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[GreenYes] Throwaway Economy in Trouble

-- From the latest book from Lester Brown's Earth Policy Institute, which
references a recent paper from the Product Policy Institute.
/Bill S.

>From Chapter 6. Early Signs of Decline

Lester R. Brown, Plan B 2.0: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a
Civilization in Trouble (NY: W.W. Norton & Co., 2006).

Another distinctly unhealthy economic trend has been the emergence over the
last half-century of a throwaway economy. First conceived following World
War II as a way of providing consumers with products, it soon came to be
seen also as a vehicle for 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 example, rather than washing
cloth towels or napkins, consumers welcomed disposable paper versions. Thus
we have substituted facial tissues for handkerchiefs, disposable paper
towels for hand towels, disposable table napkins for cloth ones, and
throwaway beverage containers for refillable ones. Even the shopping bags we
use to carry home throwaway products become part of the garbage flow.

This one-way economy depends on cheap energy. It is also facilitated by what
are known in the United States as municipal solid waste management systems.
Helen Spiegelman and Bill Sheehan of the Product Policy Institute write that
these "have become a perverse public subsidy for the Throwaway Society. More
and better waste management at public expense is giving unlimited license to
proliferate discards. Today these systems collect 3.4 pounds of product
waste a day for each American man, woman, and child-twice as much as in 1960
and ten times as much as 100 years ago. It is time to revamp the system so
that it no longer supports the throwaway habit." 37

The throwaway economy is on a collision course with the earth's geological
limits. Aside from running out of landfills near cities, the world is also
fast running out of the cheap oil that is used to manufacture and transport
throwaway products. Perhaps more fundamentally, there is not enough readily
accessible lead, tin, copper, iron ore, or bauxite to sustain the throwaway
economy beyond another two or three generations. Assuming an annual
2-percent growth in extraction, U.S. Geological Survey data on current
economically recoverable reserves show the world has 18 years of reserves
remaining for lead, 20 years for tin, 25 years for copper, 64 years for iron
ore, and 69 years for bauxite. 38

The cost of hauling garbage from cities is rising as nearby landfills fill
up and the price of oil climbs. One of the first major cities to exhaust its
locally available landfills was New York. When the Fresh Kills landfill, the
local destination for New York's garbage, was permanently closed in March
2001, the city found itself hauling garbage to landfill sites in New Jersey,
Pennsylvania, and even Virginia-with some of the sites being 300 miles away.
Given the 12,000 tons of garbage produced each day in New York and assuming
a load of 20 tons of garbage for each of the tractor-trailers used for the
long-distance hauling, some 600 rigs are needed to move garbage from New
York City daily. These tractor-trailers form a convoy nearly nine miles
long-impeding traffic, polluting the air, and raising carbon emissions. This
daily convoy led Deputy Mayor Joseph J. Lhota, who supervised the Fresh
Kills shutdown, to observe that getting rid of the city's trash is now "like
a military-style operation on a daily basis." 40

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, increased air pollution, noise, potential water
pollution from landfill leakage, and complaints from nearby communities.

Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore wrote to Mayor Rudy Giuliani in 2001
complaining about the use of Virginia as a dumping ground. "I understand the
problem New York faces," he noted, "but the home state of Washington,
Jefferson and Madison has no intention of becoming New York's dumping
ground." 41

Garbage travails are not limited to New York City. Toronto, Canada's largest
city, closed its last remaining landfill on December 31, 2002, and now ships
all its 1.1-million-ton-per-year garbage to Wayne County, Michigan.
Ironically, the state of New Jersey, the recipient of some of New York's
waste, is now shipping up to 1,000 tons of demolition debris 600 miles-also
to Wayne County in Michigan. 42

The challenge is to replace the throwaway economy with a
reduce-reuse-recycle economy. For cities like New York, the challenge should
be less what to do with the garbage than how to avoid producing it in the
first place.

37. Helen Spiegelman and Bill Sheehan, "Products, Waste, and the End of the
Throwaway Society," in Carolyn Raffensperger and Nancy Myers, eds., The
Networker: The Newsletter of the Science and Environmental Health Network,
electronic newsletter, vol. 10, no. 2 (May 2005).

38. Calculated by Earth Policy Institute from United States Geological
Survey, Mineral Commodity Summaries 2005 (Washington, DC: U.S. Government
Printing Office, 2005).

39. Eric Lipton, "The Long and Winding Road Now Followed by New York City's
Trash," New York Times, 24 March 2001.

40. Lester R. Brown, "New York: Garbage Capital of the World," Eco-Economy
Update (Washington, DC: Earth Policy Institute, April 2002); calculations by
author, updated with The City of New York Department of Sanitation,
"DSNY-Fact Sheet," at html/dosfact.html, updated 27
October 2003; Kirk Johnson, "To City's Burden, Add 11,000 Tons of Daily
Trash," New York Times, 24 March 2001; Lhota quoted in Eric Lipton, "The
Long and Winding Road Now Followed by New York City's Trash," New York
Times, 24 March 2001.

41. Gilmore quoted in Lipton, op. cit. note 40.

42. Joel Kurth, "N.J. Piles Demolition Trash on Michigan," Detroit News, 28
December 2004; Lipton, op. cit. note 40.

Copyright © 2006 Earth Policy Institute

Bill Sheehan, Director
Product Policy Institute
P.O. Box 48433
Athens, GA 30604-8433 USA
Tel: 706-613-0710
Email: bill@no.address

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