Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Whither Garbage?

CNBC currently is running a program about the business of trash.  For  companies like Waste Management and Republic Services, trash is an immensely profitable business, but have you ever taken a minute to think about all the garbage that ends up in landfills?  The statistics are astonishing.

We generate in this country approximately 250 million tons of trash per year.  Given our current population of about 310 million people, that works out to about 1612 pounds of trash per person.

What? That can't be right, can it?  You had no idea that your carbon footprint was so colossal, did you?

Trash is the ultimate in "pass-the-buck" thinking.  The only time anyone thinks about trash collection is when they hear the trash truck at 5am and remember that they forgot to take their cans to the curb the night before. As long as it is being collected regularly, garbage is an afterthought. Only when it piles up does trash become headline news.  Just ask the people of any densely populated metropolis how important garbage collection is.

"I've always dreamed of living here!"

Advances in recycling technology have helped, but after watching the CNBC program I started taking  notice of all the packaging that exists for just about everything we buy. It's repulsive.  

Bottled water must be the epitome of consumer stupidity.  According to the CNBC program, Americans buy nearly a BILLION bottles of water every week.  Nothwithstanding the fact that in many cases bottled water is of no better quality than tap water and that bottled water is ONE THOUSAND times more expensive than tap, we recycle only a fraction of the 51,000,000,000 (billion) plastic water bottles that we use each year.  Most water bottles end up in landfills, in the ocean, or along roadways, creating eyesores for us and health issues for wildlife.  When we nonchalantly dispose of the bottle we think we are done with it. Not even close. Unrecycled plastic doesn't decompose for several centuries.  Until and unless our species colonizes another planet, plastic refuse is our problem. 

"Jump around."

Plastic–as you know–is a petroleum byproduct.  We use about 17 million barrels of oil each year to produce those 51 billion plastic water bottles.  That number represents but a fraction of a fraction of our yearly oil consumption, but then again plastic water bottles respresent but a fraction of the amount of plastic packaging that is produced each year. 

Just how much oil is used to produce all of the plastic packaging that is manufactured globally each year? According to the U.S. Energy Information Association, "in 2006, about 331 million barrels of liquid petroleum gases (LPG) and natural gas liquids (NGL) were used to make plastic products in the plastic materials and resins industry in the United States, equal to about 4.6% of total U.S. petroleum consumption. Of the total, 329 million barrels were used as feedstock and 2 million barrels were consumed as fuel in the production process." That's just in the United States! Given all the rhetoric about reducing our dependence on foreign oil and the fact that it can take plastic several centuries to decompose, why have we not mandated alternatives?

Aside from energy considerations, how annoying is plastic packaging anyway?  Especially hard shell plastic packaging?  The product that you buy is vacuum sealed inside of a plastic sarcophagus that is impossible to open unless you happen to have in your possession a physician's scalpel or a diamond cutter.
This is a mindsnap waiting to happen.

The Pope in the Popemobile isn't as well protected.

This packaging was created ostensibly to protect high-end consumer products from theft and from damage during shipping. I daresay that the benefits to the manufacturer and distributor are mitigated by the environmental costs and consumer headaches that such packaging creates.
What ever happened to brown paper and string? 

It worked well enough for centuries.  Wrap your product, tie it up, slap a label on it.  Boom. Done. Plastic packaging is another example of technological overengineering. 

Not everything we buy needs to be shrink wrapped and hermetically sealed.  In my neverending search for the perfect chocolate chip cookie, I spent a little quality time the other day with Mrs. Fields. To my amazement, each cookie in this package was individually wrapped.  What in the hell for?  I can promise you that when I open a box of cookies there is no chance that the box is going to last long enough for any uneaten cookies to go stale.  And I am not even a stoner.

Individually wrapped for freshness, huh?
Perhaps California was onto something when it attempted to legalize marijuana earlier this month. If marijuana consumption were legal, everyone who is not me would eat all of the cookies right away and we would have no need to individually wrap things like cookies and Lifesavers.  Our energy and environmental problems would be solved, although worker productivity likely would plummet.

Bill Blazejowski attempted to solve our trash problem in the 1982 movie "Nighshift."

Bill: "OK, here's an example. Watch out, stand back."
[speaks into tape recorder]
Bill: "This is Bill. Idea to eliminate garbage: edible paper. You see, you eat it, it's gone. Eat it, it's out of there."

He apparently was way ahead of his time.