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Throwaway must go away.

THE STRESSES IN OUR early 21st century civilization take many forms--social, economic, environmental, and political. One distinctly unhealthy and visible illustration of all four is the swelling flow of garbage associated with a throwaway economy. Throwaway products first were conceived following World War II as a convenience and way of creating jobs and sustaining economic growth. The more goods produced and discarded, the reasoning went, the more jobs there would be. What sold throwaways was their convenience. For instance, rather than washing cloth towels or napkins, consumers welcomed disposable paper versions. Thus, we have substituted facial tissues for handkerchiefs, paper towels for hand towels, disposable table napkins for cloth ones, and throwaway beverage containers for refillable boules. Even the shopping bags we use to carry home throwaway products become part of the garbage flow.

The throwaway economy is on a collision course with the Earth's geological limits. Aside from running out of landfills near cities, the world quickly is depleting the cheap oil used to manufacture and transport throwaway products. Perhaps more fundamentally, there is not enough readily accessible lead, fin, copper, iron ore, or bauxite to sustain the throwaway economy beyond another generation or two. Assuming an annual two percent growth in extraction, U.S. Geological Survey data on economically recoverable reserves shows the world has 17 years of reserves remaining for lead, 19 for tin, 25 for copper, 54 for iron ore, and 68 for bauxite.

The cost of hauling garbage from cities is rising as nearby landfills fill up and the price of oilclimbs. One of the first major cities to exhaust its locally available trash-holding venues was New York. When Fresh Kills, the local destination for New York's garbage, was closed permanently in March 2001, the city found itself hauling refuse to sites in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and even Virginia--with some being 300 miles away.

Given the 12,000 tons of garbage produced each day in New York and assuming a load of 20 tons for each of the tractor-trailers used for the long-distance hauling, some 600 rigs are needed to move the garbage dally. These tractor-trailers form a convoy nearly nine miles long--impeding traffic, polluting the air, and raising carbon emissions. Fiscally strapped local communities in other states are willing to take New York's garbage--if they are paid enough. Some see it as an economic bonanza. State governments, however, are saddled with increased road maintenance costs, traffic congestion, burgeoning air pollution, potential water pollution from landfill leakage, and complaints from nearby communities.

In 2001, Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore wrote to then-New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani to complain about the use of Virginia as a Wash site. "I understand the problem New York faces," he noted, "but the home state of [George] Washington, [Thomas] Jefferson, and [James] Madison has no intention of becoming New York's dumping ground."

Garbage travails are not limited to New York. Toronto, Canada's largest city, closed its last remaining landfill Dec. 31, 2002, and now ships all of its 750,000-ton-per-year garbage to Wayne County, Mich. In Athens, the capital of ancient and modern Greece, the one landfill available reached saturation at the end of 2006. With local governments unwilling to accept Athens' garbage, the city's daily output of 6,000 tons began accumulating on the streets, quickly creating a crisis. The country finally is beginning to pay attention to what European Union Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas, himself a Greek, calls the waste hierarchy, where priority is given first to the prevention of waste and then to its reuse, recycling, and recovery.

One of the more recent garbage crises is unfolding in China, where, like everything else in the country, the amount of garbage generated is growing fast. Xinhua, a Chinese wire service, reports that a survey using an airborne remote sensor detected 7,000 garbage dumps, each larger than 50 square meters, in the suburbs of Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai, and Chongqing. A huge share of China's garbage is recycled, burned, or composted, but an even larger amount is dumped in landfills (where they are available) or simply heaped up in unoccupied areas.

For a long time now, it has been said that the U.S., with five percent of the world's people, consumes one-third or more of the Earth's resources. That no longer is tree, as China now consumes more basic resources--including grain, meat, coal, and steel--than any other nation; oil being the lone exception, although that gap is closing, too. These numbers reflect national consumption, but what would happen if consumption per person in China were to catch up to that of the U.S.? Even if we assume that China's economy slows from the 10% annual growth of recent years to eight percent, then its per-person consumption levels will equal America's in just about 2030.

If we also assume that the Chinese will spend their income more or less as Americans do today, then we can translate their income into consumption. If, for example, each person in China consumes paper at the current American rate, in 2030, China's 1,460,000,000 people will need more paper than the world produces today. If we assume that there will be three cars for every four people in China, as there now are in the U.S., China will have 1,100,000,000 autos, some 240,000,000 more than the entire world today. To provide the needed roads, highways, and parking lots, China would have to pave an area comparable to what it now plants in rice. By 2030, China would need 98,000,000 barrels of oil a day. At present, the world produces 85,000,000 barrels a day.

What China is teaching us is that the Western economic model--the fossil fuel-based, automobile-centered, throwaway economy--is not going to work in Asia, or anywhere else where poor populations are striving for the American Dream. The overriding challenge for our generation is to build a new economy--one that is powered largely by renewable sources of energy, and that has a much more diversified transport system while reusing and recycling everything. We have the technology to build this new economy, but can we build it fast enough to avoid a breakdown of social systems?

Lester R. Brown, Ecology Editor of USA Today, is president of Earth Polio' Institute, Washington, D.C., and author of several books; his latest is Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization.
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Title Annotation:EYE ON ECOLOGY
Author:Brown, Lester R.
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Date:Nov 1, 2009
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