Friday, May 01, 2009

Waste, Recycling, Fanatical Consumption - What Are We Doing?

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The Great American Garbage Patch
By Frosty Wooldridge
April 30, 2009
NewsWithViews.com
http://www.newswithviews.com/Wooldridge/frosty463.htm
In my 40 years traveling around this planet, I discovered human beings respect nothing anywhere in the world. No matter how beautiful, no matter how pristine the location and no matter what country—human beings toss their trash everywhere. They inject their chemicals into the land, air and water. They throw their rubbish into rivers, lakes and streams.
In my forty years of Scuba diving around the world, I’ve seen our pristine lakes and oceans turn into trash cans for humans. Millions of tires, nets, plastic, glass and metal containers roll around the ocean floor like ‘creatures’ out of place.
As recently exposed on Oprah, “The Great Pacific Garbage Patch” twice the size of Texas, features three million tons of plastic debris floating around the Pacific. In some places, it reaches 60 feet thick. It kills millions of marine creatures annually. It’s not just the Pacific, 46,000 pieces of plastic float on every square mile of all our oceans and seas! That figure is correct!
While riding my bicycle around the world or climbing mountains, I have seen humans toss soiled baby diapers into pristine pools, fjords and rivers. On Mt. Everest, known as the “Earth Mother,” climbers have left tons of trash and garbage on her flanks in their efforts to reach the top. At the base, climbers have turned the area into a sewage pit.
Most large rivers running out of industrial nations feature raw sewage that creates ‘dead zones’ like the 10,000 square mile one at the mouth of the Mississippi River to 27,000 square mile dead zones in the North Sea. How big is that? That’s the size of North Carolina.
Instead of changing their ways, humans continue adding more trash upon the trash with no end in sight.
In a sobering expose’ Mother Jones featured a brilliant piece by world famous author Bill McKibben. He also wrote a ground-breaking book: The End of Nature. I highly recommend reading his books.
Waste not, want not” by Bill McKibben, Mother Jones/May-June 2009
“Once a year or so, it's my turn to run recycling day for our tiny town,” McKibben said. “But it's also kind of disturbing, this waste stream. For one, a town of 550 sure generates a lot—a trailer loads every couple of weeks.
“More than that, though, so much of it seems utterly unnecessary. Not just waste, but wasteful. Plastic water bottles, one after another—80 million of them get tossed every day. The ones I'm stomping down are being "recycled," but so what? In a country where almost everyone has access to clean drinking water, they define waste to begin with. In fact, once you start thinking about it, the category of "waste" begins to expand, until it includes an alarming percentage of our economy. Let's do some intellectual sorting:
“There's old-fashioned waste, the dangerous, sooty kind. You're making something useful, but you're not using the latest technology, and so you're spewing: particulates into the air, or maybe sewage into the water. You wish to keep doing it, because it's cheap, and you block any regulation that might interfere with your right to spew. This is the kind of waste that's easy to attack; it's obvious and obnoxious and a lot of it falls under the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act and so on. There's actually less of this kind of waste than there used to be—that's why we can swim in most of our rivers again.” Or to correct McKibben, at least 53 percent of them!
“There's waste that comes from doing something that manifestly doesn't need doing,” said McKibben. “A hundred million trees are cut every year just to satisfy the junk-mail industry. Or think about what we've done with cars. From 1975 to 1985, fuel efficiency for the average new car improved from 14 to 28 miles per gallon. Then we stopped worrying about oil and put all that engineering talent to work on torque.”
While we Americans run through our busy days, mountains of trash accumulate worldwide by our singular activities.
McKibben said, “Chris Jordan is the photographer laureate of waste—his most recent project, "Running the Numbers," uses exquisite images to show the 106,000 aluminum cans Americans toss every 30 seconds, or the 1 million plastic cups distributed on US airline flights every 6 hours, or the 2 million plastic beverage bottles we run through every 5 minutes, or the 426,000 cell phones we discard every day, or the 1.14 million brown paper supermarket bags we use each hour, or the 60,000 plastic bags we use every 5 seconds, or the 15 million sheets of office paper we use every 5 minutes, or the 170,000 Energizer batteries produced every 15 minutes. The simple amount of stuff it takes—energy especially—to manage this kind of throughput makes it daunting to even think about our waste problem. (Meanwhile, the next time someone tells you that population is at the root of our troubles, remind them that the average American uses more energy between the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve and dinner on January 2 than the average, say, Tanzanian consumes in a year. Population matters, but it really matters when you multiply it by proximity to Costco.”
I have read where Americans use 90 billion plastic and paper bags annually. (Source: Sierra Club) But I’ve also read that the total number of plastic bags for humanity exceeds 386 billion annually. All go to the landfill, or, as you can verify daily—all over the landscape.
“Americans discard enough aluminum to rebuild our entire commercial air fleet every three months—and aluminum represents less than 1 percent of our solid waste stream,” We toss 14 percent of the food we buy at the store. More than 46,000 pieces of plastic debris float on each square mile of ocean. And—oh, forget it.”
McKibben covers waste from many corners, but then, he covers the waste of our two wars and military waste.
“Want to talk about government waste?” said McKibben. “We're going to end up spending north of a trillion dollars on the war in Iraq, which will go down as one of the larger wastes of money—and lives—in our history. But we spend more than half a trillion a year on the military anyway, more than the next 10 nations combined. That almost defines profligacy.
“We landed on a continent with topsoil more than a foot thick across its vast interior, so the fact that we immediately started to waste it with inefficient plowing hardly mattered. We inherited an atmosphere that could buffer our emissions for the first 150 years of the Industrial Revolution.
“But our margin is gone. We're out of cash, we're out of atmosphere, we're out of luck. The current economic carnage is what happens when you waste—when the CEO of Merrill Lynch thinks he needs a $35,000 commode, when the CEO of Tyco thinks it would be fun to spend a million dollars on his wife's birthday party, complete with an ice sculpture of Michelangelo's David peeing vodka. The melted Arctic ice cap is what you get when everyone in America thinks he requires the kind of vehicle that might make sense for a forest ranger.”
McKibben makes sense! He’s brilliant! So why am I pulling my hair out by the roots? Why do I ride my bicycle along highways with an endless stream of trash? Why do I see fast food, beer and pop bottles littering America’s rivers and lakes? Why do humans create and inject ever more deadly chemicals into the environment annually? How can Americans remain mind-numbingly apathetic to mountains of debris covering North America?
How about the ones of us that care? Let’s create incentive laws to encourage the ones that don’t care—to pick up after themselves. How about a 10 cent national deposit/return law like Michigan’s. I have bicycled the entire ‘mitt’ of Michigan and never picked up one plastic, can or bottle container. Why? Because no matter who tosses their container litter, an armada of kids picks up everything for the financial reward. It’s time for America to take responsibility for cleaning up America. Let’s stop the waste stream by engaging a “National Recycling Policy.”
The original people of this continent, living here thousands of years, maintained a pristine environment. New arrivals from Europe trashed North America inside of 150 years. That’s unreasonable and immoral. It’s unconscionable! Let’s change ourselves toward a more responsible society.
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Waste Not, Want NotWe've finally reached a point where we can't keep hyperconsuming—and that's a good thing.—By Bill McKibben
May/June 2009
http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2009/05/waste-not-want-not
ONCE A YEAR OR SO, it's my turn to run recycling day for our tiny town. Saturday morning, 9 to 12, a steady stream of people show up to sort out their plastics (No. 1, No. 2, etc.), their corrugated cardboard (flattened, please), their glass (and their returnable glass, which goes to benefit the elementary school), their Styrofoam peanuts, their paper, their cans. It's quite satisfying—everything in its place.
But it's also kind of disturbing, this waste stream. For one, a town of 550 sure generates a lot—a trailer load every couple of weeks. Sometimes you have to put a kid into the bin and tell her to jump up and down so the lid can close.
More than that, though, so much of it seems utterly unnecessary. Not just waste, but wasteful. Plastic water bottles, one after another—80 million of them get tossed every day. The ones I'm stomping down are being "recycled," but so what? In a country where almost everyone has access to clean drinking water, they define waste to begin with. I mean, you don't have a mug? In fact, once you start thinking about it, the category of "waste" begins to expand, until it includes an alarming percentage of our economy. Let's do some intellectual sorting:
There's old-fashioned waste, the dangerous, sooty kind. You're making something useful, but you're not using the latest technology, and so you're spewing: particulates into the air, or maybe sewage into the water. You wish to keep doing it, because it's cheap, and you block any regulation that might interfere with your right to spew. This is the kind of waste that's easy to attack; it's obvious and obnoxious and a lot of it falls under the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act and so on. There's actually less of this kind of waste than there used to be—that's why we can swim in most of our rivers again.
There's waste that comes from everything operating as it should, only too much so. If carbon monoxide (carbon with one oxygen atom) exemplifies pollution of the first type, then carbon dioxide (carbon with two oxygen atoms) typifies the second. Carbon monoxide poisons you in your garage and turns Beijing's air brown, but if you put a catalytic converter on your tailpipe it all but disappears. Carbon dioxide doesn't do anything to you directly—a clean-burning engine used to be defined as one that released only CO2 and water vapor—but in sufficient quantity it melts the ice caps, converts grassland into desert, and turns every coastal city into New Orleans. There's waste that comes from doing something that manifestly doesn't need doing. A hundred million trees are cut every year just to satisfy the junk-mail industry. You can argue about cutting trees for newspapers, or magazines, or Bibles, or symphony scores—but the cascade of stuffporn that arrives daily in our mailboxes? It wastes forests, and also our time. Which, actually, is precious—we each get about 30,000 days, and it makes one a little sick to calculate how many of them have been spent opening credit card offers.
Or think about what we've done with cars. From 1975 to 1985, fuel efficiency for the average new car improved from 14 to 28 miles per gallon. Then we stopped worrying about oil and put all that engineering talent to work on torque. In the mid-1980s, the typical car accelerated from 0 to 60 mph in 14.5 seconds. Today's average (even though vehicles are much heavier) is 9.5 seconds. But it's barely legal to accelerate like that, and it makes you look like an idiot, or a teenager.
Then there's the waste that comes with doing something maybe perhaps vaguely useful when you could be doing something actually useful instead. For instance: Congress is being lobbied really, really hard to fork over billions of dollars to the nuclear industry, on the premise that it will fight global warming. There is, of course, that little matter of nuclear waste—but lay that aside (in Nevada or someplace). The greater problem is the wasted opportunity: That money could go to improving efficiency, which can produce the same carbon reductions for about a fifth of the price.
Our wasteful habits wouldn't matter much if there were just a few of us—a Neanderthal hunting band could have discarded six plastic water bottles apiece every day with no real effect except someday puzzling anthropologists. But the volumes we manage are something else. Chris Jordan is the photographer laureate of waste—his most recent project, "Running the Numbers," uses exquisite images to show the 106,000 aluminum cans Americans toss every 30 seconds, or the 1 million plastic cups distributed on US airline flights every 6 hours, or the 2 million plastic beverage bottles we run through every 5 minutes, or the 426,000 cell phones we discard every day, or the 1.14 million brown paper supermarket bags we use each hour, or the 60,000 plastic bags we use every 5 seconds, or the 15 million sheets of office paper we use every 5 minutes, or the 170,000 Energizer batteries produced every 15 minutes. The simple amount of stuff it takes—energy especially—to manage this kind of throughput makes it daunting to even think about our waste problem. (Meanwhile, the next time someone tells you that population is at the root of our troubles, remind them that the average American uses more energy between the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve and dinner on January 2 than the average, say, Tanzanian consumes in a year. Population matters, but it really matters when you multiply it by proximity to Costco.)
Would you like me to go on? Americans discard enough aluminum to rebuild our entire commercial air fleet every three months—and aluminum represents less than 1 percent of our solid waste stream. We toss 14 percent of the food we buy at the store. More than 46,000 pieces of plastic debris float on each square mile of ocean. And—oh, forget it.
These kinds of numbers get in the way of figuring out how much we really waste. In recent years, for instance, 40 percent of Harvard graduates have gone into finance, consulting, and business. They had just spent four years with the world's greatest library, some of its finest museum collections, an unparalleled assemblage of Nobel-quality scholars, and all they wanted to do was go to lower Manhattan and stare into computer screens. What a waste! And when they got to Wall Street, of course, they figured out extravagant ways to waste the life savings of millions of Americans, which in turn required the waste of taxpayer dollars to bail them out, money that could have been spent on completely useful things: trains to get us where we want to go—say, new national parks.
Perhaps the only kind of waste we've gotten good at cutting is the kind we least needed to eliminate: An entire industry of consultants survives on telling companies how to get rid of inefficiencies—which generally means people. And an entire class of politicians survives by railing about government waste, which also ends up meaning programs for people: Health care for poor children, what a boondoggle.
Want to talk about government waste? We're going to end up spending north of a trillion dollars on the war in Iraq, which will go down as one of the larger wastes of money—and lives—in our history. But we spend more than half a trillion a year on the military anyway, more than the next 10 nations combined. That almost defines profligacy.
We've gotten away with all of this for a long time because we had margin, all kinds of margin. Money, for sure—we were the richest nation on Earth, and when we wanted more we just borrowed it from China. But margin in other ways as well: We landed on a continent with topsoil more than a foot thick across its vast interior, so the fact that we immediately started to waste it with inefficient plowing hardly mattered. We inherited an atmosphere that could buffer our emissions for the first 150 years of the Industrial Revolution. We somehow got away with wasting the talents of black people and women and gay folks.
But our margin is gone. We're out of cash, we're out of atmosphere, we're out of luck. The current economic carnage is what happens when you waste—when the CEO of Merrill Lynch thinks he needs a $35,000 commode, when the CEO of Tyco thinks it would be fun to spend a million dollars on his wife's birthday party, complete with an ice sculpture of Michelangelo's David peeing vodka. The melted Arctic ice cap is what you get when everyone in America thinks he requires the kind of vehicle that might make sense for a forest ranger.
Getting out of the fix we're in—if it's still possible—requires in part that we relearn some very old lessons. We were once famously thrifty: Yankee frugality, straightening bent nails, saving string. We used to have a holiday, Thrift Week, which began on Ben Franklin's birthday: "Beware of little expenses; a small leak will sink a great ship," said he. We disapproved of frippery, couldn't imagine wasting money on ourselves, made do or did without. It took a mighty effort to make us what we are today—in fact, it took a mighty industry, advertising, which soaks up plenty more of those Harvard grads and represents an almost total waste.
In the end, we built an economy that depended on waste, and boundless waste is what it has produced. And the really sad part is, it felt that way, too. Making enough money to build houses with rooms we never used, and cars with engines we had no need of, meant wasting endless hours at work. Which meant that we had, on average, one-third fewer friends than our parents' generation. What waste that! "Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers," wrote Wordsworth. We can't say we weren't warned.
The economic mess now transfixing us will mean some kind of change. We can try to hang on to the status quo—living a Wal-Mart life so we can buy cheaply enough to keep the stream of stuff coming. Or we can say uncle. There are all kinds of experiments in postwaste living springing up: Freecycling, and Craigslisting, and dumpster diving, and car sharing (those unoccupied seats in your vehicle—what a waste!), and open sourcing. We're sharing buses, and going to the library in greater numbers. Economists keep hoping we'll figure out a way to revert—that we'll waste a little more, and pull us out of the economic doldrums. But the psychological tide suddenly runs the other way.
We may have waited too long—we may have wasted our last good chance. It's possible the planet will keep warming and the economy keep sinking no matter what. But perhaps not—and we seem ready to shoot for something nobler than the hyperconsumerism that's wasted so much of the last few decades. Barack Obama said he would "call out" the nation's mayors if they wasted their stimulus money. That's the mood we're in, and it's about time.
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Mt. Everest
In the vast area of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, jellyfish and other filter feeders frequently consume or become tangled in floating trash.
The Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch carries millions, if not billions, of pieces of plastic
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Why is the world's biggest landfill in the Pacific Ocean? by Jacob Silverman
http://science.howstuffworks.com/great-pacific-garbage-patch.htm
In t­he broad expanse of the northern Pacific Ocean, there exists the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, a slowly moving, clockwise spiral of currents created by a high-pressure system of air currents. The area is an oceanic desert, filled with tiny phytoplankton but few big fish or mammals. Due to its lack of large fish and gentle breezes, fishermen and­ s­ailors rarely travel through the gyre. But the area is filled with something besides plankton: trash, millions of pounds of it, most of it plastic. It's the largest landfill in the world, and it floats in the middle of the ocean.
The gyre has actually given birth to two large masses of ever-accumulating trash, known as the Western and Eastern Pacific Garbage Patches, sometimes collectively called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The Eastern Garbage Patch floats between Hawaii and California; scientists estimate its size as two times bigger than Texas [source: LA Times]. The Western Garbage Patch forms east of Japan and west of Hawaii. Each swirling mass of refuse is massive and collects trash from all over the world. The patches are connected by a thin 6,000-mile long current called the Subtropical Convergence Zone. Research flights showed that significant amounts of trash also accumulate in the Convergence Zone.
The garbage patches present numerous hazards to marine life, fishing and tourism. But before we discuss those, it's important to look at the role of plastic. Plastic constitutes 90 percent of all trash floating in the world's oceans [source: LA Times]. The United Nations Environment Program estimated in 2006 that every square mile of ocean hosts 46,000 pieces of floating plastic [source: UN Environment Program]. In some areas, the amount of plastic outweighs the amount of plankton by a ratio of six to one. Of the more than 200 billion pounds of plastic the world produces each year, about 10 percent ends up in the ocean [source: Greenpeace]. Seventy percent of that eventually sinks, damaging life on the ocean floor [source: Greenpeace]. The rest floats; much of it ends up in gyres and the massive garbage patches that form there, with some plastic eventually washing up on a distant shore.
The Problem with Plastic
The main problem with plastic -- besides there being so much of it -- is that it doesn't biodegrade. No natural process can break it down. (Experts point out ­that the durability that makes plastic so useful to humans also makes it quite harmful to nature.) Instead, plastic photodegrades. A plastic cigarette lighter cast out to sea will fragment into smaller and smaller pieces of plastic without breaking into simpler compounds, which scientists estimate could take hundreds of years. The small bits of plastic produced by photodegradation are called mermaid tears or nurdles.
These tiny plastic particles can get sucked up by filter feeders and damage their bodies. Other marine animals eat the plastic, which can poison them or lead to deadly blockages. Nurdles also have the insidious property of soaking up toxic chemicals. Over time, even chemicals or poisons that are widely diffused in water can become highly concentrated as they're mopped up by nurdles. These poison-filled masses threaten the entire food chain, especially when eaten by filter feeders that are then consumed by large creatures.
Plastic has acutely affected albatrosses, which roam ­a wide swath of the northern Pacific Ocean. Albatrosses frequently grab food wherever they can find it, which leads to many of the birds ingesting -- and dying from -- plastic and other trash. On Midway Island, which comes into contact with parts of the Eastern Garbage Patch, albatrosses give birth to 500,000 chicks every year. Two hundred thousand of them die, many of them by consuming plastic fed to them by their parents, who confuse it for food [source: LA Times]. In total, more than a million birds and marine animals die each year from consuming or becoming caught in plastic and other debris.
­Effects of Plastic and the Great Pacific Garbage PatchBesides killing wildlife, plastic and other debris damage boat and submarine equipment, litter beaches, discourage swimming and harm commercial and local fisheries. The problem of plastic and other accumulated trash affects beaches and oceans all over the world, including at both poles. Land masses that end up in the path of the rotating gyres receive particularly large amounts of trash. The 19 islands of the Hawaiian archipelago, including Midway, receive massive quantities of trash shot out from the gyres. Some of the trash is decades old. Some beaches are buried under five to 10 feet of trash, while other beaches are riddled with "plastic sand," millions of grain-like pieces of plastic that are practically impossible to clean up.
Most of this trash doesn't come from seafaring vessels dumping junk -- 80 percent of ocean trash originates on land [source: LA Times]. The rest comes from private and commercial ships, fishing equipment, oil platforms and spilled shipping containers (the contents of which frequently wash up on faraway shores years later).
Some efforts can help to stem the tide of refuse. International treaties prohibiting dumping at sea must be enforced. Untreated sewage shouldn't be allowed to flow into the ocean. Many communities and even some small island nations have eliminated the use of plastic bags. These bags are generally recyclable, but billions of them are thrown away every year. On the Hawaiian Islands, cleanup programs bring volunteers to the beaches to pick up trash, but some beaches, even those subjected to regular cleanings, are still covered in layers of trash several feet thick.
Scientists who have studied the issue say that trawling the ocean for all of its trash is simply impossible and would harm plankton and other marine life. In some areas, big fragments can be collected, but it's simply not possible to thoroughly clean a section of ocean that spans the area of a continent and extends 100 feet below the surface [source: UN Environment Program].
Nearly all experts who speak about the subject raise the same point: It comes down to managing waste on land, where most of the trash originates. They recommend lobbying companies to find alternatives to plastic, especially environmentally safe, reusable packaging. Recycling programs should be expanded to accommodate more types of plastic, and the public must be educated about their value.
In October 2006, the U.S. government established the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine Monument. This long string of islands, located northwest of Hawaii, frequently comes into contact with the Eastern Garbage Patch. After the creation of the monument, Congress passed legislation to increase funding for cleanup efforts and ordered several government agencies to expand their cleanup work. It may be an important step, especially if it leads to more government attention to a problem that, while dire, has only received serious scientific attention since the early 1990s.
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The albatross population has been devastated by plastic.
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Did you know that there is now floating in the Pacific Ocean a 3.5-million ton island of sh*t made up of all the indestructible crap we toss away, the stuff that will never break down, like Styrofoam and old Clorox bottles. And it's twice the size of Texas. That's right, the Pacific Ocean now contains more white trash than Texas! - Bill Maher*******