Wasting it, in a time of trouble
"The very basis for life on earth is declining at an alarming rate": Kofi Annan, March 2005, sounding his usual spiritual self!
Hunter Lovins (of Natural Capitalism Solutions) puts it better: "Every year, the world digs up, puts through various resource crunching processes, and then throws away over a half-trillion tons of stuff. Less than one per cent of the materials is embodied in a product and still there six months after sale. All the rest is waste".
One percent! It takes two tonnes of stuff, blasted out of the earth and hauled to the surface to provide enough gold to make a 10-gram ring, according to Fred Pearce; plus about 5 tonnes of water, 30 tonnes of air to keep the mine cool and about ten hours of labour. Quite some stuff.
We use 250 billion aluminium cans in the world each year. Much of it comes from Weipa, a mining town in Australia's northern Queensland. Rio Tinto (how we love to hate Rio Tinto!) has created a huge strip-mine there. It has a licence to mine a billion tonnes of the ore (bauxite) from 2,600 square kilometres there. That's enough to make about 250 cans for every person alive. It's what we want! Somehow we've gotten so used to shovelling all this stuff together to make things, we hardly question it.
Surely there are better ways of making stuff.
Reduce, Re-use, or Re-frame:
There are three ways we can tackle this. We might reduce the waste that goes into making all this stuff. Or we could re-use it more effectively. Or we might ask ourselves - does all this stuff really give us that much pleasure?
Some years, when I was eating a delicious chocolate and cream eclair - yum, yum - a friend of mine pointed out that the pleasure that kind of stuff gives off really doesn't last very long. The yumminess moment comes from the taste buds at the back of my mouth as I slowly swallow the gorgeous gooh. After that, it is over. Quite a shock, it gave me. But being the enlightened, progressive, svelte, handsome liberal that I am, I've cut out chocolate eclairs and all mushy cream cakes from my diet. Last week, someone persuaded me to buy a coconut cream cake here in Bangkok. It was soft, mushy and tasteless: horrible.....and expensive. So the answer for me is that no, cream cakes don't really do much for my pleasure appetite. Mangos are tastier and juicier. And Mango and Sticky Rice: heaven on earth!
Some factories are beginning to use their resources more efficiently, thanks to the notions of James Womak and Dan Jones in the book Lean Thinking (1996). Toyota has taken this idea on board with a vengeance. They have 'seven wastes' they want to cut out: ways that will make their customers happier. These are parts of any process that don't really bring customers more satisfaction, like providing items customers don't really want, or processes that are inefficient. The Wall Street Journal, (March 15 2001) tells the story of engineers from Michigan's Summit Polymers Inc. investing $280,000 in robots and a paint oven to bake the dashboard vents of Toyota cars being built. It took up to 90 minutes to dry the paint and caused dust flaws to settle as the dashboards dried. A worker (Mr Oba) came along with a hair dryer and did the same job in three minutes. Hmm! In the end, the engineers replaced their system with $150 spray guns and some bright light bulbs for drying. The new system's defect rate was fell to 60 per million (instead of 3,000 per million). Toyota can now out-compete with Detroit: it produces vehicles with a third less defects, using half the factory space, half the capital and half the engineering time. No wonder Chrysler, Ford, and GM are in trouble.
Walmart is getting in on this too!
In October 2005, it committed itself to creating zero waste ("Sustainability 360: Doing Good, Better, Together", Lecture to Prince of Wales Business & Environment Programme, February 1st, 2007). First, it plans to cut waste packaging by five percent by 2013. That in itself could remove 213,000 trucks from the roads and save 324,000 tons of coal, and 77 million gallons of diesel each year. They've reduced packaging in a line of toys - saving 427 containers, $2.4 ,million in shipping costs, 3,800 trees and 1,300 barrels of oil each year. Yes, I know: you readers don't believe it. I'm sceptical too. But the company has begun to realise there is greater profit potential in all this. If it went global on the toy packaging cuts, it could save $3.4 billion. So, drop your cynicism, dear reader. They are on to something.
We hear a lot on recycling. But walking the walk is harder than talking the talk. Some countries are pretty good at it: others are diabolical. Brazilians are pretty good. They don't pay deposits on containers. They don't separate out their waste. Most Brazilians just toss an empty cans out of car windows. "Don't Litter" signs? They ignore them. Yet, somehow they've managed to catch up with Japan, the world's Oscar winner for recycling cans. They use the homeless as professional collectors. People like Luiz Carlos Carola, says Michael Astor (AP: 3rd January 2000). He was homeless when he started collecting cans outside the Rio bus station three years ago. Today, he has a roof over his head, spends his weekends at a modest beach resort outside the city and earns about $260 per month- in a country where nearly half the people get by on $150 per month or less. All the same, the Brazilian Aluminum Association says the country should recycle 80 percent of the 9.5 billion aluminum cans sold in 2000. That would put them up with the current leader, Japan, which recycled 79 percent in 1999.
To produce a ton of aluminum from scratch requires 5 tons of bauxite and 16,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity. With recycling, you need a ton of old cans and just 750 kilowatt-hours of electricity, a boon for a country straining to meet electricity demand (National Geographic have just done a programme on it). The market for aluminum cans has grown more than 3,000 percent since the 1980s, and recycling them has become a $110 million per. year industry that employs an estimated 150,000 people, "The mainspring that drives recycling is the sheer volume of garbage pickers we have," says Elder Rondelli, recycling manager for Alcan. Aluminum is the gold of garbage picking - worth 10 times more than plastic; 12 times more than glass and 30 times more than paper on the local recycling market. A full-time can collector can earn up to five times the minimum wage.
Cities around the world differ, according to Reuters (Conquering the world's waste mountains, August 26, 2008). In Beijing, rubbish gets separated into recyclable and non-recyclable compartments, but the public still mix them up, with all kinds of rubbish. Migrant workers, often on heavily loaded tricycles, collect everything from paper to bottles and styrofoam for resale. They sell the waste, usually by weight, to middlemen with trucks. Yet eighty-eight percent of Beijing's waste goes to landfills.
New York City exports 45,000 tonnes to states like Ohio each day. Barges and trains take away most of it. Only about thirty percent gets recycled. New York is worse than West Coast cities. A 5 cent bounty for most drinks cans has created a small recycling industry for the young, the old and the homeless. In London, it varies by district. Bexley (south east London), is one of the greenest, composting or recycling 40 percent of household waste. Residents get green, maroon and black boxes to separate out paper and card, cans and plastic bottles and glass. Britain's first food-grade plastics recycling plant was opened in London in June 2007. The "closed loop" plant processes polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic, used for water and drinks bottles, and high-density polyethylene (HDP). It has the capacity to recycle 35,000 tonnes each year.
Rubbish collection in the Kenyan capital is dominated by small operators with decrepit trucks. They stop at apartments and street corners to collect rubbish and take it to landfills, where some of it is burned. Much of the waste makes its way to one of Africa's biggest rubbish mountains, Nairobi's 30 acre (12.14 hectares) dump at Dandora. Last year, the UN Environment Programme called for a clean-up at Dandora, which gets 2,000 tonnes of garbage a day: a serious health hazard and pollutant. But that is part of life in many African cities.
Households in Tokyo divide waste into recyclables, combustibles and non-combustibles. New technology at trash-burning plants allows residents to throw out most plastics, leather and rubber as "combustible" waste. Recyclables include plastic bottles, cans and glass. In Japan as a whole in 2005-06, 19.7 percent of waste was recycled, 77 percent burnt, some of it generating electricity, and 3 percent sent to landfills.
Does all this stuff do very much for us? After all, we don't have to do it.
Maybe it does. Buying a new shirt or a little black off-the-shoulder number when we feel depressed. Stuffing our mouths with chocolates whenever we get angry. Comfort stuff. Going out shopping, trying on the stuff, buying selectively; putting it together, making it look good. Exciting stuff! Chic: "Glam without being trampy - attention grabbing class! It is sophisticated, intelligent, and gorgeous. A great purse, high heeled shoes and some vintage jewelry can make even a simple outfit chic" (Urban Dictionary definition of chic). We do it to be appreciated by our friends. Nothing wrong with that. But we can re-frame the way we look at the world.
Conventional economics has always viewed consumption as the route to well-being. Adam Smith, the unseen hand of economics, bringing about well-being, and all that. The more we have, the better off we will be.
We like to create our sense of identity through stuff. We all do it, until we realise it doesn't really get us very far. But the mags and adverts keep blasting away at us. Create your own sense of style; be the envy of your friends. I remember, years ago, visiting my twin sister in Detroit, just before she got married. Her friends were giving her a pre-wedding 'shower' (when everyone showers you with presents. Do they still have them?). One present she opened (an electric bread knife), she exclaimed: "Oh, this is just what I have always wanted". Really?
How come all this stuff can exert such a power over our emotions? Deep down, we all know it's rubbish.
I remember how, years ago, as a teenager newly arrived in the big city of Bristol (west England), trying desperately to be someone, I bought a brown corduroy shirt. I thought it was 'classy'; my mate from work wanted to borrow it the first time he went on an 'overseas holiday'. At the same time, I stayed with a vivacious landlady; she taught me how to enjoy life. Wearing the shirt didn't really do very much for me (brown doesn't even look good on me), but the landlady changed my life!
Last year, I went to the US for a surprise visit to my 80 year old sister (after nearly thirty years). We had such a lot of fun together: the highlight of last year for me. She is losing friends now as they die off; bt recently, she goes to a ten-person book reading group. They go out together for a meal now and then. Back in the Seventies, she was more of a shopping-aholic! These things are more fun than shopping for stuff.
Survey data confirms that a variety of factors - family, friendships, health, peer approval, community, purpose - can all contribute to happiness. Tim Jackson, Professor of Sustainable Development at the UK's University of Surrey says there is a paradox in all this. "People have a good grasp of the things that make them happy but a poor grasp of how to achieve these things. The assumption that more and more consumption will deliver more and more well-being turns out to be wrong". Although real incomes in the US have tripled since the 1950s, there has in fact been a slight drop in the portion of people who say they are happy today. In the UK, that drop has gone from 57 percent in 1957 to 36 today. Richard Layard, the UK happiness expert, says that consumption growth has "brought some increase in happiness, even in rich countries. But this extra happiness has been cancelled out by greater misery coming from less harmonious social relationships".
The time for re-evaluation:
Consuming stuff is ephemeral. It doesn't offer a durable sense of meaning in our lives. Nor does it gives any real consolation for the losses we experience. Tim Jackson reckons there are plenty of us who have a desire to change all this. We value the visionary courage of individuals, communities and politicians prepared to make a start on creating changes.
"Treading more lightly allows people to breathe more easily. It offers a new creative space for social change...and a renewed sense of meaning and purpose opens up. A sustainable world is not an impoverished world: it is prosperous in different ways". Tim Jackson.
Brothers and sisters: shout it out - loud and clear!
Most Recommended Comment
London and elsewhere, United Kingdom