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Notes on a Green Economy

The risk of catastrophic climate change by itself is not enough. Perhaps now, at last, the ongoing and deepening recession and financial crisis could provide just the opening advocates of sane economic relations with the planet have been waiting for. Yet even with the unprecedented bailouts and government intervention in the banking system, common sense ecological-economic concepts will require hard sells and massive popular support.

Take the case of dealing with our stuff. We have and go through too much. It’s over packaged. It’s generally not returnable after use or consumption. It’s mostly not recyclable or compostable. We know little or nothing about the working conditions of those who made it. And we are mostly ignorant about the relative environmental cost of the product.

What do you do with the ubiquitous plastic wrap over much of our food? While the milk jug is recyclable, what about its lid?  What about all that styrofoam in which your new computer came? Are they really going to bury all the wood in that dumpster outside that building? Doesn’t plastic come from petroleum? You mean the countless pounds of food waste produced everyday in this country are not composted? Why on Earth do they import apples from New Zealand (or Washington State) to Upstate New York, one of the world’s premier apple growing regions?

Answers to these mundane questions invariably lead to frustration at the stupidity with which we (mis)manage our materials. There are some small-scale innovative reuse programs here and there across the country. Some of our communities run excellent recycling and/or composting programs. But generally, our stuff ends up in landfills or incinerators or on slow boats to China (where things really get ugly).

President-elect Obama is due to announce his energy and environmental team soon. Amidst the undoing of eight years of Bush destruction and degradation, there will be a few new programs. Bill Clinton instituted an excellent federal green purchasing program through executive order in 1993. The problem early on was that there were very few green products for government buyers to prefer over conventional products. This has changed dramatically in recent years when more and more goods and service suppliers want to appear green. Should it have the vision and the courage, Obama’s team might develop a comprehensive waste reduction and management policy that would be the envy of the world.

Part of it could look like this: want to manufacture or sell a product, any product, in the United States? Then it needs to come with reduced packaging. It must be manufactured (largely) without toxic or hazardous materials. As the supply of recycled materials grows, the proportion of recycled materials in most any product must keep pace. The good must be reusable, recyclable or compostable (to the technical extent possible, a limit that will also change over time). It must be conveniently returnable at end-of-life, either to the point of purchase, or to a community recycling center. It should be manufactured with renewable energy (to the extent feasible). It must have countr(ies) of origin, fair trade and environmental impact or footprint labels. Paper will come from paper not trees. Steel will come from steel not iron ore.

Naturally, such sweeping change in the “American way of life” cannot and will not happen overnight, and will confront technical roadblocks, and numerous unanticipated glitches along the way. It may take ten years to implement (over enormous opposition from the National Association of Manufacturers among many others), as there will be considerable retooling and market development. There will likely be some exceptions to these manufacturing and waste management requirements (for reasons of public health or safety). But such reforms will have several deep and lasting benefits to make all the trouble worthwhile: building community, rationalizing production in an age of global warming, and localizing green economic development.

Combined with Obama’s version of the much-discussed “Apollo Program” or “Manhattan Project” needed for energy conservation, efficiency and renewables, a modern “waste not, want not” policy will create millions of new green jobs and thousands of small local businesses. The trash crisis will essentially disappear. We’ll have far fewer battles over the impacts and siting of waste facilities because we’ll have much less waste. Our imports of natural gas and oil will shrink noticeably. A major source of greenhouse gases will come under greater control. Reduction, reuse, recycling and composting are remarkably climate positive. So much so that a good chunk of the carbon reductions necessary to stabilize the atmosphere can be found here.

It’s absurd that we permit ‘disposable production’ in the twenty-first century. It’s ridiculous that a good part of what we chuck out is packaging made from fossil fuels. It’s past time to banish the fraud of “recyclable” labels on products and containers for which there is no local program to collect or recycle. Green economy advocates need also be zero waste advocates.

STEVE BREYMAN is Associate Professor of Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Contact him at breyms@rpi.edu