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Materialism: More Profits for a Saner World

Slashing Use of Wood, Metal, Stone & Plastic

Reducing Global Warming & Health Problems

Compiled by GayToday

natresources.gif - 17.40 K Consumers, businesses, and governments around the world are finding ways to profit and prosper while simultaneously slashing their use of wood, metal, stone, plastic, and other materials, reports a new study from the Worldwatch Institute.

Such reductions will remove many contributors to global warming, species loss, air and water pollution, lead poisoning, and a long list of other environmental and health problems.

"Groups as different as neighborhood associations and corporations are discovering that economic well-being is not necessarily linked to using vast quantities of materials," notes Gary Gardner, senior researcher at Worldwatch and co-author with Payal Sampat of the report Mind Over Matter: Recasting the Role of Materials in Our Lives. "In fact, getting more of what we want through smarter use of materials is a winner for the bottom line and the environment."

Some firms, including the Xerox Corporation and Interface Inc., a manufacturer of floor tiles, are now supplying customers with services, rather than making and selling goods. The companies lease their copiers and carpet tiles, taking the products back at the end of their useful lives for recycling or remanufacture. Their materials thus circulate much longer--requiring a minimum of virgin material and generating a minimum of waste.

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The environmental and economic savings are impressive. Xerox reports a doubling of the share of machines that are remanufactured-to 28 percent-between 1992 and 1997. It expects to increase this share to 84 percent once a new copier series, designed for easy disassembly, is placed into service.

Xerox estimates that its re-manufacturing program diverted 30,000 tons from landfills in 1997 alone.

Interface reports that land-filled factory wastes have been cut by 60 percent since 1995, and expects even greater savings from additional changes. The company achieved a 20 percent jump in sales and posted record sales between 1995 and 1996 - with virtually no increase in materials use.

Some companies minimize waste by selling it to other companies that use it for their own production. Whole clusters of industries are set up in this way, each linked by the waste flows of member firms.

In Kalundborg, Denmark, a power plant, a cement factory, a farm, and several other industries share their wastes, an arrangement that diverts more than 1.3 million tons of waste from landfills or oceans each year. Similarly, in Fiji, a brewery, a mushroom farm, a chicken-raising farm, and a fish farm are tied together through flows of organic waste.

A few far-sighted governments have promoted more intelligent use of materials. In Germany, an ordinance adopted in the early 1990s holds producers responsible for nearly all the packaging waste they generate.

Since that time, producers have cut their use of packaging by 17 percent, and recycling of remaining packaging has climbed 12 percent. Several countries, including Austria, France and Belgium, have adopted similar legislation.

Individuals have also pitched in to reduce their materials impact on the planet. A group called the Global Action Plan for the Earth has brought households together to discuss ways to reduce waste, to use less water and energy, and to buy "green" products.

Participating in this Action Plan are 8,000 neighborhood teams in Europe and 3,000 teams in the United States. Successful teams send 42 percent less waste to landfills, use 25 percent less water, and generate 16 percent less carbon emissions, while saving $401 a year per household.

"These efforts point in the direction we should be going," says Payal Sampat, co-author of the report, "but we need to accelerate these material-conserving initiatives and get government policy behind them."

The sheer amount of material used today may astonish most people. "The average American uses at least 101 kilos (222 pounds) of materials every day, from the nitrogen and potash used to grow food, the wood in the daily paper, the chemicals in shampoo, and the gypsum in the office walls," adds Sampat.

Heavy use of materials is a defining feature of the 20th century. Materials use has grown 18-fold in the United States since 1900. Substances such as aluminum and plastic were virtually unknown at the turn of the century. Since that time, aluminum production has climbed more than 3,000-fold, and synthetic chemicals production has increased 1,000 fold since 1930 in the United States alone.

If developing countries continue to embrace the industrial-country model of materials-intensive growth, the human impact on the natural world will only become more severe and widespread. Sustaining the whole world at an American or Canadian level of resource use would require the land area of three Earths.

The massive flows of materials this century already endanger human and environmental health at every step of the economic process, from extraction to production to waste disposal. Mining has contaminated more than 19,000 kilometers of rivers in the United States.

The gold in a single wedding ring generates 3 tons of mining waste. Logging for wood products eliminates species habitat, contributing to what biologists agree is a mass extinction of species.

Synthetic chemicals used in pesticides, solvents, and cleaning products are linked to health problems ranging from cancer to reproductive disorders in humans and animals.

Metal emissions from factories have killed hundreds of thousands of hectares of Russian forests. China, with little capacity to process industrial wastes, has stockpiled 6 billion tons of it--5 tons for every Chinese man, woman, and child.

Materials contribute to climate change. Their production adds to atmospheric carbon-cement-making alone accounts for 5 percent of human-caused carbon emissions. Their extraction eliminates forests that absorb carbon-logging for wood threatens 70 percent of the world's untouched forests. Their disposal generates methane, a potent greenhouse gas-landfills account for 10 percent of global methane emissions.

"Governments can accelerate the trend toward reducing materials use by adopting policies that create incentives to diminish materials use," says Gardner. These policies include:

Eliminating subsidies of virgin materials-such as giveaways of mining and logging land, and tax benefits or other subsidies to extractive industries;

Taxing virgin materials and waste-taxes on virgin metals and wood, and on emissions and landfilled wastes, would signal businesses to find ways to minimize their materials impact;

Making producers responsible for the material they use-when producers are liable for managing material they introduce into the economy, they quickly find ways to minimize the amount they use, and to recycle the rest;

Ending discrimination against recycling-a series of policies, from taxation to land use, put recycling industries at an economic disadvantage in many countries;

Promoting waste sharing-Cities can set up waste exchanges, as Canberra has done, to match suppliers of waste materials with those who need it.

Facts About Our Material World

On the Science of Materials

Materials have become more complex this century, drawing from all 92 naturally occurring elements in the periodic table, compared with the 20 or so in use in 1900.

More than 100,000 new chemical compounds have been developed since the 1930s. Insufficient information exists for health assessments of 95 percent of chemicals in the environment, reports the U.S. National Academy of Sciences.

Carbon fibers and other new materials support about ten times as much weight today as the same quantity of metal did in 1800.

On Materials Consumption

Industrial countries, with 20 percent of the world's population, use 84 percent of the world's paper and 87 percent of its cars each year.

Cars consume a third of U.S. iron and steel, a fifth of its aluminum, and two thirds of its lead and rubber.

Urban sprawl requires more kilometers of pavement and more sewer, water, and telephone lines-2.5 times more, in the case of Chicago--to service a given population than compact development.

On Innovations to Increase Materials Efficiency

German auto-makers now bar-code car components to identify to scrap dealers the mix of materials contained in each piece.

Toyota shifted to entirely reusable shipping containers in 1991, each with a potential lifetime of 20 years.

Denmark has switched from aluminum cans to glass containers that can be reused between 50 and 100 times.

Car-sharing could eliminate 6 million cars from European cities, even under existing transportation and economic conditions.

Residents of Berkeley, California, and Takoma Park, Maryland have access to "tool libraries," which offer a wide range of power and hand tools.

On Policies that Reduce Materials Use

Pollution taxes in the Netherlands led to a 72-99 percent reduction in heavy metals discharges into waterways between 1976 and the mid-1990s.

High landfill taxes in Denmark have boosted reuse of construction debris from 12 to 82 percent in eight years.

On the Benefits of Increased Efficiency

Recycling aluminum cans in the United States in 1996 saved enough energy to power a city the size of Philadelphia for one year.

In 1996, the remanufacturing industry in the United States employed 10 times as many workers as metals mining did, and earned $53 billion--a sum greater than the sales of the entire consumer durables industry.

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