(Transmutation Recycle Shop, Robe, Australia. Bowls being made from recycled bread tags).

Solutions: other

Section
10. Reduce Wastes to the Rate of Natural Assimilation
Page
10.10

Feeling a little flat about all things environment, the other week I was lucky enough to visit a nearby seaside town, Robe, and call in on Brad and Narelle at their little ‘factory’ out the back of town, called Transmutation. It has to be said that it is in a most unprepossessing spot – a bare industrial estate – and the tin sheds and vacant blocks all around don’t fill one with confidence. Pressing on, though, one enters a world of ingenuity, determination and hope.

(Transmutation. 2022. Brad and Narelle Scott, creators of Transmutation, part recycling facility, shop, education site, and inspiration point).

Friendly, ‘can-do’ people bring this atmosphere to all they do, and at Transmutation you are drawn into the world of the possible and the clever as Brad and Narelle turn waste into bowls, shoes, knobs, mats, clothes, and more. They are forever giving ‘waste’ a new life, converting everything from bread tags to Styrofoam, both taking waste from the environment, where it can do harm, and diverting it from landfill, as well as – hopefully – reducing the need to extract and process raw materials in the first place, as the waste becomes the ‘raw material’.

The following video outlines their artisan operation, an operation Brad emphasises that is built around four principles: sustainability, craftsmanship, community, and innovation.

Transmutation – Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

Everything at Transmutation has been built from ‘nothing’; the machinery to transform plastics is made from old ovens and car jacks. When not closing the loop on plastics, they are providing an electric vehicle charging station and even offer a full, cradle-to-grave policy on all their transmutation-made goods whereby they will take, and pay postage, on all their products at the end of their life and recycle them again. It is no wonder they won the Australian Small Business Champions Award (Environmental Business) in 2021.

Brad and Narelle are all too aware that the ‘big game’ in addressing waste and pollution is to work ‘upstream’, to tackle the ‘reduction’ part of the ‘reduce-reuse-recycle’ mantra, and jokingly say that they hope to be out of a job one day. Jokes aside, this will never be so, as the Second Law of Thermodynamics guarantees that there will always be at least some waste from our actions, as matter cannot be transformed by our activities without this being so (see, e.g. 8.4), and this will have to be re-used, recycled or stored. But this said, there is no doubt that waste’s sheer volume (and toxicity and longevity) can and must be reduced if we are to get pollution levels down to that which the earth can assimilate.

On the positive side, we have seen:

  • International agreements to reduce pollutants, such as GHGs, e.g. The Paris Agreement (see 10.5);
  • Technological advancements to improve efficiency, such as the carbon intensity of production, which has fallen by approximately 25% in the last several decades1;
  • Increased proportion of energy production by lower-pollution renewables2;
  • Increased recycling opportunities and schemes in many countries;
  • Substitution of toxic wastes with more benign materials, e.g. leaded petrol removed in the USA and blood levels in infants dropping markedly3;
  • Increased secondary and tertiary levels of sewerage treatment, rather than primary direct pumping into rivers, lakes and seas;
  • Reduced particulate pollution, particularly in Developed countries4;
  • River-restoration projects around the world to reduce pollution and increase ecosystem health, e.g. the Chicago River in the USA (see 10.1), the Thames and the Lea rivers in the UK.

On the negative side, we have seen:

  • GHGs are increasing in the atmosphere and were, “in 2019, about 12% (6.5 GtCO2-eq) higher than in 2010, and 54% (21 GtCO2-eq) higher than in 1990.”5;
  • World fertiliser use (and subsequent run-off, etc.) has nearly doubled since 2000 (see 10.2)4;
  • Food waste in Western food systems is running at around 40%6;
  • Six of the seven global ‘pollution’ indicators for the Convention on Biological Diversity (Aichi Targets) and the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals4, record a ‘poor’ result in meeting improvement targets, and similarly, IPBES’ global trends graph, Figure SPM 1, records declining status over the last 50 years re Nature’s ability to reduce and assimilate wastes, e.g. # 4 climate regulation, #3 air-quality regulation, # 7 regulation of freshwater and coastal water quality, and # 8 formation, protection and decontamination of soils and sediments. In other words, as pollutant levels go up, Nature’s ability to process them and render them harmless is going down.

There is a pattern emerging here, one of scale: at the smaller scale, there are numerous examples of people and groups doing wonderful work limiting the impact of wastes and pollution and this is entirely laudatory; at the bigger scale, that of global trends, the picture is much less positive and seems to overwhelm individual, group, regional, or even some national, efforts. The small picture is often encouraging, the big picture discouraging. This is the story of so much of T10. The giant, global flood of growth, directly or indirectly, deliberately or unintentionally, is consuming and fouling the earth at a rate far beyond earth’s capacity for regeneration, and brave efforts to stem the tide are swept away in the rising waters. How, then, to respond?

The first answer is the obvious one: fundamental, deep, structural drivers of world society and beliefs have to be addressed. As explored in Section 3, we now have a virtually uniform global belief and religious system based around materialism, ‘more’, and the God of Growth. This is expressed in, and supported by, the global, capitalist, economic system, and further buttressed by fossil fuel use, technological innovation, media pump-priming and population and consumption increases. On top of this, our modern-day narcissism is increasingly blind to the presence or existence of Nature and our vital relationship with it.

Throughout T10 we have attempted to address these underlying drivers, and their ‘solution’ will be as beneficial for the reduction of wastes and pollution as for all other nine topics/sections in T10. For example:

 

I apologise for hopping between scales in these responses and will try to return the focus of action to that which can be more readily achieved by the individual. Again, it is helpful to go to the meta-study of Wynes and Nicholas at Lund University re GHG pollution7 (e.g., see 5.10). In the figure below they assess the impact of individuals’ lifestyle choices in Europe (and therefore representative of much of the Developed World) and lay them out from low impact to high impact. By far the greatest impact – 24 X any other! – is the decision to have one fewer child, say, to have a family of two children rather than three. (Transport and food choices follow, but housing is excluded from the study).

 

(Wynes, S., Nicholas, K. 2017. Meta-study of impact on GHG emissions of lifestyle choices – Europeans).

 

This study is rare in that it recognises fundamental, structuring drivers of the problem – causes – e.g. family size – as well as the more usual concentration on addressing symptoms, e.g. washing machine selection and operation. This common asymmetry in outlook can be presented graphically:

A highly simplistic model of the generalised world production system could be for cars: raw materials, labour, energy, demand, are fed into the system, cars are manufactured, and cars and wastes leave the system. By and large it is a linear process with little feedback or connection between output and input (except economically: demand and supply). Similarly, as far as wastes and pollution are concerned, there is little attention to the ‘input’ part of the process (light blue arrow) – the driver – but more attention to efficiencies, substitutions, recycling, etc…for the manufacturing and outputs parts of the process (dark blue arrows). This is not only out of balance with the problem of pollution, it guarantees an endless game of catch-up and inadequacy as inputs are directed continually to grow, while technology, regulations, ingenuity, etc. and so forth, are directed to achieve reductions and keep pace with growth. This is an uneven playing field in which the driver is unfettered (in fact, is continually primed) while the responders are handicapped in their allowable responses.

To perhaps better emphasise the global scale of this problem, the example of the world’s largest container port, Shanghai, is a good one.

(iStock. 2019. A portion of the massive Port of Shanghai, world’s largest).

 

The Port of Shanghai handles more than 24,000 container ships a year8, with a capacity of 43.5 million TEUs9 (a ‘TEU’ is ‘twenty-foot equivalent units’, i.e. the size of a container), servicing 281 shipping routes8. These container ships were large enough, but their size has grown astronomically and they can now exceed 20,000 TEUs each10 – see accompanying figure ‘Container Ship Evolution’.

(Universe Group. 2019. Evolution in size of container ships).

 

(extranet2. 2019. one of the newer, ‘super-sized’, container ships).

Now, imagine your job is to deal with the pollution from the port, or the world’s shipping fleet! The task is mind-boggling. With global trade increasing exponentially since the 1970s11 (see Section ‘State of the Environment’), more and larger ships, carrying more goods, using more fuel, requiring larger ports and harbours and infrastructure for handling; the impacts are just beginning. A starting point for consideration of impacts might be:

  • The mining of raw materials for ship and container construction;
  • The energy required to propel and manufacture these ships, containers and goods;
  • The CO2 emitted by the operation of this massive mercantile fleet (~4.5% of global emissions at present12);
  • The dredging and sediment suspended from creating and enlarging ports to deal with these huge ships;
  • The ballast water and other pollutants jettisoned at sea from these ships;
  • The invasive species spread around the globe by these ships and their effluents (e.g. it is estimated that 30% of Australia’s marine pests have been introduced via ballast water13);
  • The toxic chemicals released into the oceans from cleaning these ships’ hulls with chemicals such as Tributyltin (now illegal);
  • Oil and other spills from containers, tanks, etc…

The list could go on and on. Trade per se has the potential to be beneficial, but ever-expanding trade and all the materials and energy needed, and the impacts that ensue, are beyond anyone’s capacity to keep up with, and growth such as this will always outstrip efforts to catch-up via waste-reduction and pollution-limiting measures and techniques.

With world population on track for 10.9 billion by 210014, extraction of living biomass doubling since 19804, GDP quadrupling in the same timeibid., the curves for global energy demand and material extraction per unit of output flattening and predicted to rise again shortly15, and technological innovation running at 0.7% rather than the 7% required to keep pace16, then no matter how clever we are we cannot keep wastes to a volume and toxicity level that the earth can handle. Only a smaller, less consumptive, more environmentally aware society can hope to live within the earth’s waste-assimilation capacity.

 

1 Higgs, K. 2014. Collision Course: Endless Growth on a Finite Planet. The MIT Press, Cambridge, U.S.

2 International Renewable Energy Agency, 2022. World Energy Transitions Outlook 2022: 1.5 C Pathway. March, IRENA, Abu Dhabi.

3 EPA, 2003. Lead: America’s Children and the Environment: Measures of Contaminants, Body Burdens and Illnesses. Feb., 2nd edn., Washington D.C.

4 IPBES. 2019. Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services – summary for policymakers. IPBES Secretariat, Bonn, Germany.

5 IPCC. 2021. Summary for Policymakers. In: Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Masson-Delmotte, V., et. al. (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, USA.

6 Bradford, J. 2019. The Future is Rural: Food System Adaptations to the Great Simplification. Post Carbon Institute, Corvallis, USA.

7 Nicholas, K., Wynes, S. 2017. The Climate Mitigation Gap: Education and Government Recommendations Miss the Most Effective Individual Actions. Environmental Research Letters, July 12th, Vol. 12, IOP Publ., Bristol, UK.

8 ShipHub.co. 2022. < https://www.shiphub.co/port-of-shanghai/ .

9 World Today News. 2022. < https://www.world-today-news.com/the-largest-container-ports-in-the-world-in-2021/#:~:text=By%20far%20the%20largest%20container%20port%20in%20the,a%20total%20size%20of%20more%20than%203%2C600%20hectares.

10 Uniserve Group. 2019. < https://www.bing.com/images/search?view=detailV2&ccid=m4Stfr2m&id=C6BB1FDD66658AC9B33BB578FE75E2B725D1E92F&thid=OIP.m4Stfr2mkLSErHudXo3UegHaCs&mediaurl=https%3a%2f%2funiserve.co.uk%2fwp-content%2fuploads%2f2017%2f10%2fship-evolution-2.jpg&exph=501&expw=1380&q=evolution+container+ship+size+Uniserve+Group&simid=607996425541459678&FORM=IRPRST&ck=7C98640D718B85B3B37549C18AE8E5A8&selectedIndex=0&ajaxhist=0&ajaxserp=0 >

11 Statista. 2021. Trends in Global Export Value of Trade in Goods 1950-2020 (in billions of U.S. dollars). Statista Research Dept., Hamburg, Germany.

12 Vidal, J. 2008. True scale of CO2 emissions of global shipping revealed. February 13th, The Guardian, UK.

13 Dept. Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (Aust.). 2022. < https://www.agriculture.gov.au/biosecurity-trade/pests-diseases-weeds/marine-pests >

14 United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. 2013. World Population Prospects: The 2012 Revision. United Nations, New York, USA.

15 Ward, J. et.al. 2016. Is Decoupling GDP Growth from Environmental Impact Possible? Oct. 14th, Plos One.

16 Jackson, T. 2009. Prosperity Without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet. Earthscan, Abingdon, UK.

Explore Other Wastes to the Rate of Natural Assimilation

10.1 Introduction

Elizabeth Kolbert’s absorbing ‘Under a White Sky’1 (see 10.9) begins with a boat trip down the much-abused Chicago River in the USA. ‘Down’ doesn’t have much meaning here; just what is ‘upstream’, or ‘downstream’ on this poor river is a...

10.2 Pollution: Status and Context

“Industrialization, use of pesticides and nitrogen-based fertilizers, crop residues in agriculture, urbanization, forest fires, desert dust, and inadequate waste management have intensified environmental health risks and pollution, especially in l...

10.3 Greenhouse Gas Pollution and Climate Change

The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is unequivocal in its identification of the tight and close relationship between anthropogenic emissions of CO2 and global warming; and from this spins forth a whole r...

10.4 Climate Change and Fire

In Section 7 and elsewhere in T10 I have talked about fire and its profound impact upon the natural world (e.g. see 7.6). The use of fire deliberately and directly to clear or alter habitat has been discussed, as well as its egregious use as a too...

10.5 Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation

Previously in T10 I have discussed solutions to the various problems thrown up in each section at the end of that section, but as climate change is being treated in Section 10 as a special case, with webpages 10.3 and 10.4 devoted to it, I thought...

10.6 Solid Waste: domestic

Moving from gaseous wastes/pollution, to solid wastes, I covered in webpage 6.7 the television program ‘War on Waste’ and commended it for covering this important, but ‘unsexy’, topic in an interesting and engaging way for the general public; it w...

10.7 Solid Waste: oceanic

This strange odyssey certainly has some of the rambling eccentricities of the more famous ‘Moby Dick’, but the similarities end there as this is a modern tale of plastics pollution in the ocean and one man’s quest to find the story behind thousand...

10.8 The Human Dimension

‘Waste’, ‘rubbish’, ‘trash’, are, sometimes literally, the ‘shitty’ side of the shiny consumption dream, the grubby end of the capitalist process that no one wants to recognise. Similarly, we don’t want to know the people who have to deal with our...

10.9 Waste Solutions: technological

In some ways technology is its own greatest enemy. Its very quickness, its shiny cleverness, its neat problem-solution dynamic is irresistible. It has solved, and at least can, ‘solve’, or contribute to, solutions to a whole range of world environ...

10.10 Solutions: other

Feeling a little flat about all things environment, the other week I was lucky enough to visit a nearby seaside town, Robe, and call in on Brad and Narelle at their little ‘factory’ out the back of town, called Transmutation. It has to be said tha...

Explore Other Sections

1. Build the Nature-Human Relationship
1. Build the Nature-Human Relationship 1.1 Articles 1.2 Art Installations 1.3 Books 1.4 Buildings 1.5 Film, Documentaries, Podcasts 1.6 Music 1.7 Paintings 1.8 Photographs 1.9 Poems 1.10 Spiritual Responses
1/11

1. Build the Nature-Human Relationship

This section is designed to foster appreciation and insight that will – hopefully – lead to novel ways to build a better relationship between human beings and Nature. This section is also atypical ...
2. Reduce Consumption
2. Reduce Consumption

2. Reduce Consumption

I hope Reneé Descartes would forgive us for saying that, at least for the modern world, he was wrong.  When, in 1637, he said: “I think, therefore I am”, he could not have anticipated that the majo...
3. Replace God of Growth with God of Quality
3. Replace God of Growth with God of Quality

3. Replace God of Growth with God of Quality

In a supposedly secular age there has arisen a global religion and god like never before, a religion whose reach and power makes every other belief system before it seem pitiful and insignificant: ...
4. Work, Volunteer, Act for the Environment
4. Work, Volunteer, Act for the Environment

4. Work, Volunteer, Act for the Environment

What we do in our day-to-day lives can have great impact. Section Four divides up these actions into three groups – Work (4.2 & 4.3), Volunteering (4.4), and Action, e.g. voting, protesting, et...
5. Reduce Population
5. Reduce Population

5. Reduce Population

Even on top of Mt. Everest, in one of the remotest, most difficult places on earth, there is a great traffic-jam of people jostling for position. And yet, ever more vociferously, we deny that overp...
6. Ensure Media Acknowledgement of Environmental Context
6. Ensure Media Acknowledgement of Environmental Context

6. Ensure Media Acknowledgement of Environmental Context

The media is one of the three, great ‘poles’ of power in the world (alongside political and corporate power) and how they frame and present ‘the environment’ has a profound effect on how we respond...
7. Stop Further Loss of Natural Habitat and Species
7. Stop Further Loss of Natural Habitat and Species

7. Stop Further Loss of Natural Habitat and Species

New York is an exciting, mesmerising place. Human culture is extraordinary and often wonderful. Our powers of transformation of the natural world seem limitless. The trouble is, we don’t seem to be...
8. Assist Energy Descent and Transition
8. Assist Energy Descent and Transition

8. Assist Energy Descent and Transition

Our current energy largesse is an extraordinary ‘gift’, an unprecedented gift of the ages; millions of years to produce and from millions of years ago. Coal, oil and gas, forming...
9. Support New, Environmentally-Aware, Economic Systems
9. Support New, Environmentally-Aware, Economic Systems

9. Support New, Environmentally-Aware, Economic Systems

Just as with the previous section – ‘Energy’ – which is, inescapably, all about fossil fuels so pre-eminent and extraordinary has been their dominance and transformation of the world in the last 20...
10. Reduce Wastes to the Rate of Natural Assimilation
10. Reduce Wastes to the Rate of Natural Assimilation

10. Reduce Wastes to the Rate of Natural Assimilation

Section 10 will attempt to organise this enormous topic by addressing the context and status of pollution in 10.2, before focussing in on air pollution; particularly greenhouse gas pollution and cl...