Today I'm going to talk about something important, and dear to all our hearts, municipal solid waste.... What? Where are you going? No! Don't run away! Stop! Come back! You need to hear this; I promise it will be interesting.
Well, ok, I can't promise that. It's hard to get excited about trash. But I can promise it's important. It affects every aspect of your daily life and may have a larger effect in the future.
That's the problem with the small, unsexy things in life--it's often the minutiae that matters. And waste certainly is that. It is, by definition, something that's unwanted or not thought about. It only holds our attention for as long as it takes up to get rid of it. But waste is an ever present aspect of human life; it always has been. We've been leaving garbage behind ever since we stood upright. That's often how we know so much about ancient societies--by going through their old dumpsites. The only thing more excited than a raccoon discovering garbage, is an archaeologist. Centuries from now some grad student will come across trash that we threw out without a second thought, carefully excavate and examine it, make all sorts of inductions about how we lived and what we valued, and write an arduous thesis about us. What an invasion of privacy, but we'll probably be a bit past caring.
But anyway, getting back to my topic, municipal solid waste is the garbage the residential and commercial sectors create. The Environmental Protection Agency defines it as "everyday items we use and then throw away, such as product packaging, grass clippings, furniture, clothing, bottles, food scraps, newspapers, appliances, paint, and batteries. This comes from our homes, schools, hospitals, and businesses."
(Courtesy of the U.S. EPA)
Yawn. What's so exciting about that? Well, a peculiar alteration occurs when an object moves from our lives to our trash can; it changes from being an active component in society to being, well, dead. When material is transformed into waste it becomes something useless. It ceases to have meaning for us except as a burden.
That's too bad, because a lot time, knowledge, and sweat went into creating what is now a cost or liability. A tremendous amount of energy goes into making even a small, unremarkable thing. Take, for example, the ubiquitous cotton t-shirt. The energy that goes into processing the raw cotton into fibers and manufacturing the shirt is around 40 MJ. That's enough energy to run a 60 watt bulb for more than 185 hours, or 7.7 days, straight. That still might not seem like much, but let's keep in mind what that doesn't consider.
How about the cotton crop itself. In terms of energy, in the U.S., growing and producing one metric ton of spun cotton fiber takes about 25,600 MJ, the vast majority of that going into cultivation of the plant. Per men's t-shirt, that's about 93 MJ . That same metric ton releases about 6 kilograms of net CO2 and uses about 7 1/2 acres of land. Moreover, the process is also water intensive; it can take well over 700 gallons of fresh water to grow the cotton for one just one t-shirt. And none of this looks at the transportation costs, the use choices of the end consumer, or the product's end of life management.
When waste enters a landfill, not to be recovered by reuse, recycling, composting or even waste-to-energy combustion, it has effectively lost its economic or productive value. Worse, it may cause economic or environmental harm. Hopefully during its life it has served some positive purpose but we all know that often it has not.
There is some good news about municipal solid waste. For the first time in the U.S. in the last 50 years growth in annual generation seems to have leveled off, with per capita generation peaking in 2000.
That's plenty to get happy about--though less bad isn't good enough. Besides, these figures hide some strong internal divisions. Waste management programs and rates vary widely depending on where you live (e.g. urban vs. rural). We've also gotten pretty good at recovering certain materials and products while we're still really struggling with others. I'll take up the second situation, namely apparel waste, and my work to alleviate it, in a later post.
- Zach Swick