August 10, 2007


AE posted the following in a comment to the blog:

How to answer the question, what is more sustainable, leather from cows who emit carbon gas and drink like 200 gallons of water a day and ruin land, or, plastic, which never degrades? Where are the value judgment reports on such things?

This is the kind of question that most parents with any kind of environmental consciousness -- and maybe most people in general -- are asking themselves these days, in different forms. It's a huge part of the disposable vs. cloth diaper question, for instance.

I have an answer in my own mind, which I'd like to share, at the risk of taking this blog way off message.

There are various kinds of pollution: air pollution, water pollution, soil pollution. And there are various kinds of losses: loss of topsoil, loss of wilderness and forest, loss of animal life (i.e. fish populations), loss of human life and health. All of these are bad, right? But some are reversible. Fish populations are way down, but if we get smart, they will be able to rise again. The things that worry me are the non-reversible losses of something that is definitively valuable.

If Elliot gets a high level of lead in his system because of a nearby factory emitting something into the air or the water, that affects his brain development, and it's completely irreversible. And BAD -- the value of Elliot's brain, to me, is inestimably high. He is affected and I am affected.**

Or take my car. It puts a bunch of CO2 into the atmosphere. We don't know how to take it back out again. And everyone is affected; everyone values and shares the atmosphere, an item of which (like Elliot) we have only one.

But you know what has relatively minor effects? A landfill. Compared to every other kind of environmental impact I can think of, a properly constructed landfill is largely innocuous.

Will plastic in a landfill affect Elliot's brain? Break an ecosystem? Change the climate? Vacate the oceans? Cause our topsoil to run into the sea? No. It just costs some money, and some land. (Which we can eventually use again.) (Some landfills do leak -- those should be fixed or removed.)

So my basic position, as someone proud to be an environmentalist, is that we need to do a LOT MORE about Every Single Environmental Issue . . . except landfills.

In "The Skeptical Environmentalist", Bjorn Lomborg calculates that the entire trash-dumping requirements for the United States through the next 100 years could be met by a single landfill of 18 square miles. However controversial that book has been, the landfill number has not been challenged, as far as I know. (Maybe MAC can correct me here.) 18 square miles, while large, is actually an impossibly tiny piece of America. Anyone who has driven across the country knows that the continent is, in real terms, basically empty. 85% of Nevada is owned by the federal government, mostly because no one has ever been able to think of a use for it. You could hide the 18-mile landfill somewhere in America, and, not knowing where it was, a person might spend 10 years driving around the country and never find it.

So that's my deeply felt answer to your deeply felt question. The paper vs. plastic, reduce/reuse/recycle media blitz is more or less a carny sideshow, while the real environmental crises are happening under our noses, and being ignored. (For example, American farmers continue to raise their crops in such a way that the runoff creates a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico the size of New Jersey. It's right there in the Times.)

Having said these heresies out loud, I'm going into hiding (somewhere in America).


** Check out Bill Bryson's "Short History of Nearly Everything" for a fascinating (seriously) chapter on all things lead. Today Americans have 625 times as much lead in their blood as they did a century ago. Atmospheric lead levels are 200 times higher.


Sheree said...

Hi Brandon. I appreciate your rant. I'm definitely sympathetic to the complaint against American industrial farming practices. The landfill issue is less simple than you describe. Landfills leak, outgas (methane--which can and should be recaptured), and are filled with toxic chemicals and heavy metals (lead, mercury, etc.) Some of our trash (mine for example) is actually burned in waste to energy facilities which have their own polluting impacts.
However, I agree that the first thing to look at is the source. I choose leather because I see it as a byproduct of the beef industry. I don't eat red meat, so I don't contribute much to that problem, but I do help reduce the waste stream. Tanning leather has its own consequences, which ought to be considered. The production of plastic requires drilling for and shipping oil long distances, refining the crude into usable feedstock, factories which emit high levels of pollutants like dioxin, and shipping the finished product overseas again. The working conditions overseas should also be a consideration.
So, I agree that we should take a careful look at the source of our consumption. But you're dead wrong about the reduce/reuse/recycle craze. That's the only way to have an impact on the production stream which is really the major source of air, water, and soil contamination and that's true for both synthetic and natural products.

Sheree said...

ps. As long as I'm ranting back, I have one more issue to add. If you really have energy to explore the consequences of your consumer choices, consider the political impact. What is your government willing to do to protect or advance the interests of the corporations that make those products? Will it involve the overthrow of a sovereign nation, death of the citizens, and blanketing the landscape with persistent defoliation chemicals, heavy metals, landmines, and radioactive ammunition?

Michelle said...

As a person who spends their worklife (and dissertation life) dealing with problematic environmental disasters and contamination resulting from faulty operations at sites, I mightily disagree with your assessment of landfills not being worthy of our time and attention.

The issue, I think, is whether you are more concerned with global environmental problems, or local ones (or like me, both). Local ones seem to directly affect our quality of life more significantly; landfills and other industries are examples of such problems. Other environmental concerns, like hypoxia in water bodies, are more of a global issue (although hypoxia is actually a naturally occurring phenomenon of influxes of overnutrient rich compounds which accelerate the growth of algae in water bodies, and IS exacerbated by anthropomorphic activities). Both global and local issues seem, in part, to be the result of “environmental myopia”, and too often we are reactive instead of proactive dealing with them.

Landfills, in some Elysian fairyworld, would not be problematic if the were engineered, constructed, operated, and regulated properly…and if there were not chemical reactions occurring in the debris deep in the waste cells every second of every day. Unfortunately, if you go to the Superfund website, there are over 4000 sites listed if you do a search for “landfill”. These are non-innocuous sites that are leaching into unconfined aquifers and destroying our drinking water (in theory, a rechargeable resource, but which takes hundreds of years to filter out the contaminants going into them), emitting noxious and toxic compounds into the air and posing public health threats from inhalation exposure, and contaminating surface soils from poorly contained surface water runoff. Many, many landfills catch fire and emit carcinogenic dioxins and other toxic compounds when the waste burns (particularly plastics). Accidental fires at landfills and the uncontrolled burning of residential waste are the largest sources of dioxin emissions in the United States. I would argue that some kinds of landfills, like construction and demolition debris landfills, which are poorly regulated, are of special concern because “inert wastes” previously thought to be harmless, like drywall, break down to emit hydrogen sulfide gas and other reduced sulfur compounds that can be very dangerous (one site I worked on had emissions at the “immediately dangerous to life and health” designation 10 feet from where we watched two children fishing). We are fighting a tough fight to get more stringent controls for these sites, and to establish a national standard for hydrogen sulfide emissions to allow enforcement agencies more “regulatory teeth” to mitigate these problems.

Mr. Lomborg's landfill calculation is laughable. 18 square miles? How high (to the stratosphere)? How deep? Perhaps to understand his logic I would have to see his assumptions, but they are clearly flawed in my reckoning. For example: the amount of trash from the 2005 hurricanes alone resulted in over 118 million cubic yards of debris-in a single year. There are 1760 yards in a mile, so you do the math. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita left 87,000 square miles of debris in parts of Louisiana, Alabama, Arkansas, Texas, Mississippi and Florida (an area roughly the size of Great Britain…a wee bit larger than the state of New Jersey).

Furthermore, land is a finite resource. It is delusional to think you can reuse land that is emitting toxic gases and/or has gross soil contamination a foot or two below the surface of the ground (there is many a developer that thought it prudent to build a school or daycare on such a property). You would be amazed at what a hundred year old landfill is still doing chemically.

Interestingly, I would tell you not to worry about Elliot’s lead exposure unless he is eating pre-1978 paint chips or working in a smelter or metals refinery. Lead standards are fairly stringent, and lead levels in the atmosphere have declined significantly (over 93%) since lead was banned in paint (1978) and gasoline (1996). Not sure how blood lead was measured a hundred years ago using a reliable measurement technique or in a population large enough to have any statistical power, or how it could possibly compare to modern measurement methods and surveillance…but I kind of doubt it is worse today, given the fact that there were exceedingly few occupational safeguards to speak of then, people deliberately ingested it as folk remedies for everything under the sun, used it as an additive to makeup, glazes, paints…you name it. This is a humorous and pithy read on the topic at: Blood lead levels documented in NHANES surveillance studies of the US population have declined somewhere around 80% in the past 30 years. I would argue that things are better on the lead exposure front, rather than worse. In more developed countries, at least.

The cow issue…and plastics. Cost vs. benefits. On one hand, we all know that cows are helping destroy the atmosphere with their methane rich super-poop/toots (my mama talk here)…but human ingenuity may turn that lemon into lemonade. People are starting to methane farm, using biogas to create electricity. Plastics take gazillion years to biodegrade…so we create plastics with PLA or PSM (derived from corn) that can biodegrade.

Anyhoo, way too much to discuss in a blog, but a worthy topic, to be sure. My take-environmental controls are getting more stringent. People have the luxury of being less tolerant of environmental contamination (the population as a whole is not as reliant on industry for their livelihoods), so things are changing. For the better. I don’t consider myself an environmentalist (that denotes some sort of activism). But I do see the stupidity of pissing in my own Cheerios, and do my best to address these issues in my life and my work. Choices you make in your life should be informed, whatever they end up being. I buy Gillian leather shoes. We eat cows, and there is skin from the hide to make pretty shoes. Lucky me that I have that choice.

Brandon said...

Lomborg's hypothetical landfill is 100 feet high. The math:

18 miles on a side = 31680 yds.

Volume of 18 miles x 18miles x 100 feet (33yds) = 33.4 billion cubic yards. (That's about 283 Katrinas -- but I think we should also consider the destruction of a city as a fairly unusual event.)

Kelli said...

The Skeptical Environmentalist himself, Bjorn, is coming to Chicago Sept. 6, if you're interested: