Adapted from "The Waste-Free World: How the Circular Economy Will Take Less, Make More, and Save the Planet" by Ron Gonen, to be published April 6 by Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright 2021 by Ron Gonen. The above is an affiliate link and we may get a small commission if you purchase from the site.
The burning of fossil fuels has received the lion’s share of attention in the climate change debate, which has led to vital progress. The now rapidly advancing transition to solar and wind power is immensely important. But an estimated two-thirds of greenhouse gas emissions come from the linear processes of extraction and mining, manufacturing, and disposal of consumer products.
The wasteful and environmentally catastrophic linear system was developed in the 20th century specifically to enrich companies that ginned up their profits by extracting more natural resources — oil for making plastic, ore for metal, and timber for paper — without being held accountable for the environmental damage they caused. They also boosted profits, at the public’s great expense, by manufacturing products not for optimal longevity, but with the aim that they would either soon become obsolete, or be trashed after a single use. That, in turn, forced additional extraction of natural resources for each new product manufactured. As I’ll reveal more fully in the first chapter, the notion that products and their packaging should be carelessly thrown away after one use rather than repaired, reused, or recycled was implanted in the public consciousness through ad campaigns. So was the allure of "trading up" to new products before they needed replacement. Unbeknownst to taxpayers, the firms responsible for this have been able to shunt these expenses off on us; many of the worst offenders, such as fossil fuel extractors, have insidiously lobbied for and gained hundreds of billions of dollars in federal subsidies. The public has unknowingly paid billions of tax dollars to subsidize the development and growth of industries that benefited from the take-make-waste economy.
There is no good reason that we should continually pay a fee for the extraction of a natural resource every time we use a product or for its disposal after we use it. We have been scammed into paying unnecessary costs for the past 75 years, while the land, air, and water that we collectively own has been despoiled.
The damage done to the planet, and to our societies, is becoming shockingly clear. Climate change is progressing even more rapidly than anticipated. More frequent and severe droughts are contributing to increasingly devastating forest fires. The massive conflagrations not only release huge volumes of carbon into the atmosphere, they also drastically reduce the volume of carbon the decimated forests pull out of the air and destroy the homes of hundreds of thousands of people annually. Rain forests, which are the most powerful carbon pullers, are being depleted at the rate of an estimated 31,000 square miles a year. Research shows that both the record-breaking heat wave that hit Europe in the summer of 2020 and the torrential rains of Tropical Storm Imelda, which caused severe flooding in Texas that September, were intensified by climate change. The United Nations estimates that climate-related water shortages will plague two-thirds of the world population by 2025.
For many communities all around the world, the effects have already been devastating, and they’ve been felt disproportionately in poorer areas and by Indigenous peoples. As the Fourth National Climate Assessment, issued by the U.S. federal government, revealed, people living in poorer neighborhoods in the country experience the greatest exposure to both pollution and property damage due to extreme weather events. Toxin-emitting factories are concentrated near poor neighborhoods. For example, Fortune reported that in the West Louisville section of Louisville, Kentucky, which ranks No. 1 in poor air quality for midsize American cities, 80 percent of the population is Black and the air is tainted by 56 toxin-spewing facilities. Residents of West Louisville live on average 12.5 fewer years than do the white residents of the city’s affluent neighborhoods.
As for Indigenous peoples, the United Nations reported on the wide-ranging effects of looming water shortages due to glacial melting in the Himalayas; droughts and punishing deforestation in areas of the Amazon populated by indigenous groups; the depletion of reindeer, caribou, seals, and fish Arctic peoples rely on, and sand dune expansion and drought impinging on cattle and goat farming in Africa’s Kalahari Basin.
There is nothing efficient about the trashing of approximately 42 pounds of electronics goods per American annually, when so many of those items could be refurbished and resold.
Yet even as proof of devastation has mounted, resource degradation has escalated in the past decade. A third of Earth’s soil has already vanished, and if current rates of depletion continue, the planet will run out in 60 years. The rate of species extinction is accelerating, with an estimated 20 percent of land-based animals having been killed off since 1900, 40 percent of amphibian species, and 1 million species now under serious threat of extinction. As a steady stream of horrifying photos of whales, dolphins, and sea turtles washed up on shore with their stomachs crammed full of plastic have revealed, our oceans are devastated by plastic refuse. Having discovered that plastics are breaking down into microunits, researchers have found that they have made their way to every corner of the planet, and also into our drinking water. As the chairman of the UN’s Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services said about an alarming 2020 global biodiversity assessment, "We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide."
In the face of unimpeachable evidence of the damage they’ve wrought, many of the fossil-fuel, mining and manufacturing companies as well as most large landfill owners have fought furiously against all steps at remediation. I had a front-row view at Recyclebank and in New York City of the underhandedness with which they’ve spread lies and thwarted change. I saw how progress in expanding and improving recycling and in reducing the use of environment-debasing materials has been stymied. When Mayor Michael Bloomberg and I proposed a ban on [disposable foam products], for example, we were attacked with a disinformation campaign. In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, the pro-plastics coalition shamelessly promoted the utterly baseless assertion that reusable bags would spread the virus, seizing on what they saw as an opportunity to overturn plastic bag bans. (The press coverage of that issue can be traced to a press release issue by the deceptively named lobbying group the American Progressive Bag Alliance.)
Advocates of the take-make-waste system have characterized the linear economy as the optimally efficient free market. But there is nothing efficient about the fact that approximately 90 percent of plastic, produced with the use of a great deal of energy, ends up slowly moldering away in landfills, when so much of it could be recycled. (As we’ll see, many large corporations are clamoring to buy it.) There is nothing efficient about the trashing of approximately 42 pounds of electronics goods — the fastest growing part of the waste stream — per American annually, when so many of those items could be refurbished and resold. There is nothing efficient about 40 percent of food bought by Americans going to waste, a great deal of it dumped when it’s still good to eat.