Sunday, April 15, 2012

The No Garbage Life

What would a life without garbage look like? What if you could wake up in the morning and go out into your yard to pick an apple, orange or plum to start your day? Walking back to the house you check and see some of your strawberries are ripe so you pick a few and take them inside too. No packaging or plastic bags, just a quick rinse in the sink.

How about some freshly baked granola with milk? Good thing you cooked up a batch last night with those fresh oats you bought at the farmer's market last weekend. You filled up your canvas bag with a whole pound of them and purchased some canola oil in a glass bottle that you can resuse when it is empty. The milk is fresh from the dairy down the road which also sells in glass reusable bottles.

As you are cleaning up the dishes, you remember to throw that ball of dough into the oven to bake a loaf for lunch. You bought the flour in bulk also and topped off your five pound flour jar right at the store, paying for the difference in weight. That fresh bread sure will make a nice sandwich for lunch. After you scrape your scraps into the compost bucket under the sink, you wash your dishes and think about how the dish water contributes to watering your garden vegetables since you rerouted the drains for all grey water.

A few hours later for lunch you slice up some of that fresh bread you baked earlier and cut a few pieces of the goat cheese you made last month. Topped off with some fresh lettuce from your garden and mustard seed you ground yourself, it tastes better than anything you have ever bought in a store.

Your friends from down the road are coming by for dinner and bringing a whole chicken raised on their farm that they killed and cleaned that day. You roast the chicken in your outdoor wood burning oven while you serve some of that fresh bread, butter from your own goat's milk and roasted garlic you dug out of your garden the day before. Potatoes, asparagus and fresh dill all from your garden round out your dinner.

You go to bed that night without having created even one scrap of garbage that couldn't be recycled, composted or resused in some way.

Now this vision might seem utopic to some, but why not make it the goal for which we are striving? Why do we accept the energy intensive, garbage producing, wasteful lifestyles that define 'modern' living? This is the vision of a self-sufficient lifestyle, one that can be sustained indefinitely. The lifestyle of our modern society cannot. Which one would you rather live?

Why Live Without Garbage?

How can we live our lives without creating any garbage? Or why should we want to? Because when we live the way we do, creating so much garbage, we are living unsustainably. The activities we pursue, the products we consume, the food that we eat, are all processes consuming resources faster than those resources are being replenished. This is true of the energy intensive agriculture required to fertilize, plant, harvest, process and tranport our food as well as the energy and resource intense processes to make and ship our consumer goods.

Garbage isn't the main problem (in itself it can be, and in some places is, a major issue) but garbage is a symptom. It is a symptom of the inefficiency of unsustainable processes. Whether we like it or not, the inescapable reality is that we all live on a world with limited resources. With 7 billion of us (and counting) we cannot continue to use resources as if they are unlimited. Besides possibly sunlight (see my post 'Sustainable Means What?') there are no unlimited resources. OK, maybe seawater is vast enough to be considered unlimited, but for what? Turning it into potable water takes enengy, and besides sunlight, we don't have an unlimited source of energy (a discussion of the problems with fusion energy has to wait for a future post).

More to the point, we need to improve the efficiency of all human activities to the point where they will all be sustainable. One way to do this is to minimize waste (i.e. garbage). Sometimes even this is not good enough because some other part of the process is consuming non-renewable resources such as petroleum. In this case we need to find alternative renewable resources.

But petroleum and other fossil fuels (coal, natural gas, etc.) have another strike against them. Not only will we soon (20 years for oil, 150 years for coal) have extracted and burned the easiest to reach reserves, but they contribute to global climate change. We simply cannot keep burning the same amount of fossil fuels for the next 150 years that we do today. The good news is we can't keep burning petroleum at that rate because we will run out of it soon. The bad news is humanity shows no signs of reducing the amount of coal we burn each year. In fact, we burn more coal each year than we did the previous one.

All the more reason to find alternatives. But since there is neither a simple alternative energy source nor an easy way to convert our energy infrastructure, one of the most effective interim solutions is to consume less fossil fuels. But as a whole humanity has been pretty bad at accomplishing this task. That is why I am not very hopeful that the human race will change its behavior enough to ward off environmental disaster.

So what does that mean for those of us who want to make a difference? The best answer I've come up with so far is learning how to live a sustainable, self-sufficient life. Live responsibly, live sustainably but most importantly, learn to live so that you are not dependant on any of the non-sustainable processes which will suffer crisis and ultimately break-down as the resources upon which they depend are consumed to an extent where those processes can no longer function.

My next post will be a preview of what life without garbage might look like and what that has to do with living a self-sufficent life.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Why Do We Have Garbage?

How many garbage cans do you have in your house? By average American standards I live in a modest sized house and have four (one in the kitchen, one in each of two bathrooms and on in the laundry room, mostly to collect lint from the drier). Why do we accept without question that almost every room in a house should have a garbage can? If someone told you “I have no garbage cans in my house” you would question their cleaning habits before you might question their lack of need for any.

Why is it so ingrained in our culture, in our daily activities, that we are always producing garbage? It makes sense that if you accept that fact (and simple observation confirms it) that we either live with mounds of the stuff all around us or we place receptacles everywhere (work, home, restaurants, public places) to collect the stuff and get rid of it.

But why don’t we set a goal to not create it in the first place? If I buy a product from a manufacturer that is packaged in cardboard to protect it during shipping, I can recycle the box. But what about the shrink-wrap plastic around the outside? Or the packing materials inside? Or the instructions five minutes after I read them for the one and only time that I ever will? What can I do with those? Maybe a better question to ask is why do I have them in the first place? I don’t want or need those things (this may be an over-simplification, but I think most products these days either don’t really require instructions or the manufacturer can post them online). Hey, how about a product that is so easy to use or so automated that it just works when I turn it on? But that sounds like a topic for a future blog post.

Let’s examine our food. A typical day for me might start with cereal (cardboard box with a wax bag), milk (plastic jug) and blueberries (clear plastic pint container) with a tub of yogurt (plastic tub) for breakfast. For lunch, ham sandwich (ham from plastic deli bag, bread from plastic bag) with mustard (plastic bottle), lettuce (plastic bag) and tomato (usually plastic bag, but not required, one of the few such store bought items), potato chips (plastic-aluminized bag) and an apple (like the tomato, usually from a plastic bag). Finally, for dinner a baked chicken breast (Styrofoam tray with self-stick plastic wrap), steamed broccoli (plastic bag), rice (cardboard box with internal plastic bag) and ice cream (cardboard tub).

Whew, that’s exhausting. But look at all the garbage I throw away each day just to eat my food. And I’m not even getting into table scraps, leftovers that get thrown out or that tomato that went bad in the fridge before I got around to eating it. And the amount of garbage goes up exponentially if I eat out, especially at a fast food restaurant (not only the containers I see, but those used to package and prepare the food before I get it).

I have two issues with so much garbage. One is the obvious one of running out of room to put the stuff and the resources consumed to manage it all. This includes the cost of collecting it, shipping it and finally burying it somewhere. The less obvious problem is that I’m paying money for all that packaging simply to throw it away. Now I imagine you’re saying, “But you are getting use out of the packaging before it gets disposed.” This is true, but I think we could get much more value out of our packaging than we are. In other words, as a consumer I could receive the same benefit from less packaging, which would cost me less, if the manufacturer made it a priority to minimize their packaging. “But they have financial incentive to do so,” you counter. Yes, but this is sometimes out-weighed by other incentives such as prominence on shelf displays, theft-prevention and simply misleading the customer into thinking they are purchasing more of the product than they are (case in point, cereal boxes).

Here's another question. What product do you purchase (with your hard earned money) with the express purpose of throwing it away (and in true irony, its packaging also)? Garbage can liners/bags. Does this make any sense? I expend resources (time, energy, money) to drive to the store, purchase this product and bring it home only to throw it away. Then I pay someone to pick it up from my house and drive it to a big hole in the ground and bury it. There must be a better way.

And that topic will be my next blog post.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Sustainable Means What?

Sustainable, carbon-neutral, self-sufficient and similar terms get thrown around and used somewhat interchangeably in the press and on the internet. For the purposes of this blog, I will use the term sustainable to refer to a process that can be carried out indefinitely. This can only happen when that process consumes resources slower than those resources are replenished (or at the same rate).

A simple example is collecting dead fall from the forest floor to make a camp fire to roast marshmellows. As long as you collect the wood that falls from the trees to make your fire and don't cut any live trees, you can do this for a very long time (generations, centuries, etc.) The trees will continue to grow and produce wood for your camp fires indefintely. But as soon as you collect all the deadwood and decide to start cutting down trees to burn, you have started a non-sustainable process because you are consuming the wood faster than it is being replenished.

All human activity can be examined through the lens of sustainability similar to this method. The complexity arises in the many different inputs required for most of our activities and analyzing whether each one of its resources are being consumed slower than they are being replenished.

There is one extreme example that I want to get out of the way for any critics who find issue with my definition of sustainable processes. Sunlight is for all intents and purposes a sustainable energy source even though we all know that the sun is slowly consuming its vast store of hydrogen and fusing it into helium in a non-sustainable process. I think any resonable person will agree that 4-5 billion years is such a vast amount of time beore this resource runs out that it is effectively infinite.

On the other hand, fossil fuels are not infinite in supply. We are close (10-50 years depending on who you ask) to consuming 50% of all of the easily accessible petroleum on the planet. That is a timeframe that most of us alive today will live to see. After that point (called peak oil) the demand to consume oil each year will exceed the supply, likely resulting in wild price flucuations (remember the price of oil in the summer of 2008?). This is a common response in complex systems to restricted supply of resources.

So why is all this important? If a process is not sustainable, at some point it will stop (because there will be no more resources to keep it going). In our campfire example, no more trees (think Easter Island), no more roasted marshmellows.

For all of human history our resources have been effectively infinite (like the sun's supply of hydrogen). At the end of the 20th century I belive human beings entered a new era where on a global scale we are starting to exhaust the resources upon which we depend for everything from growing our food, to generating our electricity to building our cities. History is littered with the ruins of civilizations that collapsed because of the over-consumption of local resources. For the first time in history we are going to have to contend with the consequences of over-consumption of our resources on a global scale.