Waste Not, Want Not

I caught up with Ken Geiser at a workshop in Oakland, where he was delivering a talk on international chemical policy. Geiser heads the Toxics Use Reduction Institute at the University of Massachusetts and serves on committees for the United Nations and the Environmental Protection Agency. In his 2001 book Materials Matter, Geiser writes, “by paying more attention to the materials that we develop and the way in which we use them, we could pay less attention to their impacts once they are released to the environment…”
Why do materials matter?
I try to look at the whole question of materials, about the flow and about the type. When I talk about type, I ask why we end up using toxic chemicals. When I talk about flow, I talk about the waste of materials, about how we are depleting not only high-quality materials but also the capacity of our ecological systems.
Why are we using toxic chemicals?
Well, there are two answers. One: we invented them. We figured out how to break the molecules apart and develop highly reactive substances that do a lot of chemical work for us. Two: we draw a lot of what we get from metals of the earth or from petroleum. Both are heavily subsidized so that they are almost free. They’re subsidized by a lot of government programs that were put in place when we were first trying to develop these materials and the government was trying to encourage their development. In the United States under the General Mining Act, metals are essentially free. It costs something to get them out of the ground, and it costs a lot to process them, but the metal itself is free. Likewise, petroleum. Once you get it up, gasoline and fuel bears most of the cost [of discovery and processing]. So that the residuals—what’s left, and there’s a lot left—become either waste or profit. The cleverness of the early part of the 20th century was learning how to use these excess waste materials to make vast amounts of other chemicals, solvents, adhesives, plastics, fibers, and all these other things we play with.
What I’m trying to say is that we need to better manage the flow of materials, to close the loops of materials management in recycling and reuse of materials and of products. We also need to find ways to not use so much material to get the same intensity, to reduce the weight and volume of materials in order to accomplish the same task. A laptop computer is an excellent  example—it does much more for its weight and volume than older computers. And we need to build an economy around services and not materials.
Is there such a thing as a completely closed loop?
Be careful with the word “completely.” But are there closed loops? Sure. In less wealthy communities in the world, there is a huge amount of reuse and recycling. In the history of our own country, if you look at the early period, we recycled and reused a huge amount of materials. If you look at where loops are closed today, you find it has a lot to do with the materials. We recycle something like 57 percent of our iron and steel in the US. The lead acid battery system is close to completely closed; we reuse about 94 percent of the lead acid batteries. We also recycle aluminum well. Here it’s a little different because aluminum is very, very costly to process the first time but a lot less costly thereafter. We have 67 percent of aluminum cans recycled in the US. So there’s a lot of recycling going on. But where doesn’t it work? Something like 8 percent of plastic is recycled. Here we have a material that is cheap to make and more expensive to recycle.
So your proposal is…
Closing the loop, getting more value out of materials, and shifting to services.
How do you get Americans to care?
Actually, Americans care quite a bit. A surprising number of Americans are willing to separate materials and put them out in little blue bins for recycling. Now a lot of that doesn’t go to recycling. There’s still a significant amount of the stuff that your common household may put out that is turned in to a disposal site. People really do want to recycle.
Is it possible that we just use too much, that our consumption levels are beyond what our resources can support?
Consumption is a funny word—the meaning is to destroy something, but we say it to mean “use.” “The consumer uses radios and televisions.” Do we consume too much? We destroy too much, by far. Do we use too much? That is a different question. Because you could have a high materials-use society as long as you didn’t destroy. So the argument really is: can we move from a consumption society to a use society, in which you are able to use and reuse in an effective way? Can it be done? Yes. The US is built increasingly on high consumption. But if you look 50 years ago it wasn’t like that, and the US had a very lively and effective economy. This idea of destroying while using something is a very new phenomenon.
Can you imagine a future in which waste is an archaic concept?
All of us as human beings produce a certain amount of organic waste. I was in a dormitory in Sweden about a year ago that separated fecal matter from urine and the urine was collected in the basement in a separate tank and was used directly in farming operations. In the US we run it into large centralized systems, deposit everything else in the world into it, from pharmaceuticals to hair dyes to photographic chemicals, and by the time we’re done, a perfectly good waste product has become unusable. Can I see a society in which there’s no waste? I could see a society in which people respect waste and try to find out what to do with it.

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