Waste Not, Want Not

We've finally reached a point where we can't keep hyperconsuming—and that's a good thing.

Once a year or so, it's my
turn to run recycling day for our tiny town. Saturday morning, 9 to 12,
a steady stream of people show up to sort out their plastics (No.
1, No. 2, etc.), their corrugated cardboard (flattened, please), their
glass (and their returnable glass, which goes to benefit the elementary
school), their Styrofoam peanuts, their paper, their cans. It's quite
satisfying-everything in its place.

But it's also kind of disturbing, this waste stream. For one, a town
of 550 sure generates a lot-a trailer load every couple of weeks.
Sometimes you have to put a kid into the bin and tell her to jump up
and down so the lid can close.

More than that, though, so much of it seems utterly unnecessary. Not
just waste, but wasteful. Plastic water bottles, one after another-80
million of them get tossed every day. The ones I'm stomping down are
being "recycled,"
but so what? In a country where almost everyone has access to clean
drinking water, they define waste to begin with. I mean, you don't have
a mug? In fact, once you start thinking about it, the category of
"waste" begins to expand, until it includes an alarming percentage of
our economy. Let's do some intellectual sorting:

old-fashioned waste, the dangerous, sooty kind. You're making something
useful, but you're not using the latest technology, and so you're
spewing: particulates into the air, or maybe sewage into the water. You
wish to keep doing it, because it's cheap, and you block any regulation
that might interfere with your right to spew. This is the kind of waste
that's easy to attack; it's obvious and obnoxious and a lot of it falls
under the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act
and so on. There's actually less of this kind of waste than there used
to be-that's why we can swim in most of our rivers again.

There's waste that comes from everything operating as it should,
only too much so. If carbon monoxide (carbon with one oxygen atom)
exemplifies pollution of the first type, then carbon dioxide (carbon
with two oxygen atoms) typifies the second. Carbon monoxide poisons you
in your garage and turns Beijing's air brown, but if you put a
catalytic converter on your tailpipe it all but disappears. Carbon
dioxide doesn't do anything to you directly-a clean-burning engine used
to be defined as one that released only CO2 and water
vapor-but in sufficient quantity it melts the ice caps, converts
grassland into desert, and turns every coastal city into New Orleans.

There's waste that comes from doing something that manifestly
doesn't need doing. A hundred million trees are cut every year just to
satisfy the junk-mail industry. You can argue about cutting trees for
newspapers, or magazines, or Bibles, or symphony scores-but the cascade
of stuffporn that arrives daily in our mailboxes? It wastes forests,
and also our time. Which, actually, is precious-we each get about
30,000 days, and it makes one a little sick to calculate how many of
them have been spent opening credit card offers.

Or think about what we've done with cars. From 1975 to 1985, fuel efficiency
for the average new car improved from 14 to 28 miles per gallon. Then
we stopped worrying about oil and put all that engineering talent to
work on torque. In the mid-1980s, the typical car accelerated from 0 to
60 mph in 14.5 seconds. Today's average (even though vehicles are much
heavier) is 9.5 seconds. But it's barely legal to accelerate like that,
and it makes you look like an idiot, or a teenager.

Then there's the waste that comes with doing something maybe perhaps
vaguely useful when you could be doing something actually useful
instead. For instance: Congress is being lobbied really, really hard to
fork over billions of dollars to the nuclear industry, on the premise
that it will fight global warming. There is, of course, that little
matter of nuclear waste-but lay that aside (in Nevada or someplace).
The greater problem is the wasted opportunity: That money could go to
improving efficiency, which can produce the same carbon reductions for
about a fifth of the price.

Our wasteful habits wouldn't matter much if there were just a few of
us-a Neanderthal hunting band could have discarded six plastic water
bottles apiece every day with no real effect except someday puzzling
anthropologists. But the volumes we manage are something else. Chris
Jordan is the photographer laureate of waste-his most recent project,
"Running the Numbers," uses exquisite images to show the 106,000
aluminum cans Americans toss every 30 seconds, or the 1 million plastic
cups distributed on US airline flights every 6 hours, or the 2 million
plastic beverage bottles we run through every 5 minutes, or the 426,000
cell phones we discard every day, or the 1.14 million brown paper
supermarket bags we use each hour, or the 60,000 plastic bags we use
every 5 seconds, or the 15 million sheets of office paper we use every
5 minutes, or the 170,000 Energizer batteries produced every 15
minutes. The simple amount of stuff it takes-energy especially-to
manage this kind of throughput makes it daunting to even think about
our waste problem. (Meanwhile, the next time someone tells you that
population is at the root of our troubles, remind them that the average
American uses more energy between the stroke of midnight on New Year's
Eve and dinner on January 2 than the average, say, Tanzanian consumes
in a year. Population matters, but it really matters when you multiply it by proximity to Costco.)

Would you like me to go on? Americans discard enough aluminum to
rebuild our entire commercial air fleet every three months-and aluminum
represents less than 1 percent of our solid waste stream. We toss 14
percent of the food we buy at the store. More than 46,000 pieces of
plastic debris float on each square mile of ocean. And-oh, forget it.

These kinds of numbers get in the way of figuring out how much we
really waste. In recent years, for instance, 40 percent of Harvard
graduates have gone into finance, consulting, and business. They had
just spent four years with the world's greatest library, some of its
finest museum collections, an unparalleled assemblage of Nobel-quality
scholars, and all they wanted to do was go to lower Manhattan and stare
into computer screens. What a waste! And when they got to Wall Street,
of course, they figured out extravagant ways to waste the life savings
of millions of Americans, which in turn required the waste of taxpayer
dollars to bail them out, money that could have been spent on
completely useful things: trains to get us where we want to go-say, new
national parks.

Perhaps the only kind of waste we've gotten good at cutting is the
kind we least needed to eliminate: An entire industry of consultants
survives on telling companies how to get rid of inefficiencies-which
generally means people. And an entire class of politicians survives by
railing about government waste, which also ends up meaning programs for
people: Health care for poor children, what a boondoggle.

Want to talk about government waste? We're going to end up spending north of a trillion dollars
on the war in Iraq, which will go down as one of the larger wastes of
money-and lives-in our history. But we spend more than half a trillion
a year on the military anyway, more than the next 10 nations combined.
That almost defines profligacy.

We've gotten away with all of this for a long time because we had
margin, all kinds of margin. Money, for sure-we were the richest nation
on Earth, and when we wanted more we just borrowed it from China. But
margin in other ways as well: We landed on a continent with topsoil
more than a foot thick across its vast interior, so the fact that we
immediately started to waste it with inefficient plowing hardly
mattered. We inherited an atmosphere that could buffer our emissions
for the first 150 years of the Industrial Revolution. We somehow got
away with wasting the talents of black people and women and gay folks.

But our margin is gone. We're out of cash, we're out of atmosphere,
we're out of luck. The current economic carnage is what happens when
you waste-when the CEO of Merrill Lynch thinks he needs a $35,000
commode, when the CEO of Tyco thinks it would be fun to spend a million
dollars on his wife's birthday party, complete with an ice sculpture of
Michelangelo's David peeing vodka. The melted Arctic ice cap is what you get when everyone in America thinks he requires the kind of vehicle that might make sense for a forest ranger.

Getting out of the fix we're in-if it's still possible-requires in
part that we relearn some very old lessons. We were once famously
thrifty: Yankee frugality, straightening bent nails, saving string. We
used to have a holiday, Thrift Week, which began on Ben Franklin's
birthday: "Beware of little expenses; a small leak will sink a great
ship," said he. We disapproved of frippery, couldn't imagine wasting
money on ourselves, made do or did without. It took a mighty effort to
make us what we are today-in fact, it took a mighty industry,
advertising, which soaks up plenty more of those Harvard grads and
represents an almost total waste.

In the end, we built an economy that depended on waste, and
boundless waste is what it has produced. And the really sad part is, it
felt that way, too. Making enough money to build houses with rooms we
never used, and cars with engines we had no need of, meant wasting
endless hours at work. Which meant that we had, on average, one-third
fewer friends than our parents' generation. What waste that! "Getting
and spending, we lay waste our powers," wrote Wordsworth. We can't say
we weren't warned.

The economic mess now transfixing us will mean some kind of change. We can try to hang on to the status quo-living a Wal-Mart life
so we can buy cheaply enough to keep the stream of stuff coming. Or we
can say uncle. There are all kinds of experiments in postwaste living
springing up: Freecycling, and Craigslisting, and dumpster diving, and
car sharing (those unoccupied seats in your vehicle-what a waste!), and
open sourcing. We're sharing buses, and going to the library in greater
numbers. Economists keep hoping we'll figure out a way to revert-that
we'll waste a little more, and pull us out of the economic doldrums.
But the psychological tide suddenly runs the other way.

We may have waited too long-we may have wasted our last good chance.
It's possible the planet will keep warming and the economy keep sinking
no matter what. But perhaps not-and we seem ready to shoot for
something nobler than the hyperconsumerism that's wasted so much of the
last few decades. Barack Obama said he would "call out" the nation's
mayors if they wasted their stimulus money. That's the mood we're in,
and it's about time.

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