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Yellow is the New Green
Rose George, New York Times
… In the industrialized world, most of us (except those who have septic tanks) rely on wastewater-treatment plants to remove our excrement from the drinking-water supply, in great volumes. (Toilets can use up to 30 percent of a household’s water supply.) This paradigm is rarely questioned, and I understand why: flush toilets, sewers and wastewater-treatment plants do a fine job of separating us from our potentially toxic waste, and eliminating cholera and other waterborne diseases. Without them, cities wouldn’t work.
But the paradigm is flawed. For a start, cleaning sewage guzzles energy. Sewage treatment in Britain uses a quarter of the energy generated by the country’s largest coal-fired power station.
Then there is the nutrient problem: Human excrement is rich in nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, which is why it has been a good fertilizer for millenniums and until surprisingly recently. (A 19th-century “sewage farm” in Pasadena, Calif., was renowned for its tasty walnuts.) But when sewage is dumped in the seas in great quantity, these nutrients can unbalance and sometimes suffocate life, contributing to dead zones (405 worldwide and counting, according to a recent study). Sewage, according to the United Nations Environment Program, is the biggest marine pollutant there is.
(27 February 2009)
EB contributor Carl Etnier writes:
Wow! I started working with urine diversion in the early 1990s, and seeing a New York Times op-ed promoting it strikes me as just as exciting as seeing some of the major papers starting to take peak oil seriously.
The Economist special report: Talking rubbish
… Wherever people have been—and some places where they have not—they have left waste behind. Litter lines the world’s roads; dumps dot the landscape; slurry and sewage slosh into rivers and streams. Up above, thousands of fragments of defunct spacecraft careen through space, and occasionally more debris is produced by collisions such as the one that destroyed an American satellite in mid-February. Ken Noguchi, a Japanese mountaineer, estimates that he has collected nine tonnes of rubbish from the slopes of Mount Everest during five clean-up expeditions. There is still plenty left.
The average Westerner produces over 500kg of municipal waste a year—and that is only the most obvious portion of the rich world’s discards. In Britain, for example, municipal waste from households and businesses makes up just 24% of the total (see chart 1). In addition, both developed and developing countries generate vast quantities of construction and demolition debris, industrial effluent, mine tailings, sewage residue and agricultural waste. Extracting enough gold to make a typical wedding ring, for example, can generate three tonnes of mining waste.
Rubbish may be universal, but it is little studied and poorly understood. Nobody knows how much of it the world generates or what it does with it. In many rich countries, and most poor ones, only the patchiest of records are kept. That may be understandable: by definition, waste is something its owner no longer wants or takes much interest in.
(26 February 2009)
The special resport contains other articles on rubbish, including:
You are what you throw away
Down in the dumps
The science of waste
The value of recycling
Waste and money
The truth about recycling
Leo Hickman, Guardian
With stories of old TVs ending up in Nigerian landfill sites, the collapse in demand for recycled materials, and claims that incineration is a better way to dispose of waste, there’s a growing backlash against recycling. So should we still be washing up those baked beans cans?
… recycling is undergoing a crisis of confidence. Amid stories of old televisions being sent for recycling but instead heading for Nigerian landfill sites, and popular revolts against “bin taxes” and fortnightly collections, many householders say they are beginning to lose confidence in a system that has only been in existence for the last decade. (It’s easy to forget that as recently as 2000, as much as 90% of waste in England was still being sent to landfill: in 2008, it stood at 59.9% of household waste.) Compounding this sense of anxiety is the news that the international market for recyclable commodities has taken a dive alongside the rest of the global economy, sparking headlines about piles of unsold recycled materials across the country.
… But Ward also wants us all to ask some broader, deeper questions about our whole “cradle-to-grave” waste economy. The waste industry has been talking about the so-called “waste hierarchy” for decades – the mantra that places waste prevention as the first goal followed, in descending order, by minimisation, reuse, recycling, energy recovery and, finally, disposal – but it has still not yet fully met these words with deeds. After all, it is now almost 50 years since the US social critic Vance Packard wrote about the excessive waste produced by western consumerism (principally, how we are all encouraged to buy things we don’t need) in his landmark bestseller The Waste Makers – the Silent Spring of the waste world – and still we have yet to fundamentally heed his warnings.
“We need a manufacturing system that uses far more recycled materials,” says Ward. “We need to tackle planned obsolescence.”
(26 February 2009)