I started writing this post at my most recent Contra Costa County Sustainability Commission meeting which was aptly held on Earth Day. Since then I’ve been thinking more about this content, tossing it around in my head. The problems I described, just in the past month, have only gotten worse: historically high temperatures in the Arctic, increasing evidence of mass extinctions, and warnings of irreversible changes to crop seasons.
I’m afraid of this. All of it. Thinking about it makes me sad. Imagining the position this puts my kids and their kids in actually makes me kind of depressed. I feel like there’s nothing I can do. The challenges are too large and there’s too much momentum moving against the changes required to subvert a disaster.
Yes, our future generations, my own future progeny, are destined to face severe problems related to our global inability to curb the impacts that our own science says that our own industries are creating. It’s appalling.
Eventually our kids will look back at me and my generation and say, “What the fuck, guys? Why didn’t you do something?”
And I won’t know what to say in response. That’s what I’m most afraid of.
The end of recycling
Earlier this year I began seeing some scary headlines:
- Recycling woes: Local governments struggle with collapsed market
- As costs skyrocket and recycling market crumbles, Midcoast communities struggle with whether to toss recycling
This is personal.
I worked in waste reduction and recycling throughout my high school and college years. My first real experience in leadership involved convincing some friends to pick up trash on our high school campus every Wednesday after school. Amazingly, we did it consistently and I was able to keep this group together for several years. The janitors appreciated us so much, they gave us our own rolling trash can.
In college at UC Berkeley I got a job in the Campus Recycling and Refuse Services office initially to expand the residential recycling coordinator program in the freshman dormitories. This was a program originally envisioned by another student named Garth Schultz. When he launched a campus thrift store for reusable items, the recycling coordinator position opened up. I got the gig.
Recycling back then, in the early 2000s, made a lot of sense. The market for aluminum, paper, and glass was strong. Studies showed that it was cheaper for companies to acquire raw materials from recycling streams than from fresh sources. When I sought out students to be dormitory ambassadors to our campus recycling program, I could explain with conviction that this was really important work. Recycling was good for the environment, important for business, and simply the righteous, ethical thing to do. The people I worked with felt the same way. It was easy to recruit, and we expanded these programs and added some new ones. I made lifelong friends in the process.
Today, the benefits of recycling are less clear and it’s driven entirely by the global market for recycled material. Going back to those headlines, as recycling importers like China have grown, their need to import recycling from the United States has waned. As a result, recycling is piling up in sorting facilities all over the United States, and a frightening amount of it is being sent to landfills.
My family sorts recyclable plastics and papers from food-contaminated non-compostables. Our recycling bin is always full and is significantly larger than our solid waste bin. Every week I bring our three bins, garbage, recycling, and compost, to the curb and watch three different trucks haul our refuse away. I now wonder, with a sinking feeling, whether our recycling will also wind up in a landfill with the rest of our garbage somewhere outside of Stockton.
I fear this is the case.
The inefficiency of water efficiency
My college senior thesis was titled, “Water Use Characteristics of College Students.” In it I found that when students paid their water bill directly, their water consumption significantly dropped. When students previously lived in Southern California, a drought-prone region with a lot of water use education, water consumption significantly increased. I hypothesized that the irony of Southern Californian students using more water was due to behavior backlash. Once they relocated to an area with better water access, they splurged on longer showers.
I left my water policy interest there and didn’t pick it back up until I reconnected with one of my high school mentors, an activist and policy leader named Peter Drekmeier.
I love this guy. Peter founded Bay Area Action, a community environmental organization headquartered in Mountain View. I was a member of Bay Area Action’s high school group and met some amazing other students in my community with whom I never would have otherwise connected. Together we organized environmental summits, supported other activist organizations, and ran our own local protests. It was fun, interesting, and important work.
Peter is now the Policy Director at Tuolumne River Trust, an organization responsible for educating the public and influencing the development of water use policy in Northern California. I read his editorials and watch his organizations videos. In them, he alerts the public that our water conservation efforts are not leading to less overall water usage. Instead, any conservation achieved by residential consumers simply opens up water to be consumed by various industries.
This is big news. I’d never considered that when I encourage my kids to stop wasting water, to not fill up the bath tab so high or leave the water running while they brush their teeth, the benefits of less water consumed are not trickling up to some water planner deciding to divert less water from a Sierra Nevada watershed. No, instead it’s giving opportunity for various industries to grab these gallons.
“See, less water per capita is needed for residential use! We can use that water for cattle, crops, or construction!”
This is what’s happening when my neighbors and I conserve water. It’s not helping the environment. It’s helping business. I’m not saving water, trying to be efficient, so that someone else can be inefficient. This is what economists call a “free rider” problem. It’s also a familiar irony in business where if one manager runs a tight ship, and ends the year under budget, the following year he will get less budget while managers who are less efficient get more. There’s no benefit, in other words, to being efficient. This is what economists call “adverse incentives.”
Combine “free riders” and “adverse incentives” and you have what I would call a “shit show.” State legislature needs to resolve this problem. The benefits of good residential water behavior should not flow toward poor stewards of our state’s clean water supplies.
The end of cheap energy
I can’t believe how cheap energy is right now. Check this out:
- Last year, in 2018, the national average cost of a gallon of milk was $2.80.
- Last year, in 2018, the national average cost of a gallon of gas was $2.72.
Gas is cheaper than milk! It’s cheaper to move your 3,500 pound car 25 miles than it is to drink 16 cups of milk.
When you think about it, this is insane. The work, energy, and value of moving a car 25 miles seems to me, at least, to be 50 or 100 times more valuable than filling up my cereal bowl a couple dozen times.
And yet this is how our world works. I can go to the Veranda Shopping Center in Concord, California and enjoy several large outdoor fires running non-stop on natural gas. They keep those fires running because natural gas is so cheap.
The same with my own home. We built a fire pit because the additional cost of running it is so marginal. Heating our home, running a propane BBQ, and using a gas dryer are all relatively low marginal costs.
How can this be? More importantly, how long can this be? I wonder if future generations will also look back on this profligacy and wonder what the hell we were thinking. Natural gas and oil and its gasoline derivatives are not renewable. There’s a finite amount on this Earth and all the science in the world today cannot create a synthetic. Once it’s tapped, it’s gone.
And yet here we are, burning it into the air simply because it’s fun and pretty… and cheap.
A bit of hope: The rise of composting and compostables
Our salvation may come from worms.
Whenever I see companies opt for simple, compostable packaging (e.g. a plain brown paper box instead of vacuum wrapped cellophane) I get a glimmer of hope. I’m glad to see bans on plastic bags and straws being passed by cities in California. These are small steps and perhaps minor inconveniences to people who have become accustomed to them, but we should instill a culture of reuse. If you need a straw, then get a cup with a sturdy reusable one. If you need bags, the cloth ones are far superior to the plastic ones anyway.
The world will always need good compost, and the more people learn to compost and create edible gardens in their own backyards, the less we’ll need to haul this stuff from residences to industrial composting facilities. The green utopia (or ecotopia? I’m sure someone has coined that…) is all about composting.
The other obvious and very public trend is the emergence of hybrid and electric vehicles. However, there are roadblocks (pun intended). Our current political leadership is stuck in the fossil fuel stoneage and not helping this latest new technology come down in price. As a result, when my family needed a new car a couple of years ago, we bought a gas guzzling Hyundia Santa Fe. Hybrid SUVs were out of our price range. Next time we need to buy car I hope to make a greener choice. In the meantime, my conscience is mollified by the fact that we don’t commute to work and I prefer to jog my kids to school and to the park rather than to drive them.
We have a big ol’ SUV but we don’t put a lot of miles on it. That gives me hope, too.