Beyond the Wasteland
Humans have always created waste. In medieval Europe, we used to dump our garbage on the streets and let the crows and dogs take care of it. When the streets got too smelly, we collected it in carts and dumped it outside the city walls.
On the west coast of Canada, the Salish and Nuu'Chah'Nulth peoples would pack up their winter villages every March and head for summer villages by the sea, during which time the birds and animals would come in and clean up. By October, the winter villages would be clean and ready for another season.
As recently as the 1950s in coastal Canada, people would take their garbage down to the beach and let the high tide take care of it. Not long afterwards, they joined the rest of the industrialized world, and started digging landfills. As a species, we had discovered mass consumption.
There is certainly a lot to dispose of. Americans produce 800kg of post-consumer waste per person per year. Europeans produce 400 kg. Between 1980 and 1985 every OECD country (except Germany and Japan) increased its flow of municipal solid waste - Ireland by as much as 72% (1). Between 1940 and 1976, the USA consumed more minerals than the whole of humanity did prior to 1940.
Not surprisingly, we soon began to run out of landfill space, so in the late 1980s, the recycling and resource recovery revolutions kicked in. Holland reduced its per person production of post-consumer waste from 497kg in 1990 to 390kg in 1993, and is pursuing the goal of 75% waste reduction and recycling. Sweden is aiming for 70% reduction by 2005. The Australian Capital Territory has adopted the goal of 'No Waste by 2010'. Even the USA has achieved 25% post-consumer recycling, with a goal of 35% by 2005. Seattle aimed for 60% by 1998. The Centre for the Biology of Natural Systems, at Queen's College, New York, estimates that 85% - 90% of today's solid waste stream could be recovered through intensive recycling.
So is this the future for sustainable resource management ? Communities recycling up to 90% of their post-consumer waste by a mixture of composting, curb-side pick-up for recyclables, pay-as-you-throw user fees for non-recyclables, laws to ban co-disposal, centralized materials recovery facilities, and German-style product stewardship legislation, which obliges a manufacturer to take back a product at the end of its life ?
The remanufacturing markets could handle it. The speed at which businesses are finding ways to incorporate recycled materials into their products is astonishing. In 1991, Audi advertised with pride that the battery cover on the Audi 80 was made entirely from old plastic bumpers. In 1997, they designed the entire car to be disassembled and recycled, finding uses for recycled materials throughout the vehicle.
Tiny breakthroughs, like being able to incorporate 10% instead of 5% recycled rubber from scrap tires into new ones will bring 30 million scrap tires annually back into the materials loop. Mixed plastics can now be sorted by electronic fingerprinting. The Chicago Board of Trade's new Recyclables Exchange enables materials brokers, processors, haulers, end-users and municipalities to trade with each other by modem. Closing the loop has gone mainstream.
The shift makes incredible sense, economically. A study of the American tri-cities (Baltimore, Maryland; Washington DC and Richmond, Virginia), with 6.6 million residents, found that a ton of landfilled waste generated $40 in tipping fees, and 13 jobs for every 100,000 tons. The same ton processed into recycled materials generated $120 in revenue and 79 jobs per 100,000 tons. When converted into manufactured products, the ton of recycled material generated $1,110 in revenues and 162 jobs per 100,000 tons - 27 times the revenue and 12 times as many jobs as landfilling - and that's not counting the multiplier effect of all those people spending their incomes (2).
In Washington State, there was a 30% job growth in the recycling industry between 1992 and 1995. Between them, 371 firms created 3,700 jobs in recycling and 13,000 jobs in the remanufacturing sector (3). Realizing the importance of the new economic sector, California has designated 40 Recycled Market Development Zones, and provides low interest loans of up to $1million for businesses utilizing recycled materials. In its first 18 months, the Oakland/Berkeley Zone generated $8.2 million in investment for recycling, creating 155 new jobs and diverting 100,000 tons of new material from area landfills (4). Local economic development and sustainable resource strategies have come together, promising a rosy future for cities and regions which jump on the bandwagon.
Compared to the situation ten years ago, the turnaround is very encouraging. But pause to think globally, for a while. Two thirds of the world's population live in relative or absolute poverty, and aspire to an improved standard of living. The Japanese use 9 times as much steel as the Chinese, and Americans use 12 times as much paper as the Latin Americans - but the Chinese and Latin Americans all want to catch up. Americans consume twenty times as much energy and matter as the average third world citizen - so should we be planning for a world in which our overall planetary resource consumption is 20 times greater than it is today ? Even if 90% of the raw materials came from recycled stock and 90% of the energy came from renewable sources, the remaining 10% would double the amount of energy and raw materials needed to satisfy those needs, along with the volume of non-recyclable wastes.
It is the raw materials and the processes we use to convert them which should guide our thinking, not the more visible flow of post-consumer waste. For every tonne of post-consumer waste there are 20 tonnes of hidden pre-consumer waste, as the manufacturing process makes its way from forest, field and mine to supermarket shelf. The vast percentage of ecological damage is done before a product reaches the consumer, not afterwards. In the USA, just four materials - paper, plastics, chemicals and metals - account for 71% of all toxic emissions (5). Each ton of material that the average American consumes leaves 32 tons of waste in its trail (6).
Robert Ayres, who studies industrial metabolism, 'reckons that 94% of the materials extracted for use in manufacturing durable products become waste before the product is even manufactured. More waste is generated in production, and most of that is lost unless the product is reused or recycled. Overall, America's material and energy efficiency is no more than 1 or 2%. ... American industry uses as much as 100 times more material and energy than theoretically needed to deliver consumer services.' (7). The critical issue is not whether we can recycle 90% of our wastes, but whether we can reduce the tonnage needed in the first place by 90%.
This is the conclusion being reached by the Wuppertal Institute in Germany, the Rocky Mountain Institute in Colorado and others. In their Netherlands Study, the Wuppertal Institute recommends a 70% reduction in resource consumption by the year 2010. Eco-thinkers such as Paul Hawken and Amory Lovins call it the resource productivity revolution, or the 'Factor Ten Economy', which will deliver the services we need for 1/10th of the energy and raw materials that they require today (8).
The technologies for such a revolution are in the making, ranging from energy efficient lights, fridges and windows to hypercars built with super-light carbon fibre bodies which can achieve up to 200 mpg. Building materials using agricultural wastes and new timber framing methods can reduce the amount of timber and pulpwood used in buildings by up to 75%. Electronic hand-held newspapers and books may eliminate the paper variety altogether, while providing a much enriched service.
Left to its own devices, the free market would undoubtedly achieve this revolution, once the forests were gone, the oil and gas were exhausted and the oceans had been emptied of their fish. By that time, however, we would be far into the soup of an over-heated planet, and much of the world's farmland would have been flooded by rising sea levels. As a planet, we cannot afford to wait.
The challenge is to find institutional ways to accelerate the resource efficiency revolution. Removing all subsidies on the production of coal, oil, timber and other raw materials is a necessary first step. Imposing a tax on virgin materials would be a good follow-up. Finland, Sweden, Germany, Britain and other countries have all adopted ecological taxes of various kinds, using the revenues to reduce taxation on income and jobs.
The Dutch environmental impact software, ECO-it, lets us go a step further (9). By amalgamating over 100 separate environmental indicators, ECO-it allows a producer to key in an item's components and read off its cradle-to-grave ecologicl impact. With appropriate legislation and bar-coding, a product could be taxed according to its eco-impact, reflecting C02 and other pollutants, production wastes, recycled material content, recyclability, and so on. The lower the impact, the lower the tax, stimulating producers to find new ways to reduce the eco-impact of their products.
The next step would be to copy the Dutch and New Zealand models and introduce an overall Green Plan, setting efficiency and resource-use reduction goals for each area of the economy, sector by sector, leaving it to industry to find the ways to meet them (10). As nations, we need to co-operate around the goals of reduced resource-use, just as we are beginning to co-operate around the goal of reduced greenhouse gas emissions.
Alongside these institutional changes, an intelligent strategy for sustainable resource management would encourage the popular movement towardsvoluntary simplicity and reduced personal consumption, in which we exchange the accumulation of 'stuff' for more quality and time in our lives. Joel Dominguez and Vicki Robin, authors of the best-selling Your Money or Your Life, have written a workbook which enables you to analyze the way you spend your time and your money, and make financial plans to shift from quantity to quality (11). As software, the system could be integrated with personal taxation and eco-impact programs, enabling you to conduct an annual reviews of your lifestyle habits, alongside your taxes. There's a whole new consultancy profession here, waiting to be born.
The shift from personal car-ownership to membership in a car-share co-operative is another example of this kind of material downsizing. In Hamburg, where 5,000 people belong to the car-share co-operative 'Stattauto', for every shared car on the streets, 5 privately owned cars are removed, bringing financial benefits to the members, social and ecological benefits to Hamburg as a whole. In Ferrara, known as the cycling capital of Italy because 30% of all trips are made by bicycle, life pedals along at a more gentle pace, while the overall level of resource-use is reduced.
The resource efficiency revolution represents a sea-change in the way industrial economies have operated for the past 200 years. Until recently, increased economic growth invariably brought increased material and energy consumption. Energy-use decoupled in the late 1960s. The need now is for wholesale material decoupling, as our economies shift towards more intelligence, more quality, and less material throughput. Recycling and resource recovery are just the beginning. The revolutions to come will be in materials efficiency, and the personal shift from quantity to quality, as we unhook our lives from consumerism. Technologically, it is becoming possible, ecologically, we need to do it, and personally, it makes sense. Once achieved, the world will be a vastly better place.