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Waste, waste everywhere – built-in obsolescence versus recycling and more ecological use of our land resources. Which is progressing?
Many of the troubles with our waste come from the use of the land not from the amount of available resources, but how we choose to distribute what is available. As a species, we are wasteful of the land’s gifts.
(Audit of the Universe, chapter 4.3 )
In the developed world, we waste:
- 61% of the energy generated in the United States alone (enough to power the entire UK for 7 years)
- 40% to 50% of food produced for consumption
- 35 million cell phones and 350 million printer cartridges
- 10 liters of water for each sheet of A4 paper produced
- 7,000,000 tons of solid waste dumped annually into the ocean
The immense scale of our waste doesn’t just come from consumers choosing to throw things away rather than repair or fully use them. Much comes from the producers who take raw materials from the land and craft them into our wondrous comforts.Land resources - how are we using them: Built-in obsolescence and waste or quality and recycling? Click To Tweet
The term “planned obsolescence” is manufacturing jargon that means building a product at a lower quality than is possible, specifically so it will break and force consumers to buy replacements rather than live with a working product. When you buy an umbrella or a pair of shoes from Walmart, they will not last as long as they might have lasted even if manufactured at the same cost. The manufacturer designed and built them to wear out so you would come back and buy a new one.
All of that waste has to go somewhere. Thilafushi Island in the Maldives is one of those places. Although called an “island,” Thilafushi is technically a lagoon filled with rubbish until the garbage heap has risen above sea level. The artificial landmass of some 500 thousand square meters, (the area of Vatican City) is the regional dumping ground for rubbish and food waste, but also the final resting place of batteries, mercury products, computer components, and other items that leach toxins directly into the sea. Open burning on the island pollutes air for kilometers in every direction, and rubbish floats into the open sea with every outgoing tide.
More than a few unscrupulous producers opt instead to dispose of the waste by dumping it in remote areas of the Land or Sea; there, it seeps into the water table. Or, they simply hire space in a developing nation with a less stringent (and therefore less expensive) set of environmental laws. International agencies and action combat such antics, but it isn’t easy to patrol the world.
The Best Laid Plans
Even when regulation is strict and carefully observed, human wonders can lead to unintentional disaster. The design and human errors behind the Chernobyl nuclear disaster rendered over 150,000 square kilometers of land unavailable for many years, and the epicenter will not be safe for us to re-enter for another 20 millennia. When earthquake damage opened the core of the Fukushima plant in Japan, radiation was detectable in small amounts as far away as Alaska and Northern California.
Even these disasters simultaneously stimulated the resourcefulness that makes us what we are at our best. A team at Michigan State University has discovered and tested a bacteria that eats radioactivity and excretes electricity – a discovery they are even now putting into play to aid cleanup efforts at Fukushima.We cause the Chernobyl crisis, we make bacteria that eats radioactivity and excretes electricity Click To Tweet
Solutions for Our Solutions
In a further example of our contradictory nature, we humans have found ways to counter the destructive effects of our mistakes. In Africa, solar ovens and lamps generate light and heat without using polluting energy sources like wood and rubber or even dangerous ones like scavenged jet fuel. The Wello venture, founded to create a wheel that holds water, allows people to roll rather than carry larger loads of water from the local well or river. It means higher productivity and better sanitation that impacts entire communities throughout Africa and Southeast Asia.
The automobile industry demonstrates another example of this trend to curb the profligate waste of the mid-and-late 20th century. Building a new car from scratch takes massive amounts of energy and materials, and recycling those materials to create new vehicles has been a multibillion-dollar industry for decades. Recently, car manufacturers have addressed the recycling issue more holistically. Volvo and Toyota now make cars out of 95% recycled parts, and most significant manufacturers include steps in their design intended to make their vehicles more accessible to recycle than before.
There’s the problem of producing hybrid cars which are more pollution-intensive than the production of conventional vehicles. The innovative incorporated technology and rarer resources call for more expensive production and disposal costs. Regular waste handling companies do not accept composite components and those that do have higher prices. Frequently transported by workers who are both under-trained and poorly equipped.
Our consumption of fossil fuels has led to acid rain, smog, and global warming even in countries with advanced emission regulations. In response to those dangers, we have begun investing significant money and human resources into developing safe, renewable sources of energy, including wind, tidal, solar, and biofuels.
Some cities have begun fighting pollution and improving the quality of urban life by installing community gardens where people from the neighborhood work to produce some of the vegetables they need. Besides feeding locals, these gardens create green space to lower temperatures and improve air quality throughout the city. Most cities with such programs also give tax rebates and other benefits to companies that build or occupy offices with lower energy footprints. It is a worldwide movement, including cities in Germany, Spain, Australia, Brazil, Sweden, Denmark, The United States, Canada, and Iceland.
People are also working on using the gifts of the land more effectively. In Indonesia, Germany, and the United Kingdom, companies are recovering wood from fallen trees and turning them into beautiful furniture without having to contribute to the global deforestation epidemic. Throughout the developed world, entire movements, including the “Freegans” and “Voluntary Simplicity” choose to live while consuming as little as possible, and by reusing and recycling as much as they can. One company has built a world-spanning business out of turning recycled water bottles into fleece outerwear, recycling 80 million plastic bottles each year.
We have always tried to curb some consequences of our consumption through recycling. From our earliest history, we gave food scraps to livestock to turn food waste into more food. We smelt down used glass and metals, melt plastics, and recast paper into newly usable materials. We have even invented ways to recycle used oil into a reusable lubricant, and toxic sludges into stable and safe materials.
Striking a Balance?
“Impressive,” Galacti says, “we’ve finished our audit of land—for now.”
On the one hand, man grows immense amounts of food from the land, while on the other we let so much go to waste. With mineral resources, we build magnificent structures and wondrous technologies, but we won’t open the windows to let in the fresh air because we prefer expensive air conditioning.We can grow vast amounts of food from the Land, and let so much go to waste Click To Tweet
“Your agile mind daily crafts planet earth so you can play, work, and eat better. And, parallel to that, there is a downside to this progress, for which you are admittedly finding or trying to find solutions.” Galacti produces a glass of water, the line of its contents filling it exactly halfway.
The glass is both half full and half empty. The real question is: are we filling it or emptying it?
As we contemplate the question, we must consider this not just for the land itself but for the plants that grow on the land. What happens with the land directly affects what happens with the Flora—which directly affects everything else on Earth.
This blog post is an excerpt from chapter 4.3 of Audit of the Universe.
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