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Monday, June 26, 2006

Garbage in, garbage out

During the two years I spent working for the Tampa City Clerk’s office, I was exposed to a lot of new and different information. I learned far more than any sane person would ever want to know about the astonishing corruptness and inefficiency of the local metropolis’ government on every level, and about things like zoning, and Architectural Review Committees, and neighborhood action groups, and all kinds of crap like that.

And, I learned a fairly astonishing statistic, simply from transcribing so many reports given by the Solid Waste Department to City Council… the average American generates about 1.5 tons of garbage a year.

We whip right on by that statistic, don’t we? It causes nary a ripple to our consciousness. 1.5 tons of garbage a year… nah, that really doesn’t sound like that much. 3,000 pounds of offal and detritus we don’t want and have no use for, going into plastic bags and out to the curb for people we don’t know to haul away for us to some destination we are not aware of, per American, per year. 57.7 pounds o’ crap a week per you and you and you and you. (Probably 57.8 per me, since I throw out a lot of HeroClix packaging, at least, lately.)

8.24 pounds of shit we don’t want any more per day, per person.

Read that again. EIGHT POUNDS OF WASTE MATERIAL PER PERSON, PER DAY.

That’s the equivalent of a gallon of water, or a human head’s, worth of mass that each one of us throws away every single day.

Well, you’ll protest, there’s just no way – that’s got to be wrong. I mean, all those wrappers and hamburger cartons and paper bags from fast food places and newspapers I’ve read and… all that stuff is light! There’s no way I toss out eight pounds worth of shit each day!

And, in fact, if we go back to what I said way above, for the sake of hyperbole, when I was talking about how we pay people to haul this crap away from the curb for us and take it to someplace out of sight, and thus, out of mind, well, no, we don’t generate 8 pounds of that each day. If I generated 8 pounds of throwaway crap each day, I’d be hauling 42 pounds of garbage out to the curb, 21 pounds at a time, twice a week. I’d notice that, I’m not in very good shape.

But that’s because about half of our output of waste material each day is, well, waste. It doesn’t go into the trash can beside your recliner, under your desk, or over by the wall in the break room at work. It goes out the bottom of your commode and into the solid waste disposal system lying beneath your feet even as you read this… and said system belonging to the major metropolis I used to work for handled between 600 and 1000 tons of solid waste per day.

Don’t think your liquid waste doesn’t weigh anything, have mass, take up space, or have any environmental impact, either. It may seem like nothing when you’re flushing it away after lunch, before heading back to your cubicle. But it’s not nothing, not at all. It’s enough material that, when your power goes out and stays out and the Solid Waste department can’t get electricity to run the pumps and water pressure to flush the pipes, suddenly you and several hundred thousand people living within ten square miles of you have a serious problem.

Now, here’s the thing – no matter what you may hear, we recycle very very little of this crap. There’s no real way to get a handle on just how much or little, because, well, the people who run the recycling plants have no vested interest in being truthful about such things, and even if they were, many recycling processes generate run off wastes of their own that nobody mentions in the brochures. Still, a wildly generous estimate of how much of this garbage we find some other pragmatic use for would be 5%. That means about 2,850 pounds of trash per American per year, going… somewhere.

And that means, given that we’re around (rounding off ) 295,000,000 strong this year, so, well, that’s (yes, I have a calculator, I’m going to hit you with the figure, prepare to flinch) 840,750,000,000 pounds o’ crap going… somewhere… every year.

Eight hundred forty BILLION, seven hundred fifty MILLION pounds of garbage. Per year.

That’s 420,375,000 tons, if that makes you feel any better.

Bear in mind, it is a basic physical law (we believe) that energy can be neither created nor destroyed. Ultimately, all you can do is convert it from one form to another. All of us do this every day, when we convert a Big Mac into shit, and Pepsi, which is mostly water with certain additives, into urine, which is mostly water with other additives.

We also do this to some extent when we send some of this trash (I have no idea how much – 10%? Let’s call it that) to an incinerator. We then turn it essentially into ash and smoke and heat, much of which goes up the incinerator chimney and into our atmosphere… say half of that ten percent does this, so that’s 42,037,500,000 pounds of hot soot we put each year into the fairly thin layer of gases surrounding our planet without which life on Earth cannot continue to exist.

Where do we put all this crap that we don’t recycle? Any place where we don’t have to look at it, or smell it, on a daily basis. We burn some of it, and see above for what that does. The vastly greater part of this unimaginable mass of refuse we bury.

Now, here’s the thing. All of these impressive sounding figures don’t mean much of anything without comparison figures, like, what is the total capacity in pounds of Earth’s atmosphere? How many square feet or miles of Earth’s accessible surface area do we have to use as landfills and toxic waste dumps? How many sea bottom trenches and valleys can we fill up with crap before the oceans die? In other words, how much ecosystem do we have to tuck this crap away into?

I imagine those figures are probably available somewhere on the Web, but I have no idea how to find them. But I’m willing to admit, most likely those incredible figures I listed above as to the tonnage of trash we generate every single day don’t add up to 1% of the volume of the space we are pouring our waste materials into in that same time frame.

Maybe not even a fraction of one percent.

Here’s the other thing, though --

Most of this stuff won’t go away.

The soot we throw into our atmosphere doesn’t just vanish. It collates around suspended water molecules, and in the process, it alters weather patterns substantially, and eventually falls along with rain, and aggregates on the ground, or in our sewers, or in our water supply. It doesn’t vanish, and there really isn’t any particular place that it would be, you know, good, for burned up waste that we didn’t even want in the first place before we burned it up, to eventually accumulate in.

The heat we throw into our atmosphere doesn’t go anywhere, either, and that’s a whole different story, and one I won’t go into right now, other than to note the story in today’s paper about glaciers all over the world steadily diminishing at unheard of rates since the 1980s, and disturbing projections that human cities with populations totaling in the millions who depend on those glaciers for run off water may have to suddenly relocate, en masse, sometime in the next decade, as those vast, millenia old geological water stores simply vanish.

And while a lot of the organic trash we throw out… left over food, orange peels, potato skins, old lettuce, that crap… will rot and return some sort of value to the soil, and so will the metal cans, unless they are treated not to, still, a lot of it is man made plastic or ceramic or styrofoam, and that shit isn’t going anywhere. That shit will still be sitting, pretty much exactly as it is now, wherever it is we dumped it, ten thousand years from now when curious alien archeologists come down from Arcturus and start excavating.

My point is, however slowly we are doing it (and I have a feeling that it’s honestly not all that slowly), we are filling up a very finite amount of storage space. And when it’s full… what are we going to do with our trash then?

All of this, by the way, was brought to mind by another story I saw a while back while reading the paper, about a gigantic manure fire somewhere out West that had been burning for three months at the point I read about it and that just wouldn't go out. They couldn't simply dump a lot of water on it, because they were worried that several thousand tons of cattle shit might run off and poison the local water table. They tried scattering it around with heavy machinery, but then the smaller piles caught fire… it was, apparently, a pretty significant problem.

And it only seems like a comical one because, you know, we’re lucky enough to be way over here. This problem arose because over the past few decades, these feed lots have become big business. Farmers ship their cattle to these feed lots from all over America, where their cows are fed on high protein feed to beef them up for a couple of months before they are slaughtered. This feeding regimen apparently can generate 9 pounds of cow shit per bovine per day… and at any given time, these feed lots have up to 12,000 cows on them, eating their fool heads off.

That’s 54 tons of cow shit a day these guys have to figure out what to do with. Apparently, what they do with it is, they pile it up out behind the barn. And, since manure gives off heat, this pile of shit tends to spontaneously combust after a while.

A couple of entries ago, my good buddy Mike Norton made a comment, at the end of a blog entry on how long it had taken him to get to work one particular day due to snow-slowed traffic, that we need a plague.

Grim though it is, I’m tending to agree with him.

And I strongly suspect we’re gonna get one, too, sooner rather than later, with all this garbage lying around… not to mention the burning manure.


1 Comments:

At 11:24 PM , Blogger AaA said...

Clearly current resource management techniques are inadequate to the task of harmoniously harboring 6 billion people on this planet. Your guess is as good as mine as far as when that particular pile of shit impacts the turbines, unless your guess is never, because it can only be a matter of when, not if.

 

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