If You Can't Measure It, You Can't Manage It
As a nation we must better account how we waste in order to best manage these by-products. Deliberate waste directly depletes our earth's resources. It eventually results in many forms of loss through a degradation of our planet. Improved inventories of what we discard will stimulate a greater understanding of how we can better lessen such waste. There is a critical connection between waste and prosperity. Our living standards have provoked increased consumption. However, such resource mismanagement taps our limited energy and materials. Better tracking of the entire material generation cycle and material use flows can provide us with a more holistic approach to "best use" of our scarce resources.
Each year Americans use, discard and recycle more than 17.3 billion tons of waste including non-sewage wastewater . The total volume of non-waste water is 4.9 billion tons per year  . Just in America's households, we generate 1.6 million tons of hazardous waste including, paints, cleaners, oils, batteries, and pesticides that contain corrosive, toxic, ignitable and reactive ingredients. Improved feedback as to just what we discard can stimulate a greater understanding as to how we can either minimize and/or recover this waste. We have made great progress with municipal waste but not with the larger and potentially more dangerous waste streams.
For example, the recent U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) report tracked the amount of toxic chemicals released into the environment for facilities operating during the 2004 calendar year. Roughly 23,600 industrial and government facilities account for 4.24 billion pounds of some 90,000 chemical forms. While this inventory showed a four percent decrease in chemicals released compared to 2003, the EPA has changed the rules for reporting releases that distinctly favor industry. The Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) stated that toxic releases to U.S. waterways increased by 10 percent between 2003 and 2004 .
Waste generators in the U.S. include: special waste (mining, oil and gas et at 2.3 billion tons per year): nuclear waste (1.2 billion tons per year); agricultural (789 million tons per year); construction and demolition (333 million tons per year with roads contributing another 164 million tons): forestry (280 million tons per year;) and what most people think is ordinary waste-municipal waste is estimated at 236 million tons per year . Coal combustion by-products account for 122 million tons per year and foundry sand roughly 6-10 million tons per year. Industrial non-hazardous, hazardous, used oil and medical waste combine to add another 226 million tons per year. Wastewater generation is huge at over 12.5 billions tons per year (roughly 99% of this water).
Our increased standard of living results in accelerated resource consumption and triggers two serious questions: Can our environment absorb the continued waste stream from our energy- and material-intensive lifestyles? Does the earth have the capacity to sustain this over-exploitation while these resources are dwindling? Better tracking of the entire material cycle can provide us with a more holistic approach to management of our limited resources.
Upfront pollution prevention is critical and yet a challenge, since our waste may be transformed into other forms such as solid, liquid and gas. Even though we have made major advances in cleaning up our air, water and land, we must refine our focus to concentrate on material flows in all areas of the environment. Some of the key issues facing us are:
Another facet is the decreasing quality of our water resources impacts our use of it. EPA estimates that roughly 40% of our nation's streams are polluted. This impairment includes over 20,000 individual river segments; 300,000 river and shoreline miles; and five million acres of lakes. Some experts estimate the clean-up of contaminated groundwater at 300,000 sites in the United States could cost up to $1 trillion over the next 30 years.
- How to lessen global warming. We are 5% of the world's population producing 22% of the climate altering CO2 (carbon dioxide) added to the atmosphere. EPA recently estimated that greenhouse gases increased 1.7 percent in 2004.  Roughly 1.54 billion pounds are US emissions (7 billion is the global number.).
- How to sustain water quantity. Americans use three times more water each day than Europeans, and that's not for purposes of cleanliness. Each day we use 137 billion gallons of water for irrigation. On the east coast in the summer months, one-third of our water goes to watering our lawns. Agriculture has been cited as the largest water user worldwide. U.S. Power plants consume 131 billion gallons of water each day.
The challenge for the United States is to determine how all facets of materials flow--waste generation; reduction, reuse, recycling, composting, energy recovery, treatment, storage, and disposal--interact and affect our lives. Source reduction, improved land use planning, better product design and manufacturing, green purchasing, and numerous types of re-use and recycling can be used to reduce our waste inventory and provide a better system to manage our resources. New ventures such as "green building", re-use of landfill methane and the recovery of electronics, mercury-bearing products and oil, are various ventures blazing a trail towards conservation and better resource management at the individual level. Just the simple act of leaving your grass cutting on your lawn makes a difference.
- How to safely dispose of our radioactive waste. Each year in the United States, 2,000 tons of spent fuel is generated by the nation's 103 operating nuclear power plants that provide 20% of America's electricity. Roughly 40,000 tons of waste has been generated by America's commercial nuclear plants. Re-use of radioactive waste and final disposal is a challenging matter. Some estimates put the cost to reprocess spent fuel waste by separating the highly radioactive components from the low-level components using chemical processes costing hundreds of billions of dollars. Used plutonium lasts for 250,000 years, and the contaminated nickel in the core of nuclear reactors lasts 3 million years.
- How to manage used oil and gas wastes. Each year 3 billion tons of oil and gas wastes are generated by oil and gas exploration and production in America. However this data is old and was supplied by the American Petroleum Institute. We consume more than 250 billion gallons of oil on an annual basis. On the back-end consumers waste hundreds of millions of gallons of used oil and anti-freeze along with hundreds millions of used oil filters that are improperly disposed of by millions of Americans who change their own oil (do-it-yourselfers).
- How to better manage our natural resources including our forests, minerals, water, and land. Building and road construction has a significant impact on the environment, accounting for one sixth of the world's freshwater withdrawal, one-quarter of its wood harvest, and two-fifths of its materials and energy flow. Each year we lose 136 million tons of construction and demolition (C&D) waste from building and 200 million tons for roads (about 50% if concrete is recycled). Estimates for buildings and roads is 300 million tons per year  . Buildings consume 40% of the raw stone, gravel and sand used globally each year. Each year 2 billion tons of topsoil is lost through erosion. New construction accelerates this. An average of nearly 17 tons of soil is lost per acre of cropland per year.
- How to improve the manner in which we dispose of municipal solid waste. Each year millions of tons of refuse is landfilled, some of which may be recovered and reused. Landfills are one of the largest sources of methane released in the United States, and some are converting theirs into useable energy. Roughly one-half of our solid waste is biodegradable. Besides paper, yard and vegetative waste, over 96 billion pounds of food a year--or one quarter of America's food--is lost. Increasing composting can both generates new soil, and can improves our soil.
- Better manage our excrement. More than 16,000 sewage treatment facilities serving 190 million Americans generate biosolids or sludge. These facilities also serve thousands of industrial and commercial establishments. Approximately eight million dry metric tons of biosolids are produced annually--that's about 70 pounds per person per year. About 54% of these biosolids are land applied. In the agriculture sector another 500 million tons of manure is produced yearly by farm animals.
Protecting all Americans from the by-products we produce can lessen potential exposure caused by possible releases. Fundamental to this process is how we engage people to become part of the solution instead of part of the problem. There are millions of environmental acts of terror that Americans foolishly commit. How can we use our wealth to improve our environment rather than diminish it?
We must take better inventory of our entire waste cycle and material flows to become more efficient and productive in using and conserving our dwindling resources. Such an effort can better identify important factors such as energy, economic and environmental impacts so that we can better set aside resources for the world's future generations.
Without comprehensive environmental management and integrated planning of the entire materials-flow and by-products cycle, we will be ineffective in transforming our liabilities into assets. Such new ventures can chart a course of action and conservation. Fundamental to this process is a need to engage people to become part of the solution instead of part of the problem. We have an essential challenge: we must seek answers to clearly understand the impact of our consumption. Let's re-examine how we can make our world better by using less. Can we as a nation afford to waste? If we cannot measure what we discard, we will be in the dark as to how we best manage the impacts of this waste.
Copyright Rob Arner - All Rights Reserved.
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