur during combustion cause the six pounds of carbon in the fuel to mix with 16 pounds of oxygen from the atmosphere!
Unfortunately, we cannot rely on recycling to greatly improve this situation. For one thing, recycling consumes energy, given that it is a transporting and manufacturing process like any other production system. (This is why source reduction is more powerful -- it conserves much, if not all, of this production and transportation energy.) For another, once energy is used, its usefulness is gone forever and not available for reuse or recycling. Thus, the only way in which we have a chance to significantly reduce carbon dioxide emissions is to vastly improve energy efficiency and/or reduce our dependence on wood and fossil fuels.
Light makes right.
From a global warming perspective, making products and packaging lighter should take precedence, even over recycling. The reason is that lighter products and packages reduce material, energy use and transportation costs all the way from raw material extraction through production and distribution and on to retail purchase, consumption and disposal.
This means that lighter weight materials such as paper, plastic films, metal foils and multi-material composites should be encouraged versus their heavier and more rigid competitors. The reason is that both the environmental and economic costs of transporting heavy materials to and from the recycling center and to the smelter often outweigh the value of recycling them. This is especially true in the United States, where smelters are relatively few and the distances to and from them tend to be rather large. (Small European countries are a different story, since glass smelters or cleaning facilities for reusables can be efficiently and centrally located near a large percentage of the population.)
Shedding a new light on energy sources.
Obviously, if fossil fuels are the major global warming culprit, finding energy sources that don't create CO2 makes a great deal of sense. We are thus encouraged by recent breakthroughs regarding the economics of solar power, fuel cells and wind power.
Reducing carbon dioxide emissions has also revived interest in, or at least promotion of, two previously demonized power production methods: nuclear fission and waste-to-energy incineration. Regardless of safety and disposal problems, which are considerable, the nuclear power lobby is now touting the fact that reactors produce no carbon dioxide. Also, as reported in New Scientist, the London-based independent research group known as the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) conducted a study indicating that the most environmentally friendly thing to do with waste paper is to burn it for energy, because doing so creates less carbon dioxide, ton for ton, than burning coal or gas in conventional power stations.
So by looking at the big picture, we have a whole new perspective on things, with old villains potentially becoming heroes and the reputation of old heroes possibly becoming tarnished. How do we reconcile these two widely disparate points of view and ensure that our future efforts regarding the environment are both more appropriate and more effective?
First, we must recognize that our national economic and social policies run counter to what's needed to get the job done. We are a consuming society rather than a conserving one. Changing this requires a whole new outlook which rewards people for saving resources, not purchasing them, and for being efficient, rather than extravagant. One way to do so is by taxing consumption rather than income. Another is to progressively tax the purchase of goods and services based upon their contribution to greenhouse gas production.
This concept totally changes the definition of luxury from one based upon personal cost to one based upon environmental cost: Instead of being penalized for buying an expensive car, one would be penalized for buying an inefficient one. This is a powerful disincentive to waste, as it puts the full environmental cost where it has the most impact on purchase decisions: up front on the sticker price, rather than later on at the pump, where a few extra gallons a week don't seem to add up to much. Also, this approach is inherently equitable, since efficient cars are generally smaller and less expensive, thus available to all economic classes and not just the wealthy.
Second, we must begin teaching and encouraging the use of systems thinking and life cycle analysis, rather than relying on catchy slogans and emotional pleas. It is imperative that our teachers, students, lawmakers and businesspeople understand the need to look at problems from a systems perspective and with a cradle-to-grave, start-to-finish, examination of energy consumption, material use, and pollution. Otherwise, we will continue to fiddle with relatively small concerns while the truly burning issues of the day go unresolved, and possibly even unnoticed.
With these thoughts in mind, we believe that a new, slightly revised, mantra is called for, one in which people are asked to "Think Globally, Act Globally."
Return to Index
The ULS Report is a bi-monthly publication of Partners for Environmental Progress. Send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.