A fantastic photographic journey through the reverse supply chain from Shanghai Scrap. This is how we close the material resource loop. Today, anyway. No doubt it can be made more efficient in the future if we design for this portion of the product lifecycle from the beginning. Apparently 40% of China’s copper production comes from recycling, and the shredded automobiles whose residues we use to cover our landfills? Their fist sized metal bits are sorted here. Wow.
A great series on the recycling industry in China from the writer of Shanghai Scrap. We need to build a closed-loop material economy, and there are pieces of it around today. This is one of them. Mountains of fist-sized shards of shredded cars, sorted manually by women who are earning more than your average Chinese college grad. Amazing photos.
Why are labels so attractive? One word shortcuts for frugal thinkers. Am I a freegan? What would that mean exactly? Who curates the definitions of our cultural -isms?
Reading through the Wikipedia article on Freeganism (which is as close to a cultural consensus on anything as I think we get these days), it seems like I’m close. Except that I’m not fundamentally opposed to eating meat (it’s the environmental degradation, antibiotics resistance, health detriments, and massive resource consumption involved in meat production that get to me… but a little free meat from the dumpster? Tasty!). I also have a soft spot for shiny new laptops and other information technologies, and I believe in the greed based toolkit of money, markets, and open competition as a way to foster innovation. But I also love composting, and creative re-use, and free non-materialist forms of entertainment and recreation like reading, and writing, and cooking from scratch, and I believe that unmitigated greed, and thus so-called laissez-faire (or perhaps in many cases more accurately crony) capitalism, left unchecked, are in the end destructive forces. Greed and self-interest are kind of like dynamite: the right amount in the right place is a wonderful tool. Too much, or even small amounts in bad places, and you’ve got a mess. So how do I respond to an e-mail like this:
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:
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:
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:
Somehow, in the course of watching this talk by Orville Schell on China and long term thinking, I was finally struck by the potential consequences of really doing Cradle to Cradle design, and scaling up renewable energy. It would mean the possibility of material autarky. Today a swarm of idle container ships hovers around Singapore, because of a little recession. If we completely weaned ourselves off of non-renewable resources, if we closed the world’s landfills, any nation could check out of the world’s material economy. What would still flow? Renewable resources, like food, and non-food agricultural products, and to some degree water. Labor might also flow, if its price were significantly different in different places — or maybe the stuff would flow to the cheap hands — but more likely I think, those labor price imbalances would “relax to equilibrium” in time. You’d still get material flows happening if there were, on balance, growth happening: new buildings, bridges, dams, etc., or if the material were being re-distributed around the world (dismantling eastern Europe to build a booming Turkey?). Most important, information would flow. Processes and technology would be developed, and then implemented in new places, without any container ships at all. How much would culture flow? Would this help or hinder the preservation of our polyglot planet?