You and I make 4.5 lbs. of trash a day on average, most of which grows hills at the landfill. But Europe turns trash into electricity to power homes or fuel the family Volvo.
Denmark, for one, considers residential and commercial trash to be a clean, alternative fuel rather than a waste removal headache. There is no one like a Dane to convert trash to power and reduce energy costs, cut reliance on imported oil and even to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.
We Yanks are less refined. As of 2005, the US had 396 landfill-to-energy refineries, way fewer per capita than Europe. Currently, the EPA advises that there are no new waste-to-energy plants under construction even though Federal greenbacks await states that construct them. We have only 87 trash-burning power plants, and they’re at least fifteen year old. Rather than convert trash, a distant landfill is our end game. New York City ships 10,500 tons of waste out of state daily. An abundance of land has provided America with cheap landfills but we’re running out of space and the cost of dumping our trash on other countries is too costly. Did I mention it’s ethically questionable?
We can get energy by safely burning all kinds of trash. Or we can convert items like product packaging, furniture, grass clippings, newspapers appliances, paint, batteries, clothing, used tires, dried sewage sludge, animal waste, food scraps and bottles at one of the new bio-refineries. The later rely on distillation technology to convert in a three step process:
1) First trash is sorted to remove recyclables. What is left is ground up.
2) The ground up trash is then distilled and the byproduct, gas, is stored in tanks
3) The gas fuels a generator to produce electricity. Or, gas is converted into liquid fuel.
Bio-refineries are super-efficient and produce 90 percent more energy than they consume. The US Army is ordering mobile bio-refineries to covert trash at military bases.
In a land where 5% of the global population uses 30% of the world’s recourses, trash conversion suggests big time opportunity given the federal monies available for conversion plants. Why we could even relegate oil industry subsidies to the trash bin.
Two years ago when Al Gore warned that climate change was a threat, the flat-earthers in congress said the VP was as misguided as Darwin.
This week, congressional climate skeptics got support for their position as news from all corners confirmed that the weather everywhere is “CAVU” (a pilot’s term for blissful weather – “Ceilings And Visibility Unlimited”.) Everything‘s hunky-dory.
By way of proof that all is bliss, I offer this summery of the weeks’ weather news.
- On Monday, Montana closed a 50-mile stretch of Interstate 90 because the flooding was so severe that it left several thousand Lodge Grass residents cut off from the rest of the state. Governor Schweitzer declared a statewide emergency as massive areas in southeaster Montana went underwater.
- On Sunday an F4 tornado with sustained winds of 198 miles per hour ripped through Missouri and leveled major parts of Joplin, injuring at least 500 and killing 116 people. Experts trace the cause to the surface water in the Gulf of Mexico that is 2 degrees warmer than normal.
- The Navy announced that they are planning to police expanding world seas that will cover about a fifth more of the earth, the result of melting ice in the Arctic.
- Flooding from melting winter ice in Siberia is causing profound changes. Winters that used to reach 50C are a comparatively mild 30C which is causing permafrost to melt. The nomadic people of the tundra’s are having to buy refrigerators in a land where the permafrost previously kept meat cold during the winter.
- That mecca of European winter sports, The Swiss Alps, is threatened by less snow and more melting ice. The temperature increase is such that scientists predict the Alps will split into two sections.
- Mayor Daily and now Mayor Emanuel are proceeding with plans to deal with a new climate in the windy city. Chicago will be more like the deep south. The NY Times reported that in the twenty century, Chicago averaged fewer than 15 days over 90 degrees, but by the end of this century it will have as many as 72 days. Heat-related deaths will reach 1,200 a year. Weather extremes — freezes and fast thaws — will create billions of dollars’ worth of damage to building facades, bridges and roads.
- Russia, where severe drought and heat cut into that nation’s wheat production last year, has this week reported 421 wildfires in a 24 hour period covering a 450 square mile area. The fires were mainly confined to remote parts of Siberia and the Urals, but the area on fire is twice the size of that for the same period last year.
In related news, Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, analyzed the campaign statements of the more than 100 new GOP members of Congress, and found 50% of them to be climate change skeptics.
Ah the rapture of it all.
Before I tell you how to get cheaper gas, please stand with me and wave goodbye to the middle class. It’s crumbling faster that you can say Anti-Trust. The New America Foundation spells it out statistically:
– Low income jobs now account for 41% of total employment
– Middle income jobs in the United States fell from 52% in 1980 to 42% in 2010
– Last year wages increased 1.7%. Food and energy costs grew by 2.7%
– 17 million US college graduates do jobs with skill levels that don’t require a bachelor’s degree
We can’t hang all the blame on big oil. We screwed up our middle class by ignoring:
– The Citizens United decision that eviscerated campaign spending limits
– Climate change that’s intensified bad weather, resulting in poorer crops and rising food costs
– HMO’s that add an inefficient layer of cost on health care
– Wars we didn’t need and cannot win
– The impact of prices at the pump on discretionary spending
We have a choice: let the middle class melt or do something about these issues, and the issue we ought to tackle fast is big oil’s control over an essential resource. Obviously to continue the oil subsidies is irrational; a costly accommodation to oil lobbyists. But that 4 billion dollar giveaway is a drop in the barrel compared to the potential savings at the pump if we regulated gasoline price increases even if it means nationalizing the oil industry to get it done. Anybody old enough to remember when we took apart Standard Oil for the good of the nation?
We make utilities justify price increases. Isn’t the oil industry as critical to the well-being of the American consumer? Won’t federal controls on pump price increases discourage commodity speculators? Do we really want to keep pump-taxing middle income Americans, and sending their tax money to OPEC and BP? What if some of the oil dollars we export became available for investment in renewable energies? Alternative energies push down gas prices and spur green manufacturing.
Continued inaction means we accept our new economic feudalism. Or, we regulate gas price increases and free the surfs.
Congresses’ new zero based budget trend is healthy, though sacred cows limit the options. Military spending won’t be touched since the folks we put in congress are of the “it’s-always-been-done-that-way” mindset. Of course the biggest reason for budgetary untouchables is that lobbyists pay leaders to champion the status quo.
They pay them to obey, not to be visionaries and they get what they pay for. That will be even clearer when you watch the congressional horse trading that’s going on. You can’t miss the single biggest weakness in our democracy: our shortsightedness.
Three fast examples:
Even the flat-earthers who don’t believe in science have to notice that local weather patterns point to something meteorologically awry. The last decade, our warmest in recorded history, produced exaggerated weather patterns with more intense rains, drought, hurricanes, and tornadoes. The bad weather is hitting harder and lasting longer.
Ask North Carolinians about the more than 60 tornadoes that hit this week. (NC used to average 19 a year.) Globally, ask the Russians about their terrible drought or the Pakistanis about their floods.
The congressional response to this is to cut the EPA’s budget by a third, degrading our carbon emissions enforcement capability. Is anybody thinking how much it costs to rebuild those towns in North Carolina, or the St. Louis Airport or the city of New Orleans, and the list gets longer daily? Since we have to pay for weather damage, why not pay up front, cut carbon and do our part to reduce the weather chaos?
A second example of the fog on congressional eye-glasses relates to the BP disaster. Little of significance has changed by way of tighter rig safety standards since the spill. (Do you think there is any connection between legislative inaction and the fact that Exxon will announce 10 Billion dollar record profits this week, even as gas streaks past $4 a gallon?) Sure, we achieve modest enforcement savings by sitting on our thumbs, but we will pay a multiple of what we save when we have to clean up the next major coastal spill. And be sure that there will be one.
One more example of our myopia. The current budget negotiations will divert dollars from America’s investment in renewable energies, better rail transportation, a more efficient electric grid and the myriad of other options that cut carbon emissions or wean us off of foreign oil. Would a smart businessman really do this? Is it clever commerce to cede the renewables technology race to China, India, and Germany in the name of short term budget restraint?
The biggest problem isn’t the budget. It’s the people who to spend it. They are supposed to be visionaries, but they’re more like the god Apollo chose as his prophet. The Greek god Tiresias, it turns out, was blind.
Most of us don’t eat about 14% of the food we purchase. It ends up in the garbage can but it still gives us gas. Specifically, when wasted food ends up in the landfill it generates a greenhouse gas that is 23 times more potent as an atmosphere heat-trapper than carbon dioxide is. The greenhouse gas is methane and we ought to be just as concerned about our “methane footprint”.
How much food do we waste?
Americans waste about $50 billion a year.
What’s the answer?
- Plan more carefully before leaving for the grocery store.
- Use leftovers from meals and bring home uneaten food when you dine out at restaurants. (Encourage them to use biodegradable take-out trays by the way.)
- Know what foods you have in the fridge and eat them before their expiration date.
- Lastly, compost so that the uneaten leftovers and food shavings and scarps help fertilize your garden as you grow your own local produce.
Okay, now here’s the commercial. My Green Mind sells a number of composters. One new one is a bin that rolls on the wheels of a horizontal base to make churning compost really easy. The Compost Wizard Jr. comes in 7 or a 12 cubic foot sizes. A second composter, the Aerobin, offers a much larger capacity and is even easier to use. It has a patented, aerated system that doesn’t require any churning.
What to compost and what you shouldn’t.
Do Compost: fruit peels, vegetable peels coffee grinds and filters, tea bags, egg shells, plant trimmings and table waste. Also leaves, dry grass, tissue paper, shredded newspaper, shredded cartons and shredded egg cartons.
Avoid: Meat, fish, dairy, sauces, oil, fat, pet waste, bones and seeding weeds.
Miss Prissy’s classic 1939 line from Gone With The Wind says it best. The world hasn’t a clue about what to do with its children. Their behavior’s not the problem. It’s about the sheer number of births. We’re overpopulating the planet at an unparalleled rate and no one wants to face the obvious: this issue drives every other green concern. We’re running out of natural resources, and despite our uncanny ability to imitate the ostrich, we’ll have to face the fact sooner than most of us thought.
I’ll sum it up one statistic. To feed our fellow man, from the moment you read this blog until 2050, our planet needs to produce as much food as man grew in the last 8000 years.
We can support all the green initiatives, and we should, but we only delay the inevitable fights for food. Okay, depending on your age maybe not for you. But probably for your kids and certainly for theirs…unless we deal with the global need to control population. That too many babies are coming is at the core of energy consumption, air pollution, the deterioration of our aquifers and the loss of hundreds of precious animal species.
Did I mention our need to feed the 9.1 billion hungry mouths that the UN says will want dinner in 2050?
Did I forget to say that despite lower fertility levels, by 2050 we will be adding 34 million new inhabitants annually…or about four New York city’s every twelve months?
Aggrandize science all we want, but no genetically modified corn stalk can keep up with that kind of growth. My Green Mind reported in our last blog that World grain production was down 2%, not up. (Grain declines are linked to climate change, yet another phenomena stemming from population growth.)
To bring it home, you’ve been to the supermarket. Since when did a bag of grapes cost $6.00? Food prices aren’t exactly stable, and this is just a hint of what’s coming. But it will help if we keep this issue in the front of our minds and on the tip of our tongues.
At least we should talk about how to cope with all the babies we‘re birthin’.
Grain production is falling even as population growth is upping the demand for grain. The global population needs a growth of 3.5% in wheat production and 6% for corn production in 2011 just to keep current with present demand. An obvious result of the drop in grain production? Food prices are escalating.
The issue is further impacted when grains are diverted to produce biofuels. Currently about 7% of corn and seed oil go for biofuel production, and surely less dependence on foreign petroleum is essential. But at the same time shifting 7% of the corn supply for fuel production adds to grain shortages even as it boosts food prices. Grain for fuel is a win-win but also a lose-lose solution.
In 1798 Thomas Malthus warned in his famous An Essay on the Principle of Population that population growth might outpace the global food supply.
I wonder what the old boy would say if he’d known of climate change.
Several major food and merchandise retailers have already pulled or plan to pull their reusable shopping bags off their shelves. The action comes after laboratory tests found potentially dangerous levels of lead in the bags. The bags are sold as a greener alternative to disposable “paper or plastic” bags provided at major stores. Of the 71 bags tested from 44 major retailers, tests found that reusable bags from 21 major chains contained lead levels above 100 parts per million–the maximum permitted by many states.
For example potentially harmful lead levels were found in select bags from Safeway, Walgreens, CVS (CVS recalled the bags in question in November) and other chains. Disney-themed Safeway bags contained levels 15 times higher than federal limits, according to USA Today.
The strongest lead concentrations were found in the bottom liners used in the non-woven polypropylene bags and it is recommended that you remove the insert from reusable shopping bags that you continue to carry.
See a list of tested bags at www.consumerfreedom.com the organization that led the research on the bags.
My Green Mind recommends the use of either corn based grocery and produce bags or the European net style cotton shopping bags as an alternative to polypropylene bags. Because we believe in full disclosure, we sell both corn based and cotton grocery shopping bags, but our recommendation is based on a concern for the reported exposure to high concentrations of lead.
If this were the Olympics, we wouldn’t even take home a bronze.
The long range implications of what’s happened are staggering. T Boon Pickens has pointed out the most obvious of them: that even as we try to slow the export of US wealth to the Middle East, we’re shifting our energy dollars to China, buying a renewable manufacturing capability from Asia. We want to go cold turkey on our oil dependency, only to become addicted to Chinese solar panels and wind turbines.
Think this is hyperbole? Consider what just happened to Massachusetts based Evergreen Solar, America’s third largest solar panel producer. Evergreen Solar announced it’s closing its big US factory, a plant built partly with $43 million in taxpayer dollars. Evergreen is laying off 800 workers though the company is not closing. It’s simply moving production to China in a joint venture fueled by high Chinese subsidies. The subsidies probably violate World Trade Organization rules, but the plant will be long gone before the WTO rules on it.
Recently Silicon Valley based Solyndra also announced it is closing one of two US plants for similar reasons. This happened at the same time that China just surpassed the US in wind turban production, sales and installations. Yet American wind turbines last longer and require less maintenance.
America’s loss to China in renewable energy equipment manufacturing adds a new twist to Sir Winston Churchill’s quip that a “democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.”
It’s because China isn’t a democracy that its leaders can implement strategic plans, making decisions without fear of losing election support from disgruntled special interests. Big bucks from lobbyists haven’t sidetracked Chinese decision making. The Shanghai Stock Exchange doesn’t dominate long term corporate planning the way Wall Street pressures American management. Like it or not China is out maneuvering us in the commercial marketplace chiefly because they are not encumbered by democracy.
Please don’t wave the flag and get patriotic with me. It misses the point. The reality is that our experiment with democracy has come to a time in a globalized marketplace when our inefficiencies are showing. Either long range strategic planning happens unencumbered at the cabinet level and is permitted, even cheered by a polarized Congress, or we fall further behind. It’s that simple just as it is that difficult.
We can tremble at the boogieman of big government involvement; we can remain ideological purists and pay the consequences in the world market. But if we do not figure out to reinvent government, how to insulate green legislation from the forces of bickering, how to allow a federal energy initiative reminiscent of Kennedy and America’s space race, it will cost us dearly. We will remain second tier in the renewable energy marketplace and you’re feeling the consequences of that squarely in your bank account.
(Why pro-green folks will have their cake and eat it too.)
With the initial phases of the new environmental regulations set to kick in, the flat-earthers are lining up to do battle. The plan is to emasculate the EPA with budget cuts that make enforcement increasingly difficult. Add to that the planned legal challenges by some states that will argue that the Feds and the Courts have no constitutional right to interfere with business…unless it’s to wave a legislative Pinocchio wand and turn a business into a real live person a la Citizens United.
Green advocates will have their hands full in 2011 when Michigan Republican Representative Fred Upton sits to chair the House Energy Committee. The former believer in climate change underwent a conversion after getting a few checks from the petroleum industry. That plus Speaker Boenher’s implied threat of the loss of his committee chairmanship. After that, Upton became a flat earther as fast as you can say “winds gusts to 60.”
To be fair, Upton’s recent conversion to the flat-earther world view relies on his belief that tougher emissions regulations are also tough on the economy–the House’s first priority. But others disagree. This week Massachusetts announced a plan to curb heat-trapping gases emitted by homes, business and cars so that in ten years they will be 25% below 1990 levels. What’ll that do to the state’s recovering economy? Only good according to Ian Bowels, the State’s Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs. Bowles says his studies show that emissions cuts will products a net gain in statewide jobs. Bowles further argues that, “People who have studied this find you can get your first 20-30 percent of greenhouse-gas cuts without making significant economic trade-offs.”
Consider Bowle’s comments in light of our recent blog on how vital the growing recycling industry is to the Commonwealth State and a light will go on. Going green has actually supported that state’s economy and it has grown jobs.
It means we can have our cake and eat it too. Not to mention save our bacon.