Technical Difficulties from on Top of the Mountain
2004-10-31
  All that waste
I'm a big opponent of waste, and am continuously studying about how to be more efficient with the materials I consume (which is why I bought four different types of compact fluorescent light bulbs at the hardware store today to try out and also managed to find a fascinating article on Refining pyroligneous acid and other by-products from hardword carbonization), but what's amazing is after one starts digging below the surface of our industrial society, one finds that the visible waste around us is just the tip of the iceberg.

Natural Capitol has some frightening statistics on its Chapter on Waste:

The amount of waste generated to make a semiconductor chip is over 100,000 times its weight; that of a laptop computer, close to 4,000 times its weight. Two quarts of gasoline and a thousand quarts of water are required to produce a quart of Florida orange juice. One ton of paper requires the use of 98 tons of various resources.

Even the simple can of soda (of which I consume a fair number) has an exhausting history just to get to my cubbord:

A striking case study of the complexity of industrial metabolism is provided by James Womack and Daniel Jones in their book Lean Thinking, where they trace the origins and pathways of a can of English cola. The can itself is more costly and complicated to manufacture than the beverage. Bauxite is mined in Australia and trucked to a chemical reduction mill where a half-hour process purifies each ton of bauxite into a half ton of aluminum oxide. When enough of that is stockpiled, it is loaded on a giant ore carrier and sent to Sweden or Norway, where hydroelectric dams provide cheap electricity. After a monthlong journey across two oceans, it usually sits at the smelter for as long as two months.

The smelter takes two hours to turn each half ton of aluminum oxide into a quarter ton of aluminum metal, in ingots ten meters long. These are cured for two weeks before being shipped to roller mills in Sweden or Germany. There each ingot is heated to nearly nine hundred degrees Fahrenheit and rolled down to a thickness of an eighth of an inch. The resulting sheets are wrapped in ten-ton coils and transported to a warehouse, and then to a cold rolling mill in the same or another country, where they are rolled tenfold thinner, ready for fabrication. The aluminum is then sent to England, where sheets are punched and formed into cans, which are then washed, dried, painted with a base coat, and then painted again with specific product information. The cans are next lacquered, flanged (they are still topless), sprayed inside with a protective coating to prevent the cola from corroding the can, and inspected.

The cans are palletized, forklifted, and warehoused until needed. They are then shipped to the bottler, where they are washed and cleaned once more, then filled with water mixed with flavored syrup, phosphorus, caffeine, and carbon dioxide gas. The sugar is harvested from beet fields in France and undergoes trucking, milling, refining, and shipping. The phosphorus comes from Idaho, where it is excavated from deep open-pit mines—a process that also unearths cadmium and radioactive thorium. Round-the-clock, the mining company uses the same amount of electricity as a city of 100,000 people in order to reduce the phosphate to food-grade quality. The caffeine is shipped from a chemical manufacturer to the syrup manufacturer in England.

The filled cans are sealed with an aluminum "pop-top" lid at the rate of fifteen hundred cans per minute, then inserted into cardboard cartons printed with matching color and promotional schemes. The cartons are made of forest pulp that may have originated anywhere from Sweden or Siberia to the old-growth, virgin forests of British Columbia that are the home of grizzly, wolverines, otters, and eagles. Palletized again, the cans are shipped to a regional distribution warehouse, and shortly thereafter to a supermarket where a typical can is purchased within three days. The consumer buys twelve ounces of the phosphate-tinged, caffeine-impregnated, caramel-flavored sugar water. Drinking the cola takes a few minutes; throwing the can away takes a second. In England, consumers discard 84 percent of all cans, which means that the overall rate of aluminum waste, after counting production losses, is 88 percent. The United States still gets three-fifths of its aluminum from virgin ore, at twenty times the energy intensity of recycled aluminum, and throws away enough aluminum to replace its entire commercial aircraft fleet every three months.

Since this obviously can't continue once energy prices increase significantly, even my simple can of soda is going to be impacted by the end of the Oil empire. But I'm not frightened by the thought, rather I'm intrigued. Its not like millions of soda drinkers are going to go away—we're still going to want our fix. Its just that something is going to have to change.

The last time I went down to Mexico, it was my vision to spend the entire week on the beach, under a palap, sipping sodas and catching up on my reading (no I did not want to take a laptop down to the beach like this poor fool, I'd end up with a keyboard full of sand). The first thing I did when we got to Acapulco was head to the local market to stock up on sodas for the week. Down there the soda didn't come in cans, or even in tacky plastic bottles; it came in glass.

Not the thin disposable replications they sell in the stores these days, but a solid heavy-duty recyclable bottle, heavy enough to do some serious damage if used improperly. They had pint bottles, but I went for the quart size—just enough to hold me over for several hours of relaxation. These things were created once, and then used dozzens of times. Strong enough to take a light fall, be stacked in crates up to the celing, or be banged around in general use; they spread the cost of materials and fabrication out over multiple uses. And when a bottle was too scratched or cracked to use, it was just melted down and formed again.

Oil has not been on the scene that long compared to other things (like wood and coal), and in the beginning it was primarily used for heating and then transportation. All these other uses: plastics, chemicals, fertalizer, medicine; all came much later and in some parts of the world have still not had major inroads displacing previous solutions. Hopefully as oil becomes scarce, we'll just go back to the earlier solutions.

What's my vision of the future: lots of metal, paper, and glass for containers and packaging. More reuse, recycling and reclamation. Cars that run on gengas (from wood), trucks that run on bio-diesel (from corn and other vegatable oils), and trains that run on charcoal and coal. Wax paper and aluminum foil instead of plastic wrap; paper bags and cardboard cartons. Its not going to be fun making the switch, and its not going to be the same as it was before, but I think we will survive. As history has shown, the human spirit will perservere.

Here's to our future.

 
Comments:
Wow. That kinda sucks. No more aluminum can pyramids... how will I EVER SURVIVE? :D lol I like the glass bottles over the cans tho... They're cool.
 
Strange to think that things will be going back in the direction they came... Glass bottole! Liked those bettern anyway, and the huge paper sacks instead of a million plastic bags to carry. Geee sounde terribal. Honestly though, I don't think that is what the future holds, we will find some cheeper and more intrusive way to do things, then find a better place (space, ocean...) to put the trash. Recycle, great idea but it is not to feasabel right now. I do hope that in the futre we can clean this place up a bit, the road outside my house is looking almost as bad as my living room (messy). Sad to think that the rest of the world is to follow.
 
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