1994 PEP

The ULS Report

Helping people conserve resources and reduce waste by Using Less Stuff

October-November 1994 Volume I, Number 4


As most of us are aware, the issue of population control is grabbing headlines all over the world. Most growth estimates call for the world's population to double sometime toward the middle of the next century.

The related concern attracting the most attention centers on whether we will be able to feed all of these people. Being overlooked is an issue of similar importance: the parallel increase in energy consumption.


Current energy use is mind-boggling...

The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates the world's primary energy consumption at about 350 quadrillion BTUs a year. (A quadrillion is a big number -- a million billion, or a 1 followed by 15 zeros.) That's as much energy as is found in 70 billion barrels, or 3 trillion gallons, of oil! Doubling the population would, at a minimum, double energy usage as well.

Change in Annual World Energy Consumption, 1983-92

North America, Japan and Western Europe...............+18.8%

Eastern Europe.........................................-2.9%

Developing Nations...............................................+54.1%


...and getting bigger.

But the world isn't standing still. As countries develop, their energy demands grow, too. For example, over the last 10 years, energy consumption in the developing nations increased by over 50%. (See chart above.) In fact, if China alone rapidly industrializes to the point of using as much energy per person as we do, that country's annual consumption would be 400 quadrillion BTUs -- or 16% more than the entire world consumes today!

By the way, we in the U.S. are not standing still, either. During this 10 year period, the U.S. population increased about 10% while our energy consumption rose almost 17%. That means energy usage is growing 70% faster than our population growth might justify.

Creating energy is a serious matter.

Why make a big fuss over energy consumption? For one thing, energy doesn't just show up in our electrical outlets or gas tanks. We usually must turn some form of matter into energy. That means mining coal and uranium, cutting forests and drilling for petroleum and natural gas. Whether it is at the point of extraction or the point of disposal, all of these energy-creating processes can, and often do, have ecological consequences.

But finding energy is only half the battle. We then have to release it, usually by burning. While the positive results are electrical, steam or mechanical power and heat, the negative results are increased carbon dioxide emissions; air, ground and water pollution; and waste disposal logistical headaches.

Even more troubling is the fact that developing countries, with their relatively poor economies, are trying hard to catch up to the rest of the world. And without the money to spare for costly or possibly more efficient alternatives such as solar or wind power, these governments turn to the 'cheapest' energy sources they can find: local forests, mines and oil reserves.

The result? Even more deforestation and pollution, especially since these countries don't generally invest in the pollution and hazardous waste controls mandated in most industrialized nations.

Frankly, we've all been told many times about the need to save energy. We usually focus on turning down our thermostats, adding insulation and buying more efficient cars and appliances. (With winter approaching, these are all good ideas!) But there's a lot more we can do once we see the whole energy picture.

Some surprises about how to save.

According to the National Pollution Prevention Center for Higher Education, as much as 40% of the energy used by developed nations such as ours is industrially related. Industry sectors requiring the most energy per unit of economic output are metals, glass, chemicals (including plastics) and paper. What do these materials have in common? They're all used for packaging!

That's why reduction is so critical. Yes, using less stuff keeps landfills from overflowing. But more importantly, it can potentially save huge amounts of energy, resulting in all sorts of environmental savings as well.

When we source reduce packaging, we save energy in lots of ways:

We've said it before...

By choosing products that come in a) light-weight, thin, flexible packages, b) concentrated form and c) refillable containers, we can produce savings that ripple all the way to the original point of extraction or production. Taking this long view is part of a new science called Life Cycle Assessment, or LCA for short. We'll be spending more time on LCAs in the near future.

Ask Bill and Bob

We received lots of good questions this issue. Here are a few related, coincidentally, to energy savings.

Compact fluorescents are being touted as a 'green' alternative to regular incandescent bulbs, since they last a lot longer and, over time, can cost less to operate. The problem is that CFLs have their own environmental negatives. For one thing, they take at least eight times more energy to produce than old fashioned bulbs. And they're heavier, so they use more energy during shipping.

CFLs contain more hazardous materials, such as phosphors and mercury, which need to be carefully monitored during disposal. In fact, research indicates that mercury wastes from CFLs are at least five times greater than similar wastes from incandescent bulbs.

You can see that a life cycle assessment (LCA) approach produces a very different answer than a simple "It lasts longer" approach. The best bet? Turn the lights off or get dimmers. It's more romantic, anyway.

You've raised a very important issue here. The answer, believe it or not, is usually to choose the product with the least amount of packaging. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, the various recycling processes are not that efficient. It's not uncommon for 25% of recycled paper, or 10 to 20% of returned glass, to be 'lost' during re-manufacture. Second, heavy materials such as steel or glass require large amounts of energy to haul back to smelters, grind, re-melt and re-mold.

Our data, and that of most research firms, clearly show that very thin, flexible packages are among the most efficient ways to go. (That's why milk comes in pouches in Canada and in non-refrigerated, juice- box- type cartons in Europe.)

CH4...What a Gas!

by Dr. William L. Rathje

Methane gas (CH4) is a colorless, odorless combination of carbon and hydrogen resulting from the biodegradation of organic materials. Landfills (along with the flatulence from sheep and cows -- really!) are among the primary sources of methane. For the last 20 years, landfills have been drilled and vented to allow the methane to escape, thus reducing the risk of explosions.

At about the same time, waste management experts realized that connecting all of the vents would produce a large enough quantity so that the gas could be cleaned and sold as fuel. The first landfills (of which I am aware) to try this innovative procedure were in Staten Island and Los Angeles. Over the last decade, dozens more have joined in producing energy from rotting wastes.

But there is a major concern with this otherwise rosy picture. As those of you who follow the Garbage Project know, many organic materials do not biodegrade in landfills, even after 40 years. Excavation data reveal that during the first 15 to 20 years of burial, about half of all food and yard wastes biodegrade; but not much else happens, even to paper. And over the next 20 years, biodegradation becomes painfully slower. If correct, these results mean that the lifespan of landfill methane fields is only about two decades after the landfill stops receiving municipal solid waste.

Independent studies conclude that we're only capturing between 1 and 50% of methane production potential. No one really understands why, except that laboratory studies usually grind organic materials into tiny bits and add large amounts of fluids. Neither of these activities characterize most landfills. But while grinding garbage may be impractical, fluids can be added to landfills; in fact, such experiments are currently underway.

It is well known that as an archaeologist I am partial to landfills as a disposal option. They preserve artifacts for my colleagues of the future to dig up. Nonetheless, I wonder about the wisdom of turning landfills into soups that could eventually leak. Why not retire a landfill after methane extraction and turn it into a park or golf course? Better yet, why not extend the useful life of a landfill by using less stuff in the first place?

Dr. William L. Rathje is Professor or 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.

Green Goblins and Gobblers

It's fall, so what comes to mind? Food, and lots of it. Thanks to Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's, we'll be eating our way to 1995.

That's a problem from a conservation standpoint. It's been estimated that 13 billion pounds of food are thrown out each year in the U.S., which translates to 130 pounds per household. Much of it is wasted at holiday time. Here's what you can do to make Halloween and Thanksgiving bountiful without being wasteful.

Reduction Roundup

Here are some quick looks at new developments that can help reduce waste and save resources:

The ULS Report is a bi-monthly publication of Partners for Environmental 

Address e-mail correspondence to ULS@cygnus-group.com.

Snail mail address:  P.O. Box 130116  Ann Arbor  MI  48113
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Editor: Robert Lilienfeld
Technical Advisor: Dr. William Rathje
Editorial Advisor: Tony Kingsbury

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Copyright 1994, Partners for Environmental Progress. 

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