January 25, 2009 | General

Climate Change Connections: Prop Up The New

BioCycle January 2009, Vol. 50, No. 1, p. 44
Sally Brown

In my last column, I tried to get across that government had to reassume an aggressive and highly visible role of environmental stewardship via direct action and by public education. This is a really important point and this is a really critical time both from an environmental perspective, as well as in terms of social opportunities to take action. In my case, this translates into me ranting about this for one more column in the hope that I get other people ranting too. I’ve already gotten two emails on the last one, so this is a good sign.
Why is this a good time? Well, we’ve just had an election that signals that the public is ready for major change, and the economy is in the toilet – both excellent reasons to take drastic steps. The problem is that with the economy in the toilet, many governmental agencies are looking at this as a time to hang on by the skin of their teeth – cutting programs and certainly not starting any new initiatives. How can you talk about greenhouse gases and an increase in the solid waste tax when people are having a hard time making rent?
But in fact this is the time. We are going through pain. How about making this pain for gain instead of pain to maintain a status quo that doesn’t work? How about instead of using old tools that haven’t worked in the past, we try some new ones? How about we use a vision of what we’d like to be as a basis for determining spending priorities and budget cuts? I am not suggesting that we put all our money on one horse, on some great white hope (cold fusion, remember that one?). What I am saying is that there is a large amount of preexisting knowledge about alternative technologies that can help us on the way to be the society we want to be. This is the time to invest in those new technologies, not on attempting to repair those old broken ones.
This is the time to look at the bottom line using a broader perspective. We have new tools like lifecycle analysis and environmental accounting. This is the time to realize and take action on the fact that while weekly collection of a single trash bin may cost $2.43 per household on one level, the costs to society are much greater and the benefits much lower than alternatives (which we can start turning into everyday practice by sometime next month).
What lenses should we use to make decisions about the future? Well, one thing is clear. Resources aren’t as plentiful as they used to be and more people want their fair share of the shrinking pot. This suggests that what we used to consider as garbage needs to be reevaluated. Garbage has the seeds of new products at reduced costs; it also has embedded energy and nutrients. Taking advantage of the value of garbage also reduces the amount of garbage generated in the future; it reduces the amount of energy needed to make new products.
So here is the message to the government person in charge of solid waste: Instead of thinking of what a bargain that $2.43 per household per week is (which includes the collection and tip fee at the landfill), and instead of listening to the landfill guy talking about carbon storage, think of the bigger picture. Think of the EPA WARM lifecycle model. Think of the climate impact assessments that have been done by other municipalities and states (David Allaway at Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, is an excellent source of information on this). Think of the COOL2012 campaign. You will quickly realize that that one bin and one landfill is costing you a whole lot more than $2.43.
If you take that step and start creating the additional infrastructure required to divert material from the landfill, it may cost you $3 to $4 per household. But look at what you get in return. You get new jobs, new industries, environmental benefits and increased sustainability. Using lifecycle analysis and full environmental accounting, you can realize that you are saving money from the get go. And over a more extended time frame, you get to save more money, big money. You even get to make money in new ways that will get more profitable over time.
This doesn’t mean that you need to put landfills out of business. Just like our government had/has the potential to ask/demand the Big Three to make fuel-efficient vehicles, municipalities can make it clear that landfills need to diversify. Become recycling centers, compost facilities, anaerobic digestion hubs, and to an increasing limited extent, continue to landfill a portion of what they collect. If they can operate a sanitary landfill, these new demands will be a minor challenge.
Right now, recycling markets are hurting as a dip in demand for new materials has taken a toll. But if we think about this, it is pretty obvious that plastics come from oil. Oil is going to run out, not so long after I start collecting Social Security. It is also obvious that paper does grow on trees. Trees are something that we are very good at cutting down and we are only gradually realizing they have a lot of value while standing up. This is a short-term dip. This is the time to subsidize use of recycled products – this is a way to guarantee growth of new industries.
We have just watched the federal government try to bail out the banks and the auto industries. These are potentially necessary efforts but done out of desperation and without a complete plan. We are propping up the old without demanding the changes to make the old viable for a new age. I would suggest that it is time to prop up the new so we are ready to enter this new age standing. We are down right now. With proper planning, a broad vision, courage and appropriate choices, we can get up standing taller than ever before.
Sally Brown – Research Associate Professor at the University of Washington in Seattle – is a member of BioCycle’s Editorial Board, and authors this regular column on the connections of composting, organics recycling and renewable energy to climate change. E-mail Dr. Brown at

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