1995 PEP

The ULS Report

Helping people conserve resources and reduce waste by Using Less Stuff

March-April 1995 Volume 2, Number 2

Happy Birthday, Earth Day!

You're 25 years old. What have we got to show for it?

April 22 marks the 25th anniversary of Earth Day. Between now and then, we're going to hear all sorts of people make all sorts of claims about the changes that have occurred since 1970: the progress we've made on one hand, and how far we've still got to go on the other. Which point of view is correct?

As it turns out, both positions are right. We have made much progress. But we still have a long way to go -- especially if the goal is to conserve resources so that future generations of people, peacocks, porcupines, pythons, petunias and pine trees can have the opportunity to flourish in a sustainable world.

Let's use one of our favorite topics as an example. What's happened to our trash during this time period? As shown below, in 1970 we recycled only 9 million tons (7%) of our garbage. Today, we recycle almost 45 million tons (22%), and by the year 2000, it's possible that we'll hit the 30% mark. That's the good news.

                  U.S. Municipal Solid Waste Generation
                                 (Millions of tons)

        Year            Discarded         Recovered         Total

        1970              113                 9              122 

        1993              162                45              207

        2000              161                69              230

         Source: EPA

Now, here's the bad news. In 1970, we sent about 113 million tons of waste to landfills. By 1993, even with a tripling of the recycling rate, trash discards grew to over 160 million tons a year. And by the year 2000, as recycling increases by about one third, we'll still send as much trash to landfills as we do today.

Many experts believe that for the next decade, a 35% recycling rate will be about as much as we can achieve. Beyond that, recycling may actually use more resources than it saves. So, for all intents and purposes, the issue is rapidly moving from how can we recycle more to how can we create less waste to start with?

                  1993  U.S. Municipal Solid Waste Statistics
                               (Millions of tons)

      Item                        Discarded         Recovered          Total

      Paper/paperboard             51.4                26.5             77.9

      Yard trimmings               26.3                 6.5             32.8

      Plastics                     18.6                 0.7             19.3

      Metals                       11.9                 5.2             17.1
      Glass                        10.7                 3.0             13.7                        

      Wood                         12.4                 1.3             13.7

      Rubber & Leather              5.9                 0.4              6.3 

      Textiles                      5.4                 0.7              6.1
      Source: EPA

The best places to start are with paper and yard waste. That's because these two categories alone account for almost 50% of our solid waste -- even after recycling is taken into account! (See graph above.) Fortunately, there are some simple things we can all do that will make a significant dent in our ability to keep from creating trash in the first place:

If we can cut by 20% the amount of paper and yard trimmings that we now landfill, we can reduce all landfill discards by 16 million tons. The overall effect of doing so is huge: Total trash generation would fall by 8% annually, meaning that per person trash creation would decline from 4.4 pounds a day to about 4.1 pounds.

Even the National Recycling Coalition (NRC) understands how important the concept of using less stuff can be. A recent committee paper on source reduction included this quote:

Recycling treats the obvious symptom (waste) rather than the cause (consumption) of production. Thus, to achieve the goal of resource conservation, source reduction and reuse are more valuable to society (ton for ton) than recycling.

So let's hear it for recycling and reducing!

Ask Bill and Bob

My wife recently carried home a box of "fireplace logs," the kind made from wood chips and wax. I know they give off more creosote. But, are they made from recycled materials, and are they better than cutting down trees for firewood? -- Michael Blessing, Universal City, TX

Glass and plastic bottles and jars must be rinsed prior to being 
put out for recycling. Does the use of all that hot water offset the 
benefits of recycling? -- David Lowe


By Dr. William L. Rathje
(reverently adapted from Samuel T. Coleridge)

It was the garbage "mariner"
Who stopped me on the street."
" 'Tis twenty-five years since first Earth Day.""
'Twas thus begun his speech.

"I was there on tug 'Break of Dawn'"
Pushing 'Mobro' barge to sea."
'Twas April of '87 - -"
The garbage odyssey.

U.S. East Coast to Carib'ean Sea"
The '4000' did sail."
To dump our garbage albatross"
But all to no avail.

Mocked and shunned, home did we run"
And that garbage did we burn."
But it's not gone, the albatross lives on"
'Til its lessons we've all learned.

I'm not a preacher in my heart"
But I have seen doomsday."
I fear the garbage albatross"
We made and sent away.

Recycling we've now taken home."
And markets we have built."
Those who've Recycling's lesson learned"
Say "Alone it'll end our guilt."

So recycling's come. Is the battle won?"
It seems not so to me."
The Mobro and two thousand tons"
Would still be sent to sea.

Time for Lesson Two: 'source reduce,'"
Which means to 'use less stuff.'"
In towns where overuse abounds"
Learning 'less is more' is tough.

But think, friend, what was in Mobro's bin"
Mostly Papers, Office White."
Using front and back means shorter stacks"
And much less waste to fight.

Buying paper of lighter weights,""
He added with a laugh,"
"Together with two-sided use"
Cuts waste by more than half!

Recycling has been Lesson One,"
'Use Less Stuff' is Lesson Two."
We'll see gardens like sweet Babylon's"
If both by us are used."

The Mariner, eyes burning bright,"
Went dreaming on his way."
Thanks to him, I'm a wiser man,"
'N I'll do my part today.

Assault on Batteries

We promised to provide an update on rechargeable batteries. For reference, Americans currently throw away about 2.5 billion batteries each year. That's 10 for each of us. Obviously, fewer batteries landfilled means less waste, less pollution and less use of valuable resources.

Let's start out by mentioning when not to use rechargeables. Since they lose about 1% of their charge each day even when not in use, keep them out of smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, flashlights, cameras and clocks. A good rule of thumb: If you must count on something to work properly far into the future, don't count on rechargeables to do the job.

With that said, NiCad and the newer nickel-metal hydride rechargeables work very well and can save money in often-used items like toys, personal stereos, cellular phones and laptop computers. By the way, it's not always necesary to totally drain some of these batteries before recharging. Check the manual for the best way to extend battery life.

Here are some rechargeable no-no's:

  • Don't mix rechargeables of different types, ages or brands.
  • Don't use rechargeables with non-rechargeables.
  • Don't use a different brand's recharging device.
  • Don't buy a recharger that warns against over-charging.
  • Don't reverse the polarity of batteries in the recharger.
  • Don't leave discharged batteries in the equipment.
  • Don't dispose in a fire or submerse in water.

  • When they've finally outlived their long, useful lives, try to recycle rechargeable batteries, or turn them in when your town collects hazardous waste. Because they may contain metals such as nickel and cadmium, these batteries should not end up in landfills.


    Reduction Roundup

    Here are a few of the latest developments that can help reduce waste and save resources:


    Useless Stuff

    You came up with some doozies! Here are just a few. (Remember: One person's passion is another's poison!)

    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
    Phone:  313-668-1690       
    Fax:  313-930-0506
    Editor: Robert Lilienfeld
    Technical Advisor: Dr. William Rathje
    Editorial Advisor: Tony Kingsbury

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