UCLAx Cradle to Cradle: class 6


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This is one in a series of documents that follow my UCLA winter 2010 course titled Cradle to Cradle: Closed Loop Systems. This interdisciplinary course contributes to the school's Certificate of Global Sustainability.

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UCLAx Cradle to Cradle: class 6

  1. 1. UCLAx class 6 1 UCLAx Cradle to Cradle: Class 6 To understand cradle to cradle concepts, it’s helpful to first get a good feel for how our current cradle to grave industrial system works. This week’s class extended discussions begun during previous classes regarding waste reduction, and was dedicated to understanding the grave. Four weeks ago, the class heard Ray Anderson present an equation first proposed by Paul Ehrlich and John Holdren in 1974 to demonstrate the environmental impact created by increasing population, affluence, and technology. Looking at continental populations in 2009, North America had 528 million people, South and Central America had 423 million people, Europe had 731 million people, Africa had 1 billion people, Australia had 21 million people, and Asia had 4 billion people. The United Nations has been studying the relationship between wealth and resource depletion. In a recent report, it was shown that 86% of all natural resources are consumed by the wealthiest one fifth of nations. The four fifths of the poorest nations consume just 14% of natural resources. The continents with the largest populations have the lowest level of technology application. You can easily imagine how developing nations with large and rapidly growing populations who aspire to higher levels of affluence and technology could have a dramatic impact on the planet if they follow a US model. The United States has just 5% of the global population, but consumes 25% of all resources. If the nations of Brazil, India, and China, who have 40% of the global population, consumed at the same rate they would do so at 200% of the planet’s capacity. Combine the current take-make-waste industrial processes that often accompany increased population, affluence, and technology and one potential significant impact is certain to be vastly increased waste production. In the U.S., 54% of all solid municipal waste - what you see in garbage cans and dumpsters at the curb - ends up at the more than 3,000 landfills throughout the country. In 2008, that amounted to 250 million tons of waste material. 33% is diverted from landfill and gets recycled. But an amazing 62% of what still goes to the landfill is composed of recyclable material - wood, plastic, metal, paper, and rubber. Of the six most common types of recyclable plastics, only PET (27%) and HDPE (29%) have recycle rates above 1%. And another 25% of what goes to a landfill are compostable food scraps and yard waste. 13% of all solid municipal waste gets incinerated, which is low compared to other countries. Although opponents to incineration claim that burning trash releases toxins into the atmosphere, if that incineration is used to produce energy, the average coal fired power plant releases more per kilowatt hour produced. However, in addition to potential harmful pollutants, incineration still results in www.threadcollaborative.com ➜ threadcollaborative 11250 morrison street no. 201, north hollywood ca 91601
  2. 2. UCLAx class 6 2 some solid waste that ends up in a landfill. Since the closure of the Fresh Kills Landfill on Statin Island, the honor of world’s largest landfill goes to the Atlas Landfill in Las Vegas. It took in more than 3.7 million tons of waste in 2007. Other parts of the world are also experiencing issues with how to deal with their solid municipal waste. In Mexico City, it’s estimated that 20,000 to 30,000 people actually live at the city’s landfills. They are known as trash pickers. The average life expectancy in Mexico City is 67 years. The life expectancy of a trash picker is just 39 years. Although some of the world’s largest landfills are in the U.S., some argue that the biggest is actually the Great Pacific Gyre. So remote and difficult to measure, only estimates can be made about actual size. Some suggest it could be as small as the size of Texas, up to twice that size. Imagine that, a landfill that covers Texas. Photographer Chris Jordan spent time last year in remote islands near Midway Island documenting dead birds and the amount of plastic objects in their stomachs. His images are heart wrenching. Check out a few here. It’s difficult to look at the scale of the problem of U.S. trash production since few citizens live near a landfill. We throw away our trash and link little of where it actually goes. But to transition from cradle to grave to cradle to cradle systems, you have to know what the grave currently looks like. Knowing more about waste allows us to make plans to reduce it. We’ll continue on this line of discussion for another week while transitioning to strategies that help preserve resources while reducing waste. www.threadcollaborative.com ➜ threadcollaborative 11250 morrison street no. 201, north hollywood ca 91601