116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Members of the Writers Circle met in Iowa City last month to discuss the topic of 'waste” - an issue proved to be more complex than it might have seemed at first blush.
The discussion kicked off with a handful of questions: What do we mean by waste? Where do we see waste in our lives and community?
What harm is there in wastefulness, and if it's so bad, why does it continue to be a problem? What are some possible solutions?
Today, three members share their reflections about our discussion.
WASTE: IT'S NOT SO SIMPLE
Bob Elliott, Writers Circle
Our meeting was scheduled to feature a discussion about waste, so I wasn't exactly bursting with excitement.
I thought Ben Franklin pretty much summed it up about 250 years ago when he said, 'Waste not. Want not.” But like a lot of things these days, it's not nearly that simple anymore.
Just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so one man's waste can be another man's treasure. Remember, to a junk dealer, waste can be valuable inventory.
I'm reminded of our family home when I was growing up. For me, the rhubarb growing in our backyard was obviously a patch of waste. But when I mowed it down, I was sternly informed that my parents considered rhubarb an edible treasure.
One of the first examples of waste discussed at our Writers Circle meeting came from a woman who said her family's refrigerator recently went on the fritz. Turns out the problem was that a single part needed to be replaced, but the part and the cost of installing it was more than the price of a new refrigerator.
To avoid wasting money, a new fridge was purchased, and the old one hauled off to the city dump. Pardon me, the sanitary landfill. Yes, the family saved money, but the discarded refrigerator added to the debris at the landfill. That's illustrative of a growing era of excessive consumerism, leading to an excess of things now being wasted which a few decades ago would have been repaired and retained.
With our strong national economy and personal wealth that's the envy of much of the rest of the world, our increasingly throwaway society is a boon for manufacturing and a growing detriment for our environment.
Do you remember when most families had only one TV set? We watched those TVs until they went on the blink. Then we took ‘em to a repair shop to get fixed and returned for a lot more use.
Many, if not most, of us now have two or more TVs. But when they quit working and need to be fixed, what do we do? We buy new ones.
Even if we wanted to repair 'em, where do you find TV repair shops these days? So we deal with proliferating waste and debris.
Think about Cedar Rapids' own Mount Trashmore.
Some people saw this coming more than a half century ago. In 1955 economist Victor Lebow wrote, 'Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life ... We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced, and discarded at an ever increasing pace.”
We understand that what's considered waste in one location or by one person can be viewed differently in another location or by another person. So what's waste is often a value judgment full of complexities and counter options. On this earth, we could eventually run out of room for wasted items.
And what's far, far more serious, if we waste (read contaminate) too much water or oxygen, even science won't be able to bail us out of that predicament.
To waste or not to waste can also be a question on a very personal level.
Let's say you're about to push away from the table when you say to yourself, 'I may as well eat that last doughnut. Why let it go to waste.” So instead of the doughnut going to waste, it goes to your waist.
But the most productive observation I have about this increasingly important subject, is my hope that we can all be persuaded and learn from my favorite uncle's thoughtful saying. It is, and please think about it, 'Enough is a banquet.”
' Bob Elliott has been an active member of the Iowa City community for 50 years. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org
RESOURCES LOOKING FOR A PURPOSE
Wilf Nixon, Writers Circle
When discussing the topic of waste, two things rapidly become apparent. First, declaring something to be waste is a value judgment and so what one person thinks of as waste another would say was a wise use of resources. Thus, some people might feel that the roughly half billion dollars spent by Iowa on higher education each year is a waste. Others would vehemently disagree. The second thing that becomes apparent is that many people believe waste is a crisis in our society.
But, according to some, crisis is just another word for opportunity. Indeed, at the University of Iowa, Professor Jerry Schnoor teaches a course titled 'Sustainable Systems” and his definition of waste is revealing - he says that waste is just 'resources looking for a purpose.”
One of the students in that class (Monica Hemingway) shared with me information about her semester project. She and her team mates decided to repurpose excess building materials (of which, apparently, there are a great deal - that's why you see dumpsters at building sites) into greenhouses. Their project took materials such as plywood and excess window frames and constructed greenhouses from them.
That in itself is admirable, but it is only the first step, as the students were very aware. For such a project to be truly sustainable, a number of other features (above and beyond the student ideas and hard work) are needed. First, you need a champion. In this case, that turned out to be Habitat for Humanity. They helped to source the various materials needed, and also had the idea that these greenhouses could be a useful adjunct to the houses that they build, allowing the owners of the Habitat homes to develop skills in growing their own foods.
In addition to a champion, you need a vision, and this was what the students supplied. The notion that all that waste building material could become something useful instead of just being landfilled is one example of the vision that is needed to turn our waste crisis into a series of opportunities.
But even a champion and a vision are not sufficient. You need a growth medium. One group of students making a few greenhouses out of some construction waste is a drop in the bucket. How can this idea be grown to a larger, sustainable scale? Those students, after all, are going to graduate at some stage and go and do other things. Who will take their place?
In this case, the answer to that question might well be high schools around Iowa. There is a possibility that, with some funding from the Governor's STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) funding, a number of high schools around Iowa might take on this project as something to do on an annual basis, not only turning waste building materials into useful greenhouses, but also teaching high school students useful, practical skills (those required to build a greenhouse).
All of this is a long way from being a sure thing, but it does demonstrate the steps and commitments that are needed to make a dent in waste, or if you prefer, to find the purpose for the resources that would otherwise be wasted. Vision alone is not enough, and even vision with a champion to help encourage and nurture the vision does not create a long-term solution. The growth medium has to be found in which the vision can grow, and establish itself as an ongoing practice.
We will not get to long term solutions of our so-called waste problems by wringing our hands and saying what a shame it all is. Instead, we have to commit to the three-part process outlined here. It is nonetheless important to note that the very first thing that has to happen is that we have to have a vision for repurposing our waste. In fact, our starting point should perhaps be to remember that to label something as waste represents a profound lack of imagination.
And, with that in mind, our task is pretty clear when it comes to waste. We should quit the hand-wringing and start imagining.
' Wilf Nixon is a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Iowa, and has been at the university for 28 years. Comments: email@example.com
CURBING WASTE: BAD NEWS, GOOD NEWS
Nicholas Johnson, Writers Circle
'Wasted” can refer to our money, health, food, building materials, garbage, last year's fashions, lives of the most desperate of our fellow humans - or a binge drinking college student.
Do corporations' products built-in obsolescence, or their encouraging conspicuous consumption of 'the latest thing,” create 'waste”?
Rudyard Kipling advised us to 'fill the unforgiving minute/With sixty seconds' worth of distance run. ' Are minutes less filled a waste of time?
This column leaves those questions to others while focusing on next steps. Once there's agreement on what 'waste” is, what can we do about it? How, if at all, can Americans be motivated to change?
Here are some illustrations.
Last month we celebrated 'Bike to Work Week.” Compared to car costs (running over 40 cents a mile), bicycling is virtually free. For short trips, with easier parking, they can be faster. They don't require drilling in the Artic wilderness, or military protection of 'our oil” under others' sand. They don't pollute or accelerate climate change. Biking keeps you trim, happy and healthy, reducing your (and our nation's) health care costs.
One member of this Writers Circle walks, bikes, and seldom drives over 400 miles a year. The Sierra Club calculates that even far less - substituting a couple short bike rides for car trips each week - would save 2 billion gallons of gas, its impact on climate change, and billions of dollars.
Future wars will be fought over water. The best shower? Get wet. Turn off the water. Suds up. Rinse off. It's both more effective and efficient than running water for 20 minutes. If millions would do it, billions of gallons would be saved.
The same can be said for turning off the lights when you leave a room, or throwing cans in a recycling basket rather than the wastebasket.
The literature is replete with hundreds more examples. We know what to do. And it takes little time or sacrifice to do it.
The problem? Americans don't have to be Libertarians to believe the Constitution guarantees their right to act in ways a majority considers stupid - if they don't harm others. As President Lyndon Johnson used to say, 'I don't shove worth a damn.” What we need is better understanding of how to motivate such people without criminalizing their behavior or denying them their choice.
Bad boys, for devilment, used to tie a tin can on a dog's tail and watch it try to outrun the noise. It gave rise to one Writers Circle member's insight: 'tie your reform to the tail of greed, and watch it run off down the street.” Otherwise put, 'You get what you measure,” or what you incentivize - whether the standards for faculty tenure, or the installation of seat belts once they're mandated for the federal government's cars.
We can be motivated by education, information, appeals by celebrities - whether public service announcements, such as anti-smoking TV spots, or programming. When the Harvard School of Public Health asked Hollywood producers to include shots of drivers fastening seat belts in their films, lives were saved as public compliance followed.
Informed discussions among those chosen as scientific polling samples produce more thoughtful responses. What's called 'deliberative democracy polling” could radically alter the public's and politicians' views on public policy.
The five-cent deposit on cans and bottles encourages recycling. Lower auto insurance rates for the accident-free encourages safer driving. 'Cap and trade” pollution reduction (income for reduced pollution; choice to pay to pollute more) seems to work. A restaurateur's smoke-free restaurant (before legally required) actually attracted more customers.
Some major corporations are discovering it's profitable to move from a linear economy (raw materials to manufacturing, to sale and use, to landfill) to a circular economy (raw materials to manufacturing, to sale and use, to reuse of products' raw materials through restoration and resale). This not only reduces waste of non-renewable resources. Unilever's 240 factories in 67 countries now send zero waste to landfills. The sale of an electric car transportation service (rather than 'a car”), for a monthly charge, with 'new” rebuilt cars and batteries every three years, would be a win-win-win for manufacturers, dealers, drivers - and the planet.
No matter how we define 'waste,” the bad news is there's no groundswell of support to stop it, given the protests of those who profit from it. The good news is that we can be motivated to change.
' Nick Johnson is a former Federal Communications Commissioner and author of Test Pattern for Living, writes at www.nicholasjohnson.org and FromDC2Iowa.blogspot.com