People are changing. We are becoming a society that reuses, recycles, repurposes. In the grand scheme, we are no longer being labeled penny pinchers in the negative sense, but people who care about preserving that which preserves us.
I recently found a Pinterest topic on reusables (one of my favorite topics). Over a dozen articles and YouTube videos were devoted to showing all the different ways to use binder clips. Each author topped the previous one on the number of off-the-wall creative ways to reuse them. I think the winner came up with 52 different uses. The electronic cord organizer got my attention.
We recycle products, clothes, furniture, accessories, materials, trash and landfill items … the list is inexhaustible. I have a friend who visits landfills and dumpsters. She’s not homeless. She has an active and successful business creating beautiful artistic works merging pieces of furniture out of scraps of metal, wood, and plastic, dented carts, discarded baby carriage wheels, glass shards and other discarded items. And what’s encouraging is that people are paying top dollar for these assembled used creations.
I recall in my youth laughing to myself at the shot glasses of used tea bags my mother would place in the refrigerator. She felt using one teabag for one cup of tea was wasteful when two cups could do the job. I chalked it up to the refugee culture of her generation and growing up in America’s post-depression era.
Everything Except Toilet Paper
I used to make fun of a friend whose mantra is “I reuse everything – except toilet paper.” Some shake their heads at the piles he accumulates on his property, but he is vindicated –often – whenever he is able to dig through his stash to come up with the perfect doohickey to fix a broken appliance or find enough building materials for a greenhouse that saved probably $500 in lumberyard wood.
Are we treading a thin line between being pack rats (or hoarders at worst) and being thrifty and environmentally responsible citizens? What to keep and what to throw away? And where do we find the space to store it all until or in the event we can reuse or repurpose it?
We used to be an unconscious throwaway society. I was part of it. I grew up with that mentality. But I see deliberate, sometimes slow changes in myself and in many others. “Reuse, recycle, reduce” is the familiar chant among consumers and businesses alike – albeit for differing reasons: cost savings, environmental concerns, to show off our trendiness, because it feels good to be good.
Sure, there are still plenty of us who are either totally oblivious to our serious planetary problem, don’t care, or are too busy to make the extra effort to separate our recycled trash, bring reusable bags to the grocery store, opt for more sustainable ways to make home renovations and save energy. Granted, it takes work. But it’s the little oversights that annoy me, the ones where there’s hardly any effort required. At my post office, there are two large paper recycling bins, clearly labeled and prominently located, yet the regular trash can is overflowing with junk and unwanted mail while the recycling bins are near empty. What gives?
One of my favorite movies, Wall-E, beautifully depicts the theme of environmental waste and the consequences of not cleaning up our acts. It doesn’t seem like a far-off or unlikely scenario any longer.
For those who haven’t seen this animated cinematic gem, Wall-E, produced in 2008, depicts an earth far in the future, a “trashed” planet, abandoned and uninhabitable by people and all other living organisms due to the excesses of consumer waste. Wall-E is the last remaining trash compacting robot among a fleet who were assigned to tidy up the mountains of accumulated debris so that humans could eventually return from their automated earth orbiting spaceships.
But the project is abandoned as it is determined that the planet cannot be saved. Meanwhile, humans, who are in outer space limbo, have become morbidly obese from their sedentary lifestyle on the cruise- ship-style space vessel built to sustain them, indefinitely marooned for centuries in orbit above our doomed earth.
I [Heart Icon] Love Canal
Waste has some serious consequences for us today, as we ever-so-slowly transition from a consuming society into one of being earth’s protector and partner. Companies, once contracted by local governments, handled the disposal of our household waste. They were viewed as socially responsible businesses.
However, over the last few decades, hazardous industrial waste has merged with household waste to form municipal landfills forming huge toxic dumps that are leaching into our groundwater and polluting our air, our oceans and streams, our crops, and affecting our health. Most of us remember New York’s Love Canal and the more recent dumping grounds in Uniontown, Alabama and Flint, Michigan. This is just cherry picking some of the more publicized incidents around the country. National Geographic counts 1700 of the most toxic “Superfund” waste sites and offers a coded US map and a place to type in a city name to find more details on each of them. OnEarth magazine reports that about 11 million people live within one mile of one.
What constitutes hazardous and non-hazardous waste has become blurred. The lure of business interests, politics, fuel and greed have taken priority over environmental pollution and human health. Politely termed “environmental parks” these dumps are no more than concentrated waste sites eating away at the natural beauty and natural resources of our communities – and our serenity at the very least.
Owned by multi-billion dollar enterprises traded on the stock market, corporations cashing in on waste management have sprung up all over our country, encroaching on our communities. In many cases they are bullying and buying their way into communities where they are unwanted by residents, making deals and offering hollow promises to cash-strapped local city councils.
Waste has to go somewhere. That’s the argument of the landfill corporations and many others who have trouble seeing the big picture and the consequences of letting profit-driven businesses handle the transportation, disposal, and storage of coal ash, radioactive materials, chemicals, and waste … waste generated from the growing production of consumer and industrial products resulting from the use of fossil fuels, consumer and commercial products that reflect antiquated, industrial-age dirty and harmful production systems.
We’ve had our share of human-caused environmental disasters: Three Mile Island Nuclear meltdown ( 1979 Pennsylvania); Bhopal Gas Tragedy (1984, India); Chernobyl (1986, Russia); Exxon Valdez (oil tanker spill (1989 Mediterranean Sea, Alaska); BP Oil Spill (2010 Gulf of Mexico); Fukushima Nuclear Disaster (2011 Japan). More recently: lead contamination in Flint, Michigan’s water (2014) and Southern California’s methane leak (2016 San Fernando Valley, California). These are just the more publicized ones.
Good Intentions Go Awry
Renewable energy hasn’t caught up just yet. It’s not always cost-efficient, and the industries that are responsible for the spewing of chemicals, fuel emissions, and other wastes aren’t’ happy about changing the way they do business. It costs a lot of much money. No argument there. But it’s a dilemma that’s going to cause serious deterioration to our overburdened ecosystem if we don’t move away from those practices.
Look at what’s happening in Nevada. It’s a classic example of the battle between clean renewable versus carbon-emitting dirty energy. The state initiated a large rooftop solar initiative in 2012 and received a federal grant to kick start a program that would be a model for the rest of the states to make solar energy cost-competitive with other forms of energy.
The program’s main focus was on residential customers. Residents who decided to go solar and give their business to solar installation companies to install expensive solar panels on their homes were part of a net metering solar grid. Their intention was, in time, to drastically cut their utility bills. I think there were about 17,000 residents in all. To give incentive for the program, energy rebates were given to these customers by local utilities and federal funding helped defray some of those costs to the utility companies and the state.
Solar power issues heated up when Nevada’s governor and the state’s Public Utilities Commission eliminated net metering at the end of last year. Apparently the state of Nevada is no longer interested in supporting a new solar energy industry, creating new jobs, and being a role model for the rest of the country. Maybe it was costing them more money than they anticipated. Maybe political pressure was in play.
To add insult to injury, residents who signed up for net metering will see an increase in their utility rates as a new utility tariff goes into effect for solar customers. Instead of paying slightly higher prices for solar energy that they hoped would eventually drop when the program caught on, they started out paying a fixed service fee of $12.75 per month (what non-solar customers were paying). That fee jumped to $17.90 per month in 2015, and will continue to ratchet up, reaching a projected rate of $38.51 by 2020, according to a Las Vegas Sun news report.
It’s interesting to note that the owner of the holding company for Berkshire Hathaway, multi-billionaire Warren Buffet, who owns a number of the Nevada utilities, is opposed to the solar grid initiative. Some speculate he may have had a hand somehow in the state’s decision reversal. Angry solar panel homeowners have begun fighting the increased rate hikes by filing a class action lawsuit.
Now a similar scenario is occurring in Maine. As I write this, lawmakers there are considering legislation that would eliminate “net metering,” the billing credit system that makes solar use more affordable, just like in Nevada. Citizens, who are nearly unanimously in support of net metering, are frustrated with the difficulty they’re encountering getting their voices heard and their desires addressed.
Renewable energy is on the minds of everyone across the globe … everyone who hasn’t buried their head in the sand, that is. Recycling on a massive scale. It’s what the climate change talks have been focused on: trying to get the world’s leaders to commit to reducing and setting limits on the amount of carbon-based fuels and emissions its country uses.
Here’s What Disagreement Looks Like
Each day I read about a new technology or a company or a school or an individual helping to reduce the carbon footprint. It’s inspiring. And it makes me feel that maybe we’re not doomed as a planet. Maybe we can turn things around. Lots of naysayers are coming out publicly too. They like to explain why our efforts are fruitless, deny climate change is occurring, or piece together historical data to show that it’s part of the earth’s cycle. How could humans possibly be responsible for the rapid rise in temperatures that began just over the last decade?
In its summary to policymakers, the global panel on climate change (IPCC), gathering in Paris during the summer of 2015, made its first public observation:
“Human influence on the climate system is clear, and recent anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gasses are the highest in history. Recent climate changes have had widespread impacts on human and natural systems.”
As we approach the 46th anniversary of Earth Day, an event now celebrated in over 192 countries, it’s a good time to take a look back in time to get some perspective. Have we made progress advancing responsible stewardship of mother earth? Can we say with conviction that we’re moving toward, not away from our commitments to clean up our messes and taken determined action? Is it window dressing? Or, have we begun to give up all hope, as individuals, adopting what Pogo defeatingly suggests: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”