Chapter 3 Waste Not

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Industrial metabolism -- The amazing amount of waste -- When employment disappears, one billion and counting -- Overproductivity -- $2 trillion in potential savings -- Growth versus progress

Cars are a big component of the modern industrial economy but only one part. Think of the material flows required to maintain the industrial production of the United States in biological terms as its metabolic flow. Industry ingests energy, metals and minerals, water, and forest, fisheries, and farm products. It excretes liquids and solid waste variously degradable or persistent toxic pollutants and exhales gases, which are a form of molecular garbage. The solid waste makes its way into landfills, backyards, junkyards, recyclers, and the ocean. The molecular waste goes into the atmosphere, oceans, rivers, streams, groundwater, soil, plants, and the flesh of wildlife and people. Like the human circulatory system, most industrial flows are invisible or only partly visible. People tend to take them for granted, much as they do their bodily functions. Some of the flow can be seen in Dumpsters, shopping malls, gas stations, truck stops, or in shipping containers stacked up along docks. While its most obvious manifestations are the goods people buy or use every day soap, food, clothing, cars, et cetera, household items make up only a small fraction of the material required to maintain our standard of living. A greater amount is needed for buildings, roads, and infrastructure. But even these taken together are dwarfed by the greatest contributor to the daily flow of materials: waste in the form of tailings, gangue, fly ash, slurry, sludge, slag, flue gases, construction debris, methane, and the other wastes of the extractive and manufacturing processes.

A critical difference between industrial and biological processes is the nature of production. Living systems are regulated by such limiting factors as seasons, weather, sun, soil, and temperature, all of which are governed by feedback loops. Feedback in nature is continual. Such elements as carbon, sulfur, and nitrogen are constantly being recycled. If you could trace the history of the carbon, calcium, potassium, phosphorus, and water in your body, you would probably find that you are made up of bits of the Black Sea, extinct fish, eroded mountain ranges, and the exhalations of Jesus and Buddha. Industrial systems, in contrast, although they get feedback from society in the form of bosses, employees, Wall Street, and monitoring machines, have largely ignored environmental feedback. The materials cycle takes high-quality natural capital from nature in the form of oil, wood, minerals, or natural gas and returns them in the form of waste. Twenty centuries from now, our forests and descendants will not be built from pieces of polystyrene cups, Sony Walkmen, and Reebok cross-trainers. The components of these goods do not naturally recycle. This means, of course, that industrial waste is accumulating and it is accumulating in nature.

A striking case study of the complexity of industrial metabolism is provided by James Womack and Daniel Jones in their book Lean Thinking, where they trace the origins and pathways of a can of English cola. The can itself is more costly and complicated to manufacture than the beverage. Bauxite is mined in Australia and trucked to a chemical reduction mill where a half-hour process purifies each ton of bauxite into a half ton of aluminum oxide. When enough of that is stockpiled, it is loaded on a giant ore carrier and sent to Sweden or Norway, where hydroelectric dams provide cheap electricity. After a monthlong journey across two oceans, it usually sits at the smelter for as long as two months.

The smelter takes two hours to turn each half ton of aluminum oxide into a quarter ton of aluminum metal, in ingots ten meters long. These are cured for two weeks before being shipped to roller mills in Sweden or Germany. There each ingot is heated to nearly nine hundred degrees Fahrenheit and rolled down to a thickness of an eighth of an inch. The resulting sheets are wrapped in ten-ton coils and transported to a warehouse, and then to a cold rolling mill in the same or another country, where they are rolled tenfold thinner, ready for fabrication. The aluminum is then sent to England, where sheets are punched and formed into cans, which are then washed, dried, painted with a base coat, and then painted again with specific product information. The cans are next lacquered, flanged (they are still topless), sprayed inside with a protective coating to prevent the cola from corroding the can, and inspected.

The cans are palletized, forklifted, and warehoused until needed. They are then shipped to the bottler, where they are washed and cleaned once more, then filled with water mixed with flavored syrup, phosphorus, caffeine, and carbon dioxide gas. The sugar is harvested from beet fields in France and undergoes trucking, milling, refining, and shipping. The phosphorus comes from Idaho, where it is excavated from deep open-pit mines, a process that also unearths cadmium and radioactive thorium. Round-the-clock, the mining company uses the same amount of electricity as a city of 100,000 people in order to reduce the phosphate to food-grade quality. The caffeine is shipped from a chemical manufacturer to the syrup manufacturer in England.

The filled cans are sealed with an aluminum "pop-top" lid at the rate of fifteen hundred cans per minute, then inserted into cardboard cartons printed with matching color and promotional schemes. The cartons are made of forest pulp that may have originated anywhere from Sweden or Siberia to the old-growth, virgin forests of British Columbia that are the home of grizzly, wolverines, otters, and eagles. Palletized again, the cans are shipped to a regional distribution warehouse, and shortly thereafter to a supermarket where a typical can is purchased within three days. The consumer buys twelve ounces of the phosphate-tinged, caffeine-impregnated, caramel-flavored sugar water. Drinking the cola takes a few minutes; throwing the can away takes a second. In England, consumers discard 84 percent of all cans, which means that the overall rate of aluminum waste, after counting production losses, is 88 percent. The United States still gets three-fifths of its aluminum from virgin ore, at twenty times the energy intensity of recycled aluminum, and throws away enough aluminum to replace its entire commercial aircraft fleet every three months.

Every product we consume has a similar hidden history, an unwritten inventory of its materials, resources, and impacts. It also has attendant waste generated by its use and disposition. In Germany, this hidden history is called "ecological rucksack." The amount of waste generated to make a semiconductor chip is over 100,000 times its weight; that of a laptop computer, close to 4,000 times its weight. Two quarts of gasoline and a thousand quarts of water are required to produce a quart of Florida orange juice. One ton of paper requires the use of 98 tons of various resources.

In Canada and other parts of the world, there is growing use of a concept known as "the ecological footprint," put forth by Mathis Wackernagel and William Rees, which examines the ecological capacity required to support the consumption of products, even entire lifestyles. An ecological footprint is calculated by totaling the flows of material and energy required to support any economy or subset of an economy. Those flows are then converted to standard measures of production required from land and water areas. The total land surface required to support a given activity or product is the footprint. Worldwide, productive land available per capita since 1900 has declined from fourteen acres to 3.7 acres of which less than an acre is arable. On the other hand, the amount of land required to support populations in industrialized countries has risen from two and a half acres per person in 1900 to an average of ten acres today. From a surplus of eleven acres in developed countries in 1900, there is now a deficit of seven acres per person. For all the world to live as an American or Canadian, we would need two more earths to satisfy everyone, three more still if population should double, and twelve earths altogether if worldwide standards of living should double over the next forty years.

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