EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 6. Designing a New Materials Economy: Introduction

In March 2001, the Fresh Kills landfill, the local destination for New York City's daily output of 12,000 tons of garbage, was permanently closed. Now the garbage is hauled to distant sites in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Virginiasome of them more than 480 kilometers (300 miles) away. Assuming a load of 20 tons of garbage for each of the tractor-trailers that are used for the long-distance hauling, some 600 rigs are needed to remove garbage from New York City each day. These tractor-trailers form a convoy nearly 15 kilometers (9 miles) long, impeding traffic, polluting the air, and raising carbon emissions. This daily convoy of trucks leaving the city led Deputy Mayor Joseph J. Lhota, who supervised the Fresh Kills shutdown, to say that getting rid of the city's trash is now "like a military-style operation on a daily basis."1

What is happening in New York will occur in other cities if they also fail to adopt comprehensive recycling programs. Instead of focusing efforts on reducing garbage as the Fresh Kills landfill was filling, the decision was made to simply haul the garbage to more remote sites. Even a simple measure like recycling all its paper could shorten the daily convoy leaving the city by 187 tractor-trailers or 4.5 kilometers (2.8 miles).2

Fiscally strapped local communities are willing to take the garbage if New York pays enough. Some see it as a bonanza. For the state governments, however, that have to deal with the traffic congestion, noise, increased air pollution, and complaints from nearby communities, this arrangement is not so attractive. The Governor of Virginia wrote to New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani complaining about the use of Virginia as a dumping ground. "I understand the problem New York faces," he noted. "But the home state of Washington, Jefferson and Madison has no intention of becoming New York's dumping ground." Whether New York can continue to dump its garbage in others states over the long term remains to be seen.3

Earlier periods in human history were marked by the material that distinguished the erathe Stone Age and the Bronze Age, for example. Our age is simply the Material Age, an age of excess whose distinguishing feature is not the use of any particular material, but the sheer volume of materials consumed.

Worldwide, we process or use 26 billion tons of materials each year, including 20 billion tons of stone, gravel, and sand used for road building and construction; over 1 billion tons of iron ore processed for steelmaking; and 700 million tons of gold ore for extracting gold. From forests, we take 1.7 billion tons of wood for fuel, roughly 1 billion tons for wood products, and just over 300 million tons for manufacturing paper. To obtain phosphorus and potassium to replace the nutrients that our crops remove from soils, we annually mine 139 million tons of phosphate rock and 26 million tons of potash.4

Each of the earth's 6.1 billion inhabitants uses on average 137 kilograms (300 pounds) of steel per year in automobiles, household appliances, buildings, and other products. This means that each of us consumes nearly double our body weight in steel each year. Producing that steel means processing more than 340 kilograms of iron ore per person.5

The scale of the materials economy is far larger than most of us ever imagine, simply because we come in contact with only the final productwe see, for example, the steel in our car or refrigerator, but not the tons of ore from which it was extracted, or we see the paper in our newspapers and stationery, but not the stack of logs from which it was processed.

The production of some seemingly innocuous items, such as gold jewelry, can be incredibly destructive. For example, the gold rings exchanged by couples during weddings require the processing of tons of ore, most likely by cyanide leaching. Worldwatch researcher John Young calculated that to create a pair of gold wedding rings, the ore processed is the equivalent of a hole in the ground that is 10 feet long, 6 feet wide, and 6 feet deep. Fortunately for the newlyweds, this hole is in someone else's backyard. So, too, is the cyanide used to separate the gold from the ore.6

All the figures just cited are global averages, but the use of materialslike that of energy and foodvaries widely among societies. For example, steel production per person in the United States totals 352 kilograms annually; in China, it is 98 kilograms, and in India, just 24 kilograms.7

The processing of vast quantities of ore to produce metals is polluting local air and water. The energy use, the physical disruption of the land, and the pollution associated with processing ever growing quantities of ore are becoming less and less acceptable.

The sheer size of the materials economy is not only physically disruptive, it also uses vast quantities of energy. In the United States, the steel industry alone uses as much electricity as the country's 90 million homes.8

Building an eco-economy depends on restructuring the materials economy becauselike the energy economyit is in conflict with the earth's ecosystem. Architect William McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart talk about doing this. They describe an economy that is regenerative rather than depletive, one whose products "work within cradle-to-cradle life cycles rather than cradle-to-grave ones." In effect, this redesign means replacing the current linear flow-through model with a circular model that emulates nature, one that closes the loop. It means replacing mining industries with recycling industries, a step that will allow a mature, industrial economy with a stable population to live largely on the materials already in use.9

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1. Eric Lipton, "The Long and Winding Road Now Followed by New York City's Trash," New York Times, 24 March 2001.

2. Paper from U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, "Municipal Solid Waste Generation, Disposal and Recycling in the United States, Facts and Figures for 1998," source data and fact sheet (Washington, DC: April 2000).

3. Lipton, op. cit. note 1.

4. U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), Mineral Commodity Summaries 2001 (Washington, DC: 2001); stone, sand and gravel, and clays from John E. Young, Mining the Earth, Worldwatch Paper 109 (Washington, DC: Worldwatch Institute, July 1992); fossil fuels in oil equivalent, from BP, BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2001 (London: Group Media & Publications, June 2001); wood figures from Emily Matthews et al., Pilot Analysis of Global Ecosystems: Forest Ecosystems (Washington, DC: World Resources Institute, 2000), pp. 27, 39.

5. Steel and iron ore production from USGS, op. cit. note 4; United Nations, World Population Prospects: The 2000 Revision (New York: February 2001).

6. John E. Young, "For the Love of Gold," World Watch, May/June 1993, pp. 19-26.

7. International Iron and Steel Institute (IISI), "The Major Steel Producing Countries," www.worldsteel.org, viewed 21 May 2001; United Nations, op. cit. note 5.

8. Hal Kane, "Steel Production Falls," in Lester R. Brown et al., Vital Signs 1993 (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1993), p. 76.

9. William McDonough and Michael Braungart, "The NEXT Industrial Revolution," The Atlantic Monthly, October 1998, p. 88.


Copyright © 2001 Earth Policy Institute