Taking stock of our stuff

If I were to ask you, "How much stuff do you have?" how would you respond?

Do you think in terms of everything inside your house or apartment - your clothes and furniture, your collection of Van Morrison records, the letters from Mom, and all the other essential belongings? Don't forget your car, plus the camping gear and ice skates and gardening tools. (Not the cat. We're talking just inanimate objects here.)

OK, now throw in the personal stuff in your locker at work, and that should be about it, right?

Not hardly. Let's be really hard-nosed about this and include everything you use up in a day, everything that defines you as a "consumer." There are the obvious things - newspapers, toothpaste, the wrapper around your morning doughnut (and the donut itself, however briefly). Then there's the one-day's worth of big-ticket items you own, say 1/8,000th of a washing machine that lasts 22 years.

Add your portion of the wood, concrete, steel, and other stuff it took to build your dwelling, plus the waste created in the process.

But you can't stop there. You also have to include your share of the material that went into the road you drove to work on and the building you work in, not to mention the factories that made your stuff and the stores where you got it. Oh, and the coal, oil, or whatever energy source it took to make them.

Tote it all up, divide by how many days it lasts, and it comes to more than 200 pounds a day. Tomorrow, another 200 pounds. By the end of the year, 37 tons of stuff has your name on it.

Feeling a little weighed down, are we?

We have the Worldwatch Institute to thank for this cheery bit of material accounting. The private research organization in Washington, D.C., recently published a report called "Mind Over Matter: Recasting the Role of Materials in Our Lives." It notes that Americans as a group consume nearly 10 billion tons of material every year, 18 times as much as we did at the turn of the century.

But before you look in the mirror and see a walking landfill, know too that individuals, communities, and businesses are finding innovative ways to make do with less, and in the process improve economic performance and quality of life.

"Groups as different as neighborhood associations and corporations are discovering economic well-being is not necessarily linked to using vast quantities of materials," says Gary Gardner, a senior researcher at Worldwatch. "In fact, getting more of what we want through smarter use of materials is a winner for the bottom line and the environment."

And it's not just "green" advocates like Worldwatch who are saying this. So are sharp-pencil economists and profit-conscious business leaders.

University of Oregon business professor Michael Russo has found that having a better environmental rating is "a consistent predicator of profitability."

Dr. Russo and Paul Fouts of Golden Gate University tracked 243 firms and found that "environmental performance and economic performance are positively linked.... It pays to be green." Among the companies included in the study were such biggies as Microsoft, Boeing, Weyerhauser, Ford, and Amoco.

These researchers concluded with a warning: "Managers who instead resist and contest pressures for environmental improvement risk not only a profound loss of productive energy, but also a bottom-line loss of equal proportions."

While big business frequently is seen as the enemy of the environment, today's generation of corporate executives do not accept this role.

Arthur D. Little, a consulting company headquartered in Cambridge, Mass., finds that 83 percent of business leaders surveyed in North America and Europe believe that they can derive "real business value" from implementing a "sustainable development approach to strategy and operations."

"Many companies are still focused on short-term and efficiency-driven environmental initiatives because they know how to do them extremely well, and they are relatively easy to implement," says Stephen Poltorzycki, vice president of Arthur D. Little. "These include proven ways to cut back on energy and water use, reduce emissions, and monitor facilities for compliance."

"However, a significant number of companies that see themselves as well on the way to meeting sustainable development goals report real progress in more innovative, business-focused areas," adds Mr. Poltorzycki. "Examples include closed-loop manufacturing systems, industrial ecology, organizational learning, and design for environment. These advanced sustainable development opportunities can deliver high business value and help companies outpace competitors."

What such experts as author Paul Hawken, physicist Amory Lovins, and architect William McDonough call the "next industrial revolution" will go beyond merely recycling and the search for greater energy efficiency.

All of this is "not merely some feel-good movement, but a vital necessity in this time of concern about pollution hazards and finite natural resources," says Thomas Graedel, professor of industrial ecology at Yale University. "The tools of industrial ecology include product life-cycle analysis, design for the environment, and materials flow analysis," Dr. Graedel told the American Association for the Advancement of Science. "Get used to these terms because they are the business terms of the next century."

So how does all of this relate to you and your stuff? It not only has the potential for reducing it, but already is doing so as more and more companies adopt the principles of sustainability.

Xerox Corp., for example, now takes back more than 65 percent of its print and copy cartridges for recycling and remanufacturing, and last year the Rochester, N.Y.-based company launched its first product designed from the start with the environment in mind. Ninety-seven percent of its parts are recyclable and 84 percent are remanufacturable.

The goal is to "produce waste-free products from waste-free factories," says Xerox chairman Paul Allaire. These investments "have been good for business too." In all, the company is saving more than $200 million a year from its environmental initiatives. For the consumer, this ultimately will mean a few pounds less stuff on his or her personal scale.

Another industry leader is Atlanta-based Interface, the world's largest carpet-tile manufacturer. Several years ago, Interface began leasing (rather than selling) carpet tiles, replacing just the ones that wear out. The carpet fibers are recycled, which reduces the need for raw materials and cuts waste.

Since 1995, the company has reduced its landfill waste by 60 percent at a savings of $67 million. Interface reports that its sales have nearly doubled over that period, and its net income has risen at an annual rate of 28 percent.

There are other examples. Toyota is using - and reusing - shipping containers that can last up to 20 years. Chrysler Corp. is developing its Composite Concept Vehicle whose body sections will be completely recyclable.

As individuals, we can do a number of things to reduce our 200-pound daily load. We can join the "voluntary simplicity" movement, buying and using fewer things. We can do everything we can to recycle. And we can buy things that are more ecologically sensitive, especially those things made from recycled materials. And together with friends and neighbors, we can organize to do all three.

In Berkeley, Calif., and Takoma Park, Md., "tool libraries" have been formed in which participants can check out power and hand tools. A group of people take turns using a given tool, and in the process reduce their load of stuff a bit.

Working with a $200,000 three-year grant from the MacArthur Foundation, an organization called Global Action Plan for the Earth has developed a workbook to help "EcoTeams" - five or six households - reduce waste, use less water and energy, and buy more environment-friendly products. The numbers involved are small, but growing: some 8,000 households in Europe and more than 3,000 in the United States.

On average, participating households use 25 percent less water, cut C02 output by 16 percent, use 15 percent less fuel for transportation, and cut waste by 42 percent. And in the process, they typically save $401 a year.

In all, their daily load of stuff is markedly lighter than the 200-pound bulk most of us are responsible for.

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