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The Vacuum - Issue 18 - Waste spacer The Vacuum - Issue 18 - Waste
Is Waste the Real Issue?
by Paul Walsh
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More legislation needed, less illegal dumping, more enforcement, bigger fines, no more landfill, no incineration, more recycling, a plastic bag tax, lots of composting. Headlines like these reflect the breadth of the concerns commonly espoused as the debate about what to do with our waste is played out in the general media. Everyone has a view whether it is based on a firm understanding or not, the most notable feature of these views being that it is always someone else who " needs to do something about it". The historical situation in Northern Ireland, whereby responsibility for waste management and environmental protection were dispersed through local authorities (26 of them) and government departments has only made it easier for the "Joe and Josephine Public" to believe that someone else, when they get their act together will make all the waste go away.
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However the real Issue is not the amount of waste that is produced, rather the real Issue is the amount of resource that is used and abused. Thus rather than being someone else's problem to solve, the solution to the waste problem lies in the "consuming hands" of Joe and Josephine Public.
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If we consider that our lifestyle can be represented by a long pipe (figure 1), what comes out of that pipe is the discarded materials left over after we have used and abused the natural material and energy resources on which all of our lifestyles are based. The second picture (figure 2) represents an improvement on the first by the addition of reuse or recycling of some of the left over waste. This is the current degree of aspiration of our policy makers, and occasionally some hold out the panacea represented by the possibility of moving to the situation represented by the third picture (figure 3), whereby the leftovers from one process to be the feed materials for another as shown.
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Even so these policies don't address the real issues, since the most effective way of dealing with waste is not to produce it in the first place.
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This is the hard bit ie making the metaphoric pipe narrower, or eliminating the lifestyle that is currently represented byextravagant consumption.
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But what is the extravagant consumption of natural resources and how can it be measured, and if it can be measured what is the quantity that is fair to everyone, and should everyone be allowed to consume resources to the same level? Thus a moral/ethical dimension has to be considered as we wrestle with the underpinning values that should be adopted. Little if any of the media debate reflects this.
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One model that is increasingly being quoted in this context of sustainable living is the concept of the ecological footprint.
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Consider that, currently, the population of the earth is approximately 6 billion, and rising; United Nations estimates suggest a population of 11 billion by about 2060. The earth has a surface area of approximately 51 billion hectares, of which 36.3 billion are sea (about 2.90 billion hectares of this could be considered to be productive in that it can yield fish supplies) and 14.7 billion are land. About 10 billion hectares of the land are biologically productive, the rest being either covered in ice or bereft of sufficient soil or water to support life.
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Thus 6 billion people have to derive all of their needs from approximately 12.9 billion hectares (2.90 + 10.0 billion hectares) of land. This equates to 2.15 hectares each, or 1.9 hectares each if an 8% allowance is made for other species to exist on.
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Thus, we each have 1.9 hectares to meet our needs. This area must therefore provide us with enough food, enough water, sufficient space to live in, sufficient fuel to meet our energy needs and sufficient trees to sequester the CO2 that we produce from burning fuels and to dispose of our waste. What does 1,9 heactres or 4.63 acres look like?
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Chambers (1) suggests " Imagine a square field of 1.9 heactares. Standing in the centre of this field you would clearly see the boundary less than 75m away. A leisurely walk around the perimeter of the field (600mm) would take you ten minutes."
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A recent study (Northern Limits (2)) has shown however, that based on the actual quantities of energy and materials consumed within Northern Ireland and the quantity of waste that is produced, each person is on average using 5.63 hectors of land to meet their needs. This is only possible if each of us uses someone else's share as well as our own, ie a huge proportion of the earth's current population lives on the produce from less than 1.9 hectares. The Table highlights the top and bottom 5 counties in terms of their usage of the earth's natural resources as measured using the ecological footprint concept. It's also worth noting that if the planet's population increases to 9 billion then each person's share will fall to approximately 1.2 hectares.
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Country Ecological Footprint (hectares) USA 9.6 Australia 9.4 Canada 7.2 Singapore 6.6 Sweden 6.1 Nigeria 1.0 India 1.0 Pakistan 0.9 Ethiopia 0.7 Bangladesh 0.6
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Table 1 Based on data published by Chambers et al (1) Based on this analysis it is obvious that we in the developed western world are using massively more of the planet's resources than those in other regions. The most notable effects of this are rapidly becoming obvious. At a local level we have a waste management crises in that our over and misappropriate use of materials is leading to the creation of excessive waste and we are struggling to work out what to do with it. At a global level the production of excessive quantities of CO2 through the excessive consumption of fossil fuels is creating the problems associated with climate change.
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Debating about what legislation is most appropriate or whether landfilling is better or worse for the environment than incineration is therefore a debate that is missing the point. That debate allows people to escape responsibility by being able to blame others (the councils the government etc) for not dealing with the waste. Rather what is needed is a debate that focuses on the individuals use and abuse of scarce resources and which will challenge everyone to consider their responsibilities in ensuring that their fellow passengers on spaceship earth are treated equitably.
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References (1) Chambers, Nicky; Simmons, Craig; Wackernagel, Mathis; Sharing Nature's Interest, Eartscan 2000 (2) Northern Limits A Resource Flow Analysis and Ecological Footprint for Northern Ireland, 2004 www.northern-limits.com
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