50 Shades of Waste

Some of the greatest opportunities to reduce cost, waste, and greenhouse gas emissions are some of the least visible.

“What does ‘efficient’ mean?" asked one of my grandsons the other day. We’d been discussing how best to carry garden cuttings to the compost heap. Like any self-respecting kid doing chores, he pounced on the idea of efficiency the moment he realised it meant doing the same job in less time and with less effort (i.e. with less waste).

But intuitively we think of “waste” less in terms of lost time or effort and more as seemingly useless bits left over from doing something (scrap paper, wallboard offcuts, broken TV etc.), so let’s start there.

 Eden Project's "WEEE Man": one lifetime's electrical waste. Photo: Lindsay Wood

Eden Project's "WEEE Man": one lifetime's electrical waste. Photo: Lindsay Wood

The “WEEE Man” sculpture at the Eden Project in Cornwall, England, helps put it in perspective. It represents the estimated 3.3 tonnes of one lifetime’s “Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment”-  incredibly, the equivalent weight to discarding a smartphone every day for 90 years.

And of course, a lot of waste isn’t “waste” at all, but stuff we haven’t yet found the right use for. (I once designed a factory for colour coating sheet metal. With a bit of encouragement, the operators worked out how to recover the waste toxic solvents they’d been discharging into the air for years, and then how to use them to run their furnace and heat the whole process line. Environmental wins are so frequently also financial wins.)

 

With slashing trash increasingly in the spotlight, I was taken with the innovative trend reported at the June 2018 Green Building Summit in Auckland. In a "National-Park-philosophy-meets-the-construction-industry” situation, some building sites now have “no rubbish skip” policies.

This means that building team members must remove their waste themselves – and are reportedly more careful as a result. (I like the innovative – and counter-intuitive – thinking behind the “no bin” idea. And it doesn’t seem that long since recycling skips themselves felt like a breakthrough!) Given that some 12% of residential construction waste is cardboard packaging, clearly there’s lots of room for improvement.

We’ve also had recent wake-up calls on “recycling”, much of which looks increasingly like waste in drag. With China less welcoming of the rest of the world’s plastic scraps (and who blames them?) we’re suddenly in need of other options. These must include the Circular Economies (there are several) that are increasingly in the news, and whose approach centres on integrating the biosphere and technosphere, as well as rejigging the old “reduce/reuse/recycle” mantra to “reduce/reuse/repair”. 

 The Cradle to Cradle certification logo (depicting circular economy loops that integrate the biosphere and technosphere).

The Cradle to Cradle certification logo (depicting circular economy loops that integrate the biosphere and technosphere).

And as some form of circular economy is an essential cornerstone of a truly sustainable society, we must embrace the zero-waste approach that underlies such systems.

The idea is captured well in the name and logo of the global “Cradle to Cradle” movement, an education and certification scheme aiming not only at ensuring every product has a completely ethical supply chain and a new use at the end of its life, but also to identify that use before the product is even made.

 

Then there’s the astonishing statistic in Project Drawdown’s list of strategies to tackle climate change: the third most powerful strategy in the world is cutting food waste. Check it out! https://www.drawdown.org/solutions/food/reduced-food-waste .

 

       Invisible waste

But, as noted at the start, waste is about much more than stuff, and some of the greatest opportunities to reduce cost, waste, and greenhouse gas emissions are some of the least visible.

On a scale far grander than my compost heap, efficiency is also what the Productivity Commission is about. Early June saw the closing of its consultation on draft strategies for New Zealand to move to a low-emissions economy to help address climate change.

You’d be excused for thinking the almost-1000-pages of documentation might be inherently inefficient, but they traverse a vast array of issues critical to the future of life as we know it, so somehow seem worth it.

But two things the Commission should not want to waste are time and opportunity (we’ve already squandered alarming quantities of both in readying ourselves to tackle climate change).  Astonishingly, though, I found the Commission scoring poorly on both counts, and aspects of its own process seem to be wasting opportunities in themselves. They, too, seem to have fallen into the exponential time-trap.

        Spectacular rise in difficulty from delayed response to exponential growth. Source: Resilienz

       Spectacular rise in difficulty from delayed response to exponential growth. Source: Resilienz

The Commission’s core thrust is a revamped Emissions Trading Scheme (like adding emissions costs to the price of things), with a trajectory of increasing emissions (carbon) prices making our wallets drive us harder and harder to change our ways.

However, necessary as an ETS may be, the documents themselves suggest little urgency, at times use dubious information (like assuming the uptake of public transport will actually slow down), and have gaps big enough to drive a rubbish truck through (e.g. silence on the vast educational implications of redirecting our entire business, transport, energy, construction and land use sectors).

The irony of a Productivity Commission reporting on climate change and not being mindful of urgency is highlighted by 2018 being exactly 40 years since Antarctic scientist J H Mercer first alerted us to global warming, and 30 years since NASA scientist Jim Hanson confronted the US Congress with stark warnings.

Thankfully, the Commission’s documents are only draft. They must thoroughly address these shortcomings in their final report.

There are also disturbing parallels with my hometown council at Nelson City. Their approach to actually implementing climate change action has historically been glacial. Now the council is increasing its efforts, but their negligible sense of urgency, and parsimonious drip-feeding of funding, suggest they still don’t recognize climate change as the most daunting challenge ever to face our city (or humanity). Nelson is far from alone in this, and in a world resounding with calls to accelerate investment in climate responses, we seem addicted to wasting critical time and opportunity.

Then there’s the sneaky waste stream right under our finger tips. Every keystroke in a Google search, every item of data stored on the cloud, every Netflix movie ends up sucking more energy through a huge IT network or data storage centre somewhere, and creating corresponding emissions.

According to Fred Pearce, writing in the April 2018 issue of Yale Environment 360, these massive data facilities are expanding so quickly their greenhouse gases emissions are now a surpassing those of air travel. And they continue to expand dramatically.

How “clean” their energy sources are varies hugely, and we often don’t know where our particular storage is happening.

    “Then there's mother of all crazy waste"

And, of course, we mustn’t overlook the mother of all crazy waste - commuter car travel.

 Amount of car fuel used to move a person. The red areas are "productive use"  Source: “Accessibility in Cities: Transport and Urban Form”, London School of Economics)

Amount of car fuel used to move a person. The red areas are "productive use"

Source: “Accessibility in Cities: Transport and Urban Form”, London School of Economics)

The inherent inefficiency of combustion engines should make any Productivity Commissioner weep (see the red "productive use" parts of the  illustration).

But it's even worse: our cars typically run with a around 75% of the seating unoccupied, and so commuters end up wasting vast quantities of time,  fuel and angst in huge traffic jams of their own near-empty cars.

An airline or carrier proposing new trucks or aircraft to keep operating a mere 25% capacity, its shareholders would crucify the directors!

But that's in essence what we do every time we build a new highway "to ease congestion". With the added irony that such highways almost invariably end up attracting more traffic than ever. (Counter-intuitive, isn't it! Try Googling "induced demand" or "generated traffic".)

So when we complain about congestion and lost time or the price of fuel, and when we know we should be dramatically cutting our carbon footprints, the term “Homo sapiens” (“wise man” in Latin) increasingly seems like an oxymoron!

 

“An opportunity not to be wasted”

But just to give “Homo sapiens”  a glimmer of hope, and to show it's not all doom and gloom, I'll close by introducing my unlikely new hero Temuka truck driver Johnny Baxter.

 Baxter on receipt of his NZ award.  Source: NZ Trucking Magazine

Baxter on receipt of his NZ award.

Source: NZ Trucking Magazine

Late last year Baxter won the on-road category of the International Volvo Truck Fuelwatch championship. This great achievement was all the more remarkable because he was over 10% more fuel-efficient than the next best drivers in the world.

Pause for a moment. Let it sink in. Baxter used 10% less fuel than the next best in the world!

How much might the rest of us ordinary drivers – truckies and the rest – learn from him about not wasting fuel and money? Or about saving a world dying from fossil fuel emissions? It’s MASSIVE.

I’ve urged the Productivity Commission to promote Baxter to national hero status and engage him at a huge salary to pass on his magic to us other drivers the country over. Or, better, the world over.

Now that’s an opportunity not to be wasted.