12 March 2006

Conserve For Today

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

I tend to think about the things I throw away. Partly, that’s a manifestation of my inner pack-rat – “Do I really want to get rid of that?” is a question I ask myself all too often – but increasingly, it reflects a concern with the impact of my garbage on the rest of the world. And once I started thinking about it, three details began to make their way slowly into my consciousness: how much we (humans) could do to recycle, but don’t; how little guidance or substantive discussion there is on what to do, or what the options are; and how little we are talking about the ethical implications of creating and using different products (except where it concerns automotive gasoline consumption or home heating oil, which are core American pocketbook issues).

That we live in a “disposable culture” is a cliché, if not a truism, but what we tend to mean by that phrase is something rather different than the real impact of those words; we think of this as referring to a society in which we just replace what has broken – say, a stereo or a cell phone – instead of fixing and reusing the old one. Without minimizing the problem of discarded electronics or other contraptions, there is a huge range of other items – such as the plastic containers from take-out food, the plastic bags used to store food we buy at the grocery store, or plastic or glass bottles – about which there is very little public discussion. Some of us probably make a concerted effort to reuse these things, thus extending their lifespan, however briefly; my suspicion is that most people do not bother, because it is just that: a bother, an effort. It takes a particular mindset to look at that yogurt container and envision a planter, or to skip using the thin plastic bags grocery stores provide when buying vegetables. Meanwhile, although many communities encourage recycling, not all household products are recyclable, and only 11 states currently have “bottle bills,” laws that (theoretically) provide a financial incentive for consumers to recycle their glass, plastic, and aluminum. Still, if questions about re-use and recycling are one area of concern, there is at least some awareness of the challenge, and most containers now carry little graphics reminding consumers to recycle or noting that they are made from recycled materials already.

But recycling household items is just one small part of the broader picture of the materials and energy we use on a daily basis. Every time I wash out some piece of plastic to reuse it, I wonder about the water I’m using: how much energy it takes to deliver it (heated) to my sink and the impact of using this water for this purpose. I assume that it is better for the world that I wash the container out and re-use it – that whatever the various costs of the water, they’re still lower than the ecological impact of plastic in the landfill. But just try finding any analysis that confirms that assumption! It is virtually impossible; it just is not part of our public dialog.

Then there’s the lost opportunity represented by the slightly-soapy water swirling down the drain: “gray water.” “Gray water” is the term for once-used waste water from sinks or showers or laundry machines, water that contains enough pollutants and bacteria that one wouldn’t want to drink it – but not so much that the water can’t be reused, like for watering one’s garden. Every now and again, an article will run in a newspaper about how some clever person hooked-up a tank in their garden to collect rainwater, or installed a siphon system in their household plumbing to capture and reuse gray water, but it is not as though these articles are common, and neither do the plumbing solutions seem to be readily available.

I think of the negative environmental impact of golf courses (e.g., lots of water, and fertilizer, used to maintain grass that provides little environmental benefit) and imagine those vast lawns being watered with the gray water “waste” from their surrounding communities. Recycling in action! Where I live in Manhattan, gardens may be rare, but one common sight from spring to fall is that of building superintendents using (fresh) water to hose off the sidewalk. What a perfect use for gray water! The only thing I can think of that makes more sense is to recycle it as toilet water. None of these idea have gained much ground, even though this kind of recycling could reduce our water consumption by more than one third.


You Are Making A DifferenceTM

If every household in the U.S. replaced just one bottle if 28 oz. petroleum based dishwashing liquid with our 28 oz. vegetable based product, we could save 118,700 barrels of oil, enough to heat and cool 6,800 U.S. homes for a year.

-- From the label of Seventh Generation® Natural Dish Liquid


Some more math: light sweet crude oil was trading at about $61 per barrel on Friday, 10 March 2006; 118,700 barrels, at $61 per barrel, is $7,240,700. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, one barrel of crude oil produces 20 gallons of gasoline and seven gallons of diesel fuel; therefore 118,700 barrels of oil produces 2,374,000 gallons of gasoline and 830,900 gallons of diesel fuel. If the average car driven in the U.S. gets about 24.5 miles per gallon of gasoline, then 2,374,000 gallons of gas will carry you about 96,898 miles. Traveling 96,898 miles is roughly equal to circumnavigating Earth 4 times (The circumference of Earth at the equator is approximately 24,830 miles.)


Public discussions about consumption, recycling, and environmental impact issues are not taking place in this country, and there are undoubtedly many reasons for that. Here are my top three: our wealth (which sustains our consumption, and makes conservation seem less critical); our nature (American individualism, a core commitment to “freedom” in some highly abstracted sense); and our culture (typically not very self-reflective, rather more focused on future achievements). That it took until January 2006 – six years in office, amidst booming oil prices and a nation of SUVs – for President George W. Bush to admit that the U.S. is addicted to oil speaks even more loudly than whatever namby-pamby solutions he proposed to address the problem.

There is also great irony here: despite our wealth, inherent nature, and success-driven culture, we are also a nation of moralizers: of god-fearing, church-going, values-talking Red-staters on the one hand, and Prius-driving, fur-hating, tree-hugging Blue-staters on the other. Conservation – saving the Earth – seems like it should fit well within a conservative religious framework; after all, if the planet was a divine gift, shouldn’t it be our obligation to protect and nurture it? Instead, the Conservative agenda within America seems to be to help President Bush address America’s oil addiction by pushing for oil drilling (and thereby sustaining consumption) in one of the planet’s last untouched wildernesses: the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. I guess if you’re a Republican, it’s easy to ignore the shared root between the words “conservative” and “conservation.”

But fear not: the Democrats, the party of Al Gore’s environmental beliefs, are not much better. Indeed, looking at the web site for leading Democrat Senator Hillary Clinton, one finds only the most benign kind of environmental pablum, such as support for a bill that would “require 20 percent of the nation’s electricity to be produced from renewable sources by 2020.” By golly, Hillary, that’s showing ‘em how to do it! (No mention here of a position on the underwater turbine farm planned for the East River – which could be a significant power source if it manages to move ahead.) And then there’s the entertaining debacle over a “wind farm” on Cape Cod, which has some people’s knickers in a twist because, despite its environmental value (perhaps generating as much as 2/3rds of the electricity needed on the Cape), well ... it just might not be so pretty. Leading the charge against it? Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. You show ‘em, son; I’m sure your father would be proud.

All this environmental talk is cheap, but in many ways, we are not even talking, let alone acting. The Guardian, one of the leading, left-leaning newspapers in England, has a regular column on “ethical living.” Written by Leo Hicks, recent columns have addressed the impact of owning a second home, playing golf, and drinking orange juice. Nor are the answers all downers; just as often, they are a practical mixture of ethics, environmental concerns, and the desire to enjoy life – so, for instance, OJ fans are encouraged to drink up, but also to buy “fair trade” juice, or make their own juice from “fair trade” oranges, rather than support the larger and more ethically-challenged OJ producers.

Now imagine a column like that in the New York Times – or USA Today. Frankly, I can’t. Ever since President Jimmy Carter was laughed at for encouraging Americans to conserve energy by turning down their thermostats, it seems like we work harder and harder to put distance between ourselves and any obligations to the world in which we live. (Except for gasoline, of course, where we pretend to care, but are mostly just concerned with per-gallon costs.) If even the nation’s best and brightest aren’t willing to focus on the issue, and if our local and national politicians won’t deal with it, what hope do the rest of us have?


UPDATE - 13 March - Today's New York Times features an article about windmills in upstate New York...


Anonymous Sara said...

You know, I have read and heard more than once that home recycling is marginally useful after you factor in the energy used for trucking and processing. Not that domestic conservationism is unworthy, but business, industry, transport and new construction are where we really need to clean up our acts. Problem is, most individuals seem to feel tired just starting to think about attacking those sectors.

I myself, living in Upstate NY, mostly recycle to avoid paying more for trash tags, and to keep myself noticing what goes through my hands and off to the landfill. The first rule of conservation isn't to recycle, it's to not buy so much crap, especially disposable crap, in the first place.

About the water (and greywater) - scroll down to "Comprehensive Water Reuse Program" on this linked page and check out the form.

By the way, not all Republicans think we should drill in Alaska. The environmental movement was founded by a bunch of hunters ya know.

10:32 AM  

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