Recipes for managing and preventing waste problems

A National Challenge That Keeps Piling Up

IT'S hard to get dinner started if the kitchen is full of dirty dishes. Protecting our environment presents a similar problem. For the past 20 years or more, we've been frantically stacking dishes into the dishwasher, thinking about what we'll cook once we've gotten the kitchen under control. The fact is, the kitchen may never be completely under control, since dishes seem to keep piling up. But there are some new ideas out there, which may help us deal with our waste problem more efficiently.

The first is ``risk management,'' a complicated-sounding concept which simply refers to setting priorities on which problems to attack first. Using techniques ranging from laboratory tests to population data, scientists provide the ingredients for political and social decisions about the amount of money and effort that should be put into each environmental issue. We can't clean all the dishes at one time, so we try to make our best assessment on which ones are most indispensable. It's not a foolproof method, but it's far better than no system at all.

The second tool is ``pollution prevention,'' a concept which goes back upstream like a salmon and tries to pinpoint where all the pollution originates. Then, systems ranging from agricultural fields and interstate highways through manufacturing processes can be ``tuned up'' so they have much less of an environmental impact. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator William Reilly has announced that pollution prevention is one of his highest goals, and is working closely with a newly-established Pollution Prevention Office to make sure the program gains momentum.

The basic idea is to send products and designs into the world which are ``leaner'' and thus won't require as much cleanup. If US designers and business executives create products which contain excessive amounts of packaging and other unusable ingredients, they will inevitably return to the kitchen in the form of garbage.

The United States, with its abundant resources, has been in the habit of using excessive resources to accomplish a given job. In fact, we have tended to encourage this habit, based on the idea that the more raw materials we could push through the system, the higher our mutual profits would be.

The profits have been considerable but so have the environmental impacts. The US uses twice as much energy as Sweden or West Germany per capita, throws away twice as much trash as Japan, and uses five times as much water per capita as Great Britain. Our first goal, then, should be to simply trim the fat. Economist Hazel Henderson has remarked that, ``The US, with the richest and most wasteful economy, is in the most advantageous position to cut out flab without cutting into muscle.''

``Source reduction'' is the term being used by state and federal agencies to refer to trimming the fat off America's consumer goods and their byproducts. EPA has set a goal of recycling 25 percent of the nation's municipal trash (``solid wastes'') by 1992. This will involve changes in the way the US does things, but doesn't have to spell ``inconvenience.'' If everyone is committed to the idea of recycling, it will become as second-nature as filing papers or sorting laundry, and we can cumulatively save a lot of money in tax dollars.

It's been said that if we want to drill for oil, our biggest field is in Detroit. The same is true of raw materials: Some of our brightest opportunities in preventing pollution are better design, a more clever recapture of materials, and a public which perceives the benefits of ``living smarter.'' The prevention of hazardous waste pollutants is an example of how polluters can learn to do the right thing even without specific regulations. The model corporation for pollution prevention, 3M, has saved over $400 million in disposal costs, materials inventory, and conservation of water and energy - all by making waste reduction a formalized, company-wide goal.

Sloppy product design is responsible for a staggering, unacceptable amount of pollution. Just one example is television sets. According to the Rocky Mountain Institute, the equivalent of a giant, inevitably polluting power plant (1/750th of the nation's capacity) is required to power the nation's TV sets, while they are off. This is because the ``instant-on,'' remote control and electronic tuning features are currently designed to draw 1.5 to 8 watts of ``standby'' power for each set.

In America, less than 1 percent of the total consumer product stream makes it back ``to the kitchen'' to be recycled. Similarly, only about 1 percent of the pesticides we spray ever gets to the target pest - the rest gets into our environment, including human tissue.

Obviously, we need to improve our aim. By raising the efficiency with which we heat and light our houses, get from one place to another, and convert materials into products, we can protect the environment, save money, and come away feeling better about the way we live our often chaotic, day-to-day lives. It's an opportunity we can't afford to pass up.

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