There’s no place like “away”

Most things we buy are trash before we even get to know them well.  Paul Hawken estimates (Natural Capitalism, p. 81) that only about 1% of the mass which we mine, harvest, or otherwise extract is still playing a useful role in the economy 6 months later. The other 99% is made up of either inherently consumable, unsustainable goods like coal, consumable but potentially renewable goods like food (depending on what we do with our sewage), or just plain waste, cast aside in the course of manufacturing, or “saved for later” in some landfill.  Within the waste category, the overwhelming majority of the mass is stuff we never see, like the 20 tons of mine tailings and associated cyanide leachate that are generated in the making of each gold wedding band.  In some cases the right category is unclear.  Was the 800 gallons of 25,000 year old Laurentide ice sheet meltwater that got pumped out of the Ogalalla Aquifer to produce the cheeseburger Michelle and I split at Lucky Baldwin’s on Tuesday really waste?  It was non-renewably extracted, but then mostly evaporated harmlessly into the atmosphere.  Of course there’s also all the stuff we normally think of as garbage, that we wheel out to the curb each week.  If you live in Pasadena or Glendale, or many of the other cities at the feet of the San Gabriels, that garbage is now in the Scholl Canyon landfill, in the hills just to the west of the Rose Bowl:

Scholl Canyon Landfill

If you lost your virginity at Caltech, this is probably where the condom is today.  All the red plastic party cups you ever used at Munth parties are keeping it company, and the styrofoam cup noodle containers and plastic wrappers from your late night Maruchan ramen binges.  And the enormous stack of old class notes you didn’t have time to burn or recycle when you left.  All the leftover crap from you Ditch Day stack is buried here too.  And not just yours, but decades worth of Caltech students.  There really is no such place as “away”.  If you take a closer look it doesn’t look so bad really:

Scholl Canyon Landfill Closeup

Zooming in, you’ll see only a tiny area of actual garbage, where the trucks were working the day the picture was taken.  The rest of the landfill just looks like a construction site, because each night, they’re required to cover the garbage up.  In California, about half the time landfills are covered with dirt.  The rest of the time, we use what’s euphemistically called “alternative daily cover” or ADC.  ADC is anything that you’re allowed to cover a landfill with, that isn’t dirt.  In 1989, California passed a law (the California Integrated Waste Management Act, AB 939) creating the California Integrated Waste Management Board, and mandating that all cities in California had to divert 50% of their landfill waste by the year 2000.  When you use something as ADC it counts as having been “diverted”, even if you never would have sent it to the landfill before.

Among the things which qualify as ADC are sewage sludge, ground up tires, construction and demolition waste, compost, “green material”, and my personal favorite, the residue of shredded automobiles:

One result of this legal structure is that cities have been provided with an incentive to bury our yard clippings in landfills, where their biologically useful nutrients will be sequestered in largely anaerobic conditions for centuries.  Another is that most of the non-ferrous metals, glass, plastics, and other little bits of cars are being thrown away instead of scrapped for parts or metals.  I have a hard time believing that the average citizen would consider these things “diverted” from the landfill.  I certainly don’t.

It is a decent approximation to say that we have a once-through economy.  We rapidly extract, briefly use, and then semi-permanently discard most resources.  Some things, like water, will recycle themselves, and we don’t hold that against them, but we put very little effort into reducing the throughput of our resource systems by making things durable and repairable, and only a tiny proportion of our resource stream ends up being recycled at all.  With the exception of metals like copper, aluminum, and steel, most “recycling” is really down-cycling: a plastic milk jug gets used one last time as carpet padding or a fleece jacket, before it finally heads to the landfill.  It doesn’t have to be this way.  In fact, in the fullness of time, it has to be some other way, because material resources are finite, and as any petri dish of E. coli can tell you, exponential growth can’t go on for very long in a finite medium.  As soon as you can see the edges of the dish, the party is over.  Some people like to give Thomas Malthus and Paul Ehrlich a hard time because they’ve been wrong about population, and resource constraints in general, but those people are deluding themselves.  Malthus and Ehrlich just haven’t been right yet.  That might seem like a subtle (or even spurious) distinction, but it’s easy to be quantitatively wrong and qualitatively right about non-linear dynamics.  They have the overall system dynamic right, but have proved mistaken about the slopes or exponents in question.  Once the concentration and magnitude of the resources in our landfills exceeds those which still exist in nature, our economy, even as we have it structured today, will change its behavior, and we will begin re-mining what we once thought of as wastes.  Our economy will eventually become a closed loop, if it does not entirely destroy us, because we are ingenious and flexible under pressure.  Given that we are going to have to figure this out eventually, what possible excuse is there for not figuring it out now?  For not figuring it out before we have despoiled the world?

When someone says it isn’t possible, they are in effect saying either that human civilization is doomed, or that they’d rather not take responsibility for their own actions, and would prefer to leave the cleaning up and the figuring out to their children, or grandchildren.  The former might conceivably be true, but I don’t think it’s a very good strategic position to assume with any confidence, lest it become a self fulfilling prophecy.  The latter is completely irresponsible and should not be tolerated in a civil society, as it amounts to a kind of inter-generational abuse.  There is also a weasel-worded middle ground, that says we aren’t yet capable of constructing a sustainable economy, and that more research and technology is needed first.  This also might be true, but unless we make an honest effort, and do now what we can do now, we’ll never realize at what point sustainability becomes possible.  If shredding cars to cover our landfills doesn’t count as an honest effort, what does?