The ULS Report TM

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


May-June1998
Volume 5, Number 3


Index


Two Green Thumbs Up!

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.

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:


The Lawn


The Garden




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Global Warming Will Change the Rules

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."

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."


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The ULS Report is a bi-monthly publication of Partners for Environmental Progress. Send e-mail to uls@cygnus-group.com.

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Editor: Robert Lilienfeld
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