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Reduce Waste

An article about waste reduction success stories and ways to reduce waste in the future.

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We Can Reduce Waste with a New Materials Economy

Waste takes many forms—mountains of garbage, inefficient use of material resources, extravagant use of energy. A strong economy need not be wasteful—we can reduce waste and have a prosperous future. In fact, given the limitations of a finite planet, reducing waste may be the only way the future can be prosperous.

In this guest article, Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute and author of Plan B 2.0, gives us a tour of some successful waste reduction programs, and explores some additional ways we might reduce waste further in the future.

~    ~    ~

How to Reduce Waste with a New Materials Economy,
by Lester R. Brown, Earth Policy Institute

In nature, one-way linear flows do not survive long. Nor, by extension, can they survive long in the expanding economy that is a part of the earth's ecosystem. The challenge is to redesign the materials economy so that it is compatible with nature. The throwaway economy that has been evolving over the last half-century is an aberration, now itself headed for the junk heap of history.

Plan B 2.0
Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble

– View at –

book cover for Plan B 2.0, Lester R. Brown, 1/5/2006

"Lester Brown tells us how to build a more just world and save the planet from climate change in a practical, straightforward way. We should all heed his advice."

                  – Bill Clinton


Laying the Groundwork

The potential for reducing materials use has been examined over the last decade in three specific studies. The first—Factor Four, by Ernst von Weizsäcker, an environmentalist and leader in the German Bundestag—argued that modern industrial economies could function very effectively with a level of virgin raw material use only one fourth that of today.

This was followed a few years later by research from the Factor Ten Institute, based in France under the leadership of Friedrich Schmidt-Bleek. It concluded that resource productivity can be raised by a factor of 10 and that this is well within the reach of existing technology and management—given appropriate policy incentives.

In 2002, American architect William McDonough and German chemist Michael Braungart teamed up to coauthor a book entitled Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things. Waste and pollution are to be avoided at any cost. "Pollution," says McDonough, "is a symbol of design failure." If manufacturing processes are designed so they interlock, any unavoidable waste from one process serves as a valuable input to another.

Steel — A Waste Reduction Success Story

One of the keys to reducing materials use is recycling steel, the use of which dwarfs that of all other metals combined. Steel use is dominated by the automobile, household-appliance, and construction industries. Among steel-based products in the United States, automobiles are the most highly recycled. Cars today are simply too valuable to be left to rust in out-of-the-way junkyards.

The recycling rate for household appliances is estimated at 90%. For steel cans, the US recycling rate this decade of 60% can be traced in part to municipal recycling campaigns launched in the late 1980s.

In the United States, roughly 71% of all steel produced in 2003 was from scrap, leaving 29% to be produced from virgin ore. Steel recycling started climbing more than a generation ago with the advent of the electric arc furnace, a method of producing steel from scrap that uses only one third the energy required to produce steel from virgin ore. picture of molten steel being poured And since it does not require any mining, it completely eliminates one source of environmental disruption. In the United States, Italy, and Spain, electric arc furnaces used for recycling now account for half or more of all steel production.

Because the amount of steel embedded in a mature industrial economy is essentially fixed—the number of household appliances, automobiles, and buildings is increasing little—it is easier for these economies to get most of their steel from recycled scrap. For countries in the early stages of industrialization, however, the creation of new infrastructure products—factories, bridges, high-rise buildings, automobiles, buses, rail cars—leaves little steel for recycling.

In the new economy, electric-arc steel "mini-mills" that efficiently convert scrap steel into finished steel will largely replace iron mines. Advanced industrial economies will come to rely primarily on the stock of materials already in the economy rather than on virgin raw materials. For metals such as steel and aluminum, losses through use will be minimal. With the appropriate policies, metal can be used and reused indefinitely.

3D Products — Deconstruct, Disassemble, Divert

In recent years, the construction industry has begun deconstructing old buildings, breaking them down into their component parts so they can be recycled and reused. For example, when PNC Financial Services in Pittsburgh took down a seven-story downtown building, the principal products were 2,500 tons of concrete, 350 tons of steel, 9 tons of aluminum, and foam ceiling tiles. The concrete was pulverized and used to fill in the site, which is to become a park. The steel and aluminum were recycled. And the ceiling tiles went back to the manufacturer to be recycled. This recycling saved some $200,000 in dump fees. By deconstructing a building instead of simply demolishing it, most of the material in it can be recycled.

Germany and, more recently, Japan are requiring that products such as automobiles, household appliances, and office equipment be designed so that they can be easily disassembled and their component parts recycled. In May 2001, the Japanese Diet enacted a tough appliance recycling law, one that prohibits discarding household appliances, such as washing machines, televisions, or air conditioners. With consumers bearing the cost of disassembling appliances in the form of a disposal fee to recycling firms, which can come to $60 for a refrigerator or $35 for a washing machine, the pressure to design appliances so they can be more easily and cheaply disassembled is strong.

With computers becoming obsolete every few years as technology advances, the need to be able to quickly disassemble and recycle them is a paramount challenge in building an eco-economy.



Old Computers and Electronics
A Growing Toxic Waste Problem


Reuse Reduces Waste Compared to Recycling

Beyond measures that encourage the recycling of materials are those that encourage the reuse of products such as beverage containers. Finland, for example, has banned the use of one-way soft drink containers. Canada's Prince Edward Island has adopted a similar ban on all non-refillable beverage containers. The result in both cases is a sharply reduced flow of garbage to landfills.

A refillable glass bottle used over and over requires about 10% as much energy per use as an aluminum can that is recycled. Cleaning, sterilizing, and relabeling a used bottle requires little energy, but recycling cans made from aluminum, which has a melting point of 660 degrees Celsius (1,220 degrees Fahrenheit), is an energy-intensive process. Banning non-refillables is a win-win-win option--cutting material and energy use, garbage flow, and air and water pollution.

There are also transport fuel savings, since the containers are simply back-hauled to the original bottling plants or breweries. If non-refillable containers are used, whether glass or aluminum, and they are recycled, then they must be transported to a manufacturing facility where they can be melted down, refashioned into containers, and transported back to the bottling plant or brewery.



Recycling Article — The Benefits of Recycling at Home and at the Office


Glass Reuse vs. Recycling

Redesigning Manufacturing Processes

Even more fundamental than the design of products is the redesign of manufacturing processes to eliminate the discharge of pollutants entirely. Many of today's manufacturing processes evolved at a time when the economy was much smaller and when the volume of pollutants was not overwhelming the ecosystem. More and more companies are now realizing that this cannot continue and some, such as DuPont, have adopted zero emissions as a goal.

Another way to reduce waste is to systematically cluster factories so that the waste from one process can be used as the raw material for another. NEC, the large Japanese electronics firm, is one of the first multinationals to adopt this approach for its various production facilities. In effect, industrial parks are being designed, both by corporations and governments, specifically to combine factories that have usable waste products. Now in industry, as in nature, one firm's waste becomes another's sustenance.



Air Pollution and Water Pollution — Are Zero Emissions Goals Realistic?

Reducing Waste by Changing Paradigms

Steering Progress

Government procurement policies can be used to dramatically boost recycling. For example, when the Clinton administration issued an Executive Order in 1993 requiring that all government-purchased paper contain 20% or more "post-consumer content" by 1995 (increasing to 25% by 2000), it created a strong incentive for paper manufacturers to incorporate wastepaper in their manufacturing process. Since the U.S. government is the world's largest paper buyer, this provided a burgeoning market for recycled paper.

Leap-Frogging Technologies

New technologies that are less material-dependent also reduce materials use. Cellular phones, which rely on widely dispersed towers or on satellites for signal transmission, now totally dominate telephone use in developing countries, thus sparing them the investment in the millions of miles of copper wires that had to be made by countries that industrialized in an earlier era.

Bottled Water Blues

One industry whose value to society is being questioned by the environmental community is the bottled water industry. The World Wide Fund for Nature, an organization with 5.2 million members, released a study in 2001 urging consumers in industrial countries to forgo bottled water, observing that it was no safer or healthier than tap water, even though it can cost 1,000 times as much.

WWF notes that in the United States and Europe there are more standards regulating the quality of tap water than of bottled water. Although clever marketing in industrial countries has convinced many consumers that bottled water is healthier, the WWF study could not find any scientific support for this claim. For those living where water is unsafe, as in some Third World cities, it is far cheaper to boil or filter water than to buy it in bottles.

Phasing out the use of bottled water would eliminate the need for billions of plastic bottles and the fleets of trucks that haul and distribute the water. This in turn would eliminate the traffic congestion, air pollution, and rising carbon dioxide levels from operating the trucks.

Gold Jewelry — Ego, not Eco

A brief review of the environmental effects of gold mining raises doubts about whether the industry is a net benefit to society. In addition to the extensive release of mercury and cyanide into the environment, annual gold production of 2,500 tons requires the processing of 750 million tons of ore—second only to the 2.5 billion tons of ore processed to produce 1 billion tons of raw steel.

Over 80% of all the gold mined each year is used to produce jewelry that is often worn as a status symbol, a way of displaying wealth by a tiny affluent minority of the world's people. Birsel Lemke, a widely respected Turkish environmentalist, questions the future of gold mining, wondering whether it is worth turning large areas into what she calls "a lunar landscape." She is not against gold per se, but against the deadly chemicals—cyanide and mercury—that are released in processing the gold ore.



Gold Mining and Processing – The High Cost of Gold Jewelry

To set an honest market price for gold would mean imposing a tax on it that would cover the cost of cleaning up the mercury and cyanide pollution from mining plus the costs of landscape restoration in mining regions. Such a tax, which would enable the price of this precious metal to reflect its full cost to society, would likely raise its price severalfold.

Sin Subsidies and Carbon Taxes

Another option for reducing the use of raw materials would be to eliminate subsidies that encourage their use. Nowhere are these greater than in the aluminum industry. For example, a study by the Australia Institute reports that smelters in Australia buy electricity at an astoundingly low subsidized rate of 0.7 to 1.4 cents per kilowatt-hour, while other industries pay 2.6 to 3.1 cents. Without this huge subsidy, non-refillable aluminum beverage containers might not be cost-competitive. This subsidy to aluminum also indirectly subsidizes both airlines and automobiles, thus encouraging travel, an energy-intensive activity.

The most pervasive policy initiative to lower material use in the economy is the proposed tax on the burning of fossil fuels, a tax that would reflect the full cost to society of mining coal and pumping oil, of the air pollution associated with their use, and of climate disruption from their associated greenhouse-gas emissions. A carbon tax will lead to a more realistic energy price, one that will permeate the energy-intensive materials economy and reduce materials use. (Related Lester Brown article: Tax Shifting.)



The challenge in building an environmentally and economically sustainable materials sector is to ensure that the market is sending honest signals. In the words of Ernst von Weizsäcker, "The challenge is to get the market to tell the ecological truth." To help the market to tell the truth, we need not only a carbon tax, but also a landfill tax so that those generating garbage pay the full cost of getting rid of it and product manufacturers are properly incentivized to reduce waste in the first place.

Lester Brown is founder and president of Earth Policy Institute. He has been described by the Washington Post as "one of the world's most influential thinkers" and as "the guru of the global environmental movement" by The Telegraph of Calcutta. The above article was excerpted from Chapter 12 of his book Plan B 2.0 – Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble.  (See Grinning Planet's book review below.)

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Plan B 2.0

Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble

by Lester R. Brown


Doctors generally impress us with their knowledge of how the human body works. Similarly impressive is Lester Brown's broad knowledge of how the earth's systems work and the ills they are suffering today. Falling water tables, soil erosion, and advancing deserts threaten our agricultural lands; drinking water shortages afflict much of the world's people and threaten to affect many more in the years to come; the peaking of global oil supplies threatens the world's economy; the collapse of many of the planet's fisheries threatens one of the world's best protein sources; and global warming threatens just about everything.

Brown does not just wave his arms in the air and throw around assertions of environmental disaster — he provides the numbers to back up his claim that serious problems are at hand, and does so in a way that is easy to read and never dry or boring. Brown also spends a significant portion of the book outlining the actions necessary to reverse the unsustainable, disaster-bound course we are presently on.

We don't get much information on such subjects from the news presented to us by mainstream corporate media, and the topics don't get much play on the political stage, either. That will change, Brown points out—action on these issues cannot be delayed forever; there are deadlines that must be met for the corrective actions to have the desired effect. Right now we are behind the curve for success.

There are a few proposed solutions in Plan B 2.0—for instance, a mass conversion away from cars and back to bicycles—that will seem preposterous to most of us in the US. Of course, peak oil may make the notion seem much more reasonable in the future. And though we at Grinning Planet also worry about soil erosion and recognize the advantages that genetically modified herbicide-tolerant crops have in that regard, we would have liked to see a discussion of the potential downsides of GMOs along with the mention of their benefits.

But these are minor quibbles. Plan B 2.0 is an enormous achievement, a comprehensive guide to what's going wrong with earth's life support systems. It is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand what we face and who wants to be part of the effort to get going on solutions before nature takes care of the problems for us in a most unfavorable manner.

To purchase this book, visit the
Earth Policy Institute website

book cover for Plan B 2.0, Lester R. Brown, 1/5/2006

To purchase this book, visit the
Earth Policy Institute website


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book cover for Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, by William McDonough, Michael Braungart, 4/22/2002; click to view on Amazon dot com

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Cradle to Cradle:
Remaking the Way We Make Things

Today's "cradle to grave" manufacturing model dates back to the Industrial Revolution and casts off as much as 90 percent of the materials it uses as waste, much of it toxic. The authors argue that products and processes should be designed so that wastes and worn-out products serve as useful manufacturing inputs, not trash and pollution.


"Good house keeping practices in industries can reduce 30% of waste and thereby 30% of the cost of waste management."

— Sumith Pilapitiya


book cover for True to Yourself: Leading a Values-based Business, by Mark Albion, 7/12/2006; click to view on Amazon dot com

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True to Yourself:
Leading a Values-based Business

Many leaders of small businesses want to serve the common good, but everyday pressures can make that extremely difficult. What tools are available to lead an organization that's obligated to more than the financial bottom line? True to Yourself provides potent, practical advice for leaders looking to make their small business profitable and sustainable.

Reducing Waste

the words 'The Story of Stuff'; click to see video/animation

THE STORY OF STUFF — In this 20-minute Flash video/animation, Annie Leonard tells us the Story of Stuff---how consumer goods get made and disposed of. She visually narrates the tale with fun, quirky graphics that help illustrate concepts and keep our brains plugged in. Her goal is to disabuse us of the mantra "I shop, therefore I am," highlighting the negatives that go with our consumeristic culture: resource extraction and environmental degradation; chemicals and body burden; even personal unhappiness. At the end of the clip, we hear about a few sustainable solutions, and the companion web site continues on in that vein. Leonard occasionally exaggerates, and a few of her specifics are a bit off, but the general charges here are right on. Animation by FreeRangeGraphics. Go there


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