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Moratorium on Excess?

Posted by Sara Gutterman

Nov 20, 2013 9:17:00 AM

WHILE IT SEEMS that Americans have become more fiscally aware since the recession, we certainly can’t be accused of embracing a culture of frugality. Our excesses are well known by societies across the planet, idealized and emulated by some, hatefully condemned by others.

One consequence of our throwaway economy is a gargantuan amount of trash. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), each person in the U.S. generates a daily average of 4.5 pounds of municipal solid waste—a collective total of approximately 1.35 billion pounds every day, or over 250 billion tons per year. It’s estimated that Americans spend $100 per ton to dispose of this waste, or over $250 billion per year.

Food is a major contributor to the waste stream. Each year, Americans waste approximately 33 million tons of food—the equivalent of $165 billion. Even though getting food to our tables accounts for 80% of our freshwater use and 10% of the total U.S. energy budget, 40% of our food is wasted.

Since composting remains rare in our country, food leftovers are the single-largest contributor of the waste stream by weight, comprising 20% of the total material that goes to landfills according to the EPA. To add insult to injury, decaying food in landfills produces 34% of all methane emissions (methane is considerably more damaging to the environment than carbon dioxide).

Another significant product of our device-driven economy is electronics waste. As Americans have increased their use of consumer electronics (it’s estimated that each U.S. citizen owns an average of 24 electronic devices), the volume of e-waste has skyrocketed. 50 million tons of e-waste is produced each year globally, a number that the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) expects to grow by 500% over the next decade.

The EPA estimates that only 15% of electronics are recycled. Apparently, the U.S. is the world leader in e-waste production, discarding approximately 3 million tons each year (we dump 30 million computers on an annual basis), wasting valuable, scarce, and sometimes toxic materials (70% of heavy metals in landfills come from discarded electronics).

The building industry is an obvious perpetrator in any discussion about waste generation. Construction and demolition activities contribute up to 80% of the total landfill waste in some municipalities. Every year, there is approximately five billion square feet of new construction in the U.S., even though nearly 13 million housing units remain vacant (on an annual basis). The 2012 vacancy rate lingered around 14%, and the Metropolitan Institute forecasts a surplus of nearly 22 million homes over the next few decades (as a point of reference, Harvard economist Edward Glaeser estimates that if we stopped building today, it would take three years for newly formed households to occupy all of the current vacant units.)

As we drown under the tidal wave of our own waste, I can’t help but wonder—what if we decided to just say no to the opulence of waste? What if we, the building industry, decided to simply say no to new, greenfield developments that devour pristine habitat, exacerbate sprawl, and utilize far more resources than are necessary? What appened to recycling?

What if we could refocus the attention of the multi-billion dollar building sector on urban infills, adaptive reuse, and infrastructure upgrades? What if we insisted that all structures, whether new or retrofit, be net zero waste, emissions, energy, and water? Would that decrease resource use, eliminate sprawl, increase property values, and enhance communities?

What if we developed new success metrics—ones that weren’t defined by short-term financial gain and lowest upfront cost? What if we instead based all of our decisions on long-term performance, life-cycle cost, and sustainability?

I know that this idea may seem unrealistic and even radical, but it’s offered not with any expectation that it will be realized, but simply as food for thought. At the end of the day, I’m thrilled that we live in a society that enables people to realize their dreams through passion, hard work, and innovation. I’m certainly not advocating that we return to Depression Era ethics, but should we use the last barrel of oil, the last drop of clean water, the last acre of raw land simply because we can? There must be some reasonable middle ground between the extremes of extravagance and deprivation. If you find that place, please let me know. I'll gladly meet you there.

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