Posts Tagged society

The Quicksand of Waste

Posted by on Friday, 20 February, 2009

Emily and I have been struggling with problem that seems to pervade our every attempt to reduce the environmental footprint of our life. That is, waste.

Most people think about waste as throwing away something that’s still good, or not using something up completely before casting it aside. Using this definition, to reduce your waste you can simply unplug from our serial-consumption society a little bit and start using things until they’re worn out. This is what our ancestors did, mainly out of necessity, and it’s probably part of the reason many of us have furniture items that once belonged to our grandparents. Of course, things were made with a different ethic back then…one of maximized durability, not planned obsolescence. Yet even given the death-dating that takes place in the design of modern products, it’s possible to put the brakes on our ravenous appetite for things a little bit. Maybe it means hanging onto the truck you bought ten years ago, and have already paid off, even if it’s got a cracked dashboard and it’s not as shiny and new as some of the others on the road. The point is to examine those things you’re thinking about replacing, and deciding whether they’re still useful or could be repaired and be useful again.

But wait a minute. Go back to that example about the truck. This points us to another type of waste: the inefficient use of resources like gasoline that has been built into the very fiber or our lifestyles for so long. If I hang onto my truck, I’m still consuming gasoline in prodigious quantities…as if it were nearly free, and couldn’t hurt a fly once burned. Once, the prevailing wisdom – prevailing, not necessarily best-thought-out – held that these two principles were pretty much solid. We weren’t likely to run out of oil (or, at least, let’s not talk about it), and there is no such thing as global warming (oops). So, by hanging onto my truck I’m wasting quite a bit of ever-more-precious oil, and doing more than my part to degrade the environment. If I chuck the truck and get something smaller, maybe a hybrid or something, then I save quite a bit in terms of gas and environmental side-effects, but I’m pushing another used truck onto the market, which will undoubtedly result in one car somewhere else being junked. The metal parts can be recycled, but the composite panels used for the interior? I doubt it very much. (Read Cradle to Cradle for reasons why.) That also brings up the point of pushing yet another gas guzzler onto the secondary market, which means it’s unlikely I’m actually improving the gas consumption in the aggregate…unless the junker that gets retired after my truck replaces it actually got worse mileage.

So, I find myself stuck in quicksand: if I do nothing, I sink slowly and quietly below the surface. If I struggle, I only hasten the sinking by digging my way down. Emily and I are starting to see this dilemma every time we think about replacing one item with a more efficient counterpart. Replacing the dishwasher with an Energy Star version is great, but then you wind up putting that old one in a trash pile somewhere. Same goes for the washing maching we just replaced (okay, the transmission was fried on the old one, so there wasn’t much choice), our refrigerator, just about everything. We put in bamboo floors, but threw away our old carpet (nasty stuff, but still). What to do??

When you’re trying to lighten your own footprint on the Earth, it’s extremely difficult in today’s world to avoid making someone else’s that much heavier. This has to be the hardest problem we’re going to face in trying to green up our society, since removing these inefficient goods without creating ever higher mountains of trash, or flooding the secondary markets with energy-guzzling monsters is nearly impossible.