There’s certainly no shortage of information out there concerning ‘going green’ has become one of the biggest buzzwords in business, school, and frankly just about every industry and institution in the world. You can find advice everywhere you turn, from the print media and all across the internet.
From countries around the world to our family and friends next door, ‘going green’ is a much talked about topic. World leaders meet and discuss climate warming and ways to reduce carbon dioxide levels, state and local governments plan ways to reduce greenhouse gases, many individuals recycle plastic bottles and cardboard. Businesses have jump on the going green bandwagon. Many big organizations have even created a spot in their flow charts for an executive level green position.
All of this leads us to some serious questions, questions that require some definite answers:
• How is ‘going green’ defined?
In order to go green we should have some idea of what “going green” means. There are many different definitions found on Google that it is hard to decide which is the best. In reality, the following is a combination pulled from a number found on Google.
“Going green” is the act of curbing harmful effects to the environment by consciously changing our behaviors, beliefs, practices and lifestyles.
In 2003, Daniel K. Benjamin, Professor of Economics at Clemson University, and a senior associate of the Political Economy Research Center published an essay titled “Eight Great Myths of Recycling.” Dr. Benjamin wrote, “About twenty years ago in 1987 American’s view of trash changed swiftly and radically.” What caused this change? Why were state and federal officials up in arms over the interstate transportation of garbage and trash?
On March 22, 1987, the tugboat Break of Dawn, left Islip, New York, pulling the garbage barge Mobro 4000, containing over 3,100 tons of garbage for its final destination of Morehead City, North Carolina. North Carolina had begun a pilot program to turn garbage into methane. At Morehead City the garbage was to be turned into methane. No big deal, this happened every day. The City of New York shipped out 25,000 tons of garbage that it had no room for.
Once the barge arrived at Morehead City though things turned difficult. North Carolina officials asked New York City to certify that there wasn’t any toxic hazardous waste on-board. NYC replied that probably there wasn’t. North Carolina officials refused to allow the barge to dock and turned the barge away. The barge proceeded to travel down the East Coast to Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas and Belize, being denied entry to docks, before ending up back in New York. Even the Mexican Navy wouldn’t allow the barge in Mexican waters.
After traveling thousands of miles at a cost of almost 1 million dollars NYC ended up inspecting the barge and found no toxic waste and incinerated the trash and buried the ashes in the Islip landfill.
• So are we running out of landfill space?
So what does this have to do with ‘going green’? In the late ‘80s federal, state and local governments realized that many landfills were running out of space for their trash. The Mobro 4000 embarrassment forced officials to question the transferring of trash from state-to-state. Another result was the push to ‘go green.’
By 1995, many Americans were worried about running out of landfill space “to put its garbage and that our household trash could become tomorrows the next toxic waste problem,” according to Dr. Benjamin. Further, Bailey wrote (Bailey, 1995) “surveys showed that Americans thought trash was our number one environmental issue and 77 percent felt that increased recycling of household trash was the solution.” Yet, Dr. Benjamin stated that these claims were based on misinformation and fear. Due to a fear of a garbage crisis and the misleading truth about the Mobro 4000 he wrote that the American public had “lost their sense of perspective on rubbish.”
For years, the EPA and everyone from Al Gore to author Isaac Asimov wrote that the United States was running out of landfill space. According to Dr. Benjamin, the United States has more than enough landfill space for all of our trash. Even going to the point that all of our trash, for the next century, would fit into a 10 square mile area with room to spare. Hauling trash from one state to another has become a money making situation for states that receive trash. Currently 47 states export garbage to 45 different states.
Okay, so if our trash isn’t going to bury us, then it must be something else, let’s look at
• Are landfills harmful to our health?
It’s hard to say whether or not landfills are harmful to us. Many worry about the
Methane emissions that are produced, how it affects the air we breathe. Others worry about landfill leachate, which is a fluid that drains to the bottom of landfills. They worry that this fluid will seep into our groundwater tables, contaminate local streams and nearby wells. The EPA has found little evidence that landfills cause cancer and other illnesses.
Yes, older landfills could be a problem, mostly due to their locations. Many were built in swampy areas to fight mosquitoes. Most problems with older landfills stem from illegal dumping of hazardous waste.
Modern day landfills are created with a foundation of dense clay, covered with special heavy-duty liners, followed with several layers of sand or gravel. As trash is laid down it is covered everyday with dirt. Collection tubing is used to capture Methane gas for transfer to power plants and leachate is collected and sent to wastewater plants for treatment. So it doesn’t look like we are going to get sick from our landfills many the packaging is the problem.
• But is packaging really the problem?
All of those blister packs that contain everything from light bulbs to fishing reels to the packaging for red meat, sausages, to chicken and much more are filling up the landfills. According to Ackerman, Rathje and Miller one-third of landfill waste is packaging. (Ackerman 1996 Rathje and Miller 1992, 216–19)
Yet again, Dr. Benjamin states that “contrary to popular belief, packaging is actually reducing waste.”
How can this be? Simple, companies are making their packages lighter. During the 70’s and 80’s packaging dumped in landfills rose dramatically while the weight of those packages dropped by 40 percent. Ackerman, Rathje and Miller report that “the average American household generated a full one-third less than does the average household in Mexico.” (Rathje and Murphy 1992, 216–19 Ackerman 1996)
Over the last 25 years the weight of individual packages has dropped 30 percent for 2-liter bottles to 70 percent for plastic bags. Aluminum cans now weigh 40 percent less than in the 70’s and 80’s.
So if packaging isn’t the issue then it must be something else. Let’s take a look at achieving landfill independence.
• We must achieve landfill independence.
Earlier Dr. Benjamin wrote that at the time of his paper there were 47 states exporting trash and 45 states importing it. He went to report “that 10 percent of the nation’s municipal solid waste is moved in interstate trade. This interstate trade in trash is estimated to raise our country’s wealth by as much as 4 billion dollars each year.” (Benjamin 2002 Ley, Macauley, Salant 2002 Ward 1999). Plus, transporting trash across state lines is no more risky than any other product.
Well, then if the interstate movement of trash is cash friendly then maybe we look at the irreplaceable resources that are used when we don’t recycle.
• Do we really squander natural resources if we don’t recycle?
Popular opinion states that we live on a planet with limited resources. With a rapidly growing population we must run out of precious resources such as trees, water, and rare minerals. In order to forestall this we must recycle more.
Yet, according to Dr. Benjamin, our natural resources have grown, not decreased. This isn’t due to recycling rather it’s due to the market place. When prices rise this indicates that a commodity is scarce while falling prices indicate that the commodity is more plentiful.
According to Lomborg, (2001, p.115), when considering forests the amount of new growth each year exceeds by a factor of 20 the amount of wood and paper products used by the world.
True, the amount of forest cut down is usually found in the tropics and is due to the lack of private property rights. Governments have failed to protect private property rights or have treated the forests as common property available to anyone who wants to clear the land. Another factor is that lumber is a quick way to raise money for local governments.
Dr. Benjamin states that, “trees are renewable, thus the need to recycle paper or cardboard wouldn’t eliminate today’s forest losses.” (Benjamin 2003 Foster and Rosenzweig 2003, 633).
Due to innovative discoveries, we now produce about twice the amount of output per unit of energy in the past 50 years and 5 times that in the last 200 years. Optical fibers carry more calls, bridges are built with less steel, automotive and truck engines use less fuel. Meanwhile, innovations continue to help us build our country.
Okay, our natural resources are growing, not due to recycling efforts but to our markets. Then maybe the problem is simply one that “going green” always protects the environment.
• But, does ‘going green’ always protect the environment?
Recycling is the mainstay of the green movement. The Natural Defense Council reported in 1997, “It is virtually beyond dispute that manufacturing products from recyclables instead of from virgin raw materials—making, for instance, paper out of old newspapers instead of virgin timber—causes less pollution and imposes fewer burdens on the earth’s natural habitat and biodiversity.” (Natural Resources Defense Council 1997, ch. 1).
Recycling is a manufacturing process with serious environmental impacts. According to the U.S. Office of Technology Assessment, (1989, 191), “usually not clear whether secondary manufacturing such as recycling produces less pollution per ton of material processed than primary manufacturing processes.” Indeed, the Office of Technology Assessment goes on to explain why: “Recycling changes the nature of pollution, sometimes increasing it and sometimes decreasing it.”
Viewed across a wide spectrum, recycling can reduce pollution but not always.