The Material People

January 22, 1999

By Michael Jessen

We humans use a lot of materials during the course of one day. In fact, if it were piled on our doorstep every morning our materials tally would weigh 220 pounds.

Piled at the front door are the wood in our newspaper, the chemicals in our shampoo, and the plastic in the bags that carry our groceries home. Metal in our appliances and our car -- just that day's share of those items' total lives -- are also included, as is our daily fraction of shared materials, such as the stone and gravel in our office walls and in the streets we drive on.

At the base of the pile are materials we never see, including the nitrogen and potash used to grow our food, and the earth and rock under which our metals and minerals were once buried.

This burdensome load of materials -- about the weight of a large man -- is on our doorstep the next day and the next. By month end, we will have used more than 3 tons of material, and after a year, over 39 tons.

The other 300 million North American residents are doing the same thing, day in and day out. Together we will devour more than 11 billion tons of material in a year's time.

Despite the surge of interest in recycling during the last 10 years, most materials moving through industrial economies are used only once, and then thrown away. In fact, an extraterrestrial visitor to earth could easily reach the conclusion that conversion of raw materials to wastes -- often toxic ones -- is the real purpose of human economic activity.

The growth in world-wide production of minerals, metals, wood products and synthetics has almost tripled since 1960. Iron and steel account for 85 percent of world metals production today. In 1995, 25,503 million tons of iron ore were mined, 60 percent of which became waste. (And the amount of waste does not include overburden.)

Behind the production of all the materials we use is a huge pile of waste.

An essay in the 1999 edition of State of the World -- a report on progress toward a sustainable society issued annually by the Worldwatch Institute -- calls for a complete overhaul of human materials use practices. According to the authors, society needs to shift gears with policies that steer economies away from forests, mines, and petroleum stocks as the primary source of materials, and away from landfills and incinerators as cheap disposal options.

"Instead," say Gary Gardner and Payal Sampat, "businesses and consumers need to be encouraged to reduce dependence on virgin materials and to tap the rich flow of currently wasted resources through product reuse, remanufacturing, or sharing, or through materials recycling.

"Probably the single most important policy step in this direction is the abandonment of subsidies that make virgin materials seem cheap," Gardner and Sampat add. "Whether in the form of direct payments or as resource give-aways, assistance to mining and logging firms makes virgin materials artificially attractive to manufacturers."

Like virgin materials extraction, Gardner and Sampat state, waste generation can also be substantially curtailed, even to the point of near-zero waste in some industries and cities. Some firms already report achieving near-zero waste levels at some facilities.

The city of Canberra, Australia, is pursuing a "No Waste by 2010" strategy. And the Netherlands has set a national waste reduction goal of 70-90 percent. A key instrument for meeting such ambitious goals is to tax waste in all its forms, from smokestack emissions to landfilled solids. Pollution taxes in the Netherlands, for example, were primarily responsible for a 72-99 percent reduction in heavy metals discharges into waterways between 1976 and the mid-1990's.

High landfill taxes in Denmark have boosted construction debris reuse from 12 to 82 percent in eight years, far above the four percent rates seen in most industrial countries. High deposits for refillable glass bottles in Denmark have yielded huge paybacks: return rates are around 98-99 percent, implying that bottles could be reused between 50 and 100 times.

If producers were made legally responsible for the materials they use over the entire life of those materials, they would have a strong incentive to cut usage to a minimum and to make the materials they continue to use durable and recyclable. Some 28 countries have implemented "take back" laws for packaging materials, 16 have done so for batteries, and 12 are planning similar policies for electronics. Expansion of the concept of producer responsibility economy-wide could have a profound effect on materials use.

Unless we adopt suggestions such as these, our recycling programs will have little effect on waste production and we will open our front doors each morning to face a growing, albeit imaginary, pile of materials.

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