Writing that moves readers to action

As shared in previous blogs, I often wonder why we – you and me – as consumers tend to continually be asked or imposed upon (often even blamed) to own responsibility for ensuring a safe, clean, “sustainable” environment.

As this question continues to weigh on me, I pause to remember a concept learned while attending business school and used during my professional career.  That concept is called “root cause analysis” and is briefly described/defined as follows:

Root cause analysis (RCA) is a method of problem solving that tries to identify the root causes of faults or problems. A root cause is a cause that once removed from the problem fault sequence, prevents the final undesirable event from recurring.

As I glanced at the pile of Styrofoam in my garage, this concept became more significant as it seemed pertinent, relevant and hesperian styrofoamextremely applicable.  This pile – not ordered, requested or commissioned by me – awaits a “proper” reincarnation or burial destination.  If I wasn’t fully aware of how this pile came to be – several purchases made over the past few weeks – I would clearly wonder how it had actually come to take up residence in my garage.

The items I purchased – shelving units, refrigerator, picture frames, etc. – were expensive; plus, I invested quite a bit of time and energy to ensure the selection of a quality, reputable product.  Yet, in the end, the responsibility for locating, transporting and paying for a proper “home” for this horde of unrequested, unwanted packing material rests on my shoulders.  For me, the outcome (and, therefore, satisfaction with my purchases) could have been a lot less frustrating (and a lot less costly) if the manufacturer had considered and selected appropriate packaging material at the front-end (actual “root cause”) – packaging material that might have been more easily disposed of and that would create a neutral or zero-impact on the environment – and on me and my wallet.

After adding – yikes, yet another project – to my already long list of items to contend with, I embarked on my search to uncover how to dispose of this Styrofoam.  Despite my frustration, I vowed to remain objective and open-minded.  I also considered this particular project worthy of classifying as a “learning experience” – one that might allow me to acquire a deeper understanding and maybe even unfold answers which could be shared with others.

As I began my search, I realized this subject matter could easily become unwieldy and generate a magnitude of data – and afterall this is just a blog… not a full-blown research project – so, I selected a few areas of focus:

1.      WHAT IS STYROFOAM™?    IN WHAT SITUATIONS DO MANUFACTURERS USE IT and why?

From your take-out box to your bike helmet, it can seem like Styrofoam™ is taking over the world. Identified easily by recycling number six, Styrofoam™ is the trademarked name of Expanded Polystyrene (EPS). Commonly used in food and shipping packaging, EPS is cheap to produce, lightweight, and is impossible to degrade naturally over time, making it a big problem for landfills. 

Polystyrene Foam Report

2.      DO RULES OR GUIDELINES EXIST AROUND DISPOSING OF IT?  WHO OWNS RESPONSIBILITY FOR WHAT?
DOES ANYONE ALONG THE PROCESS CHAIN BENEFIT->SUFFER…and why?

Regulations Favor Special Interests
Because the waste business has become a commercial, money making venture, citizens are outmatched at the state house by industry lobbyists. Regulations, therefore, currently make it difficult for communities or states to effectively regulate waste management facilities, and difficult to devote resources to recycling or waste reduction programs.

The waste industry itself is a commercial business. Large corporations like Casella Waste Industries and Waste Management dominate all aspects of the market and benefit from operating landfills and incinerators, along with recycling facilities. Since the waste management facilities have become big businesses, the corporate need to make a profit outweighs the community’s need reduce waste and to protect health and the environment from potentially destructive waste management practices. In fact, even if a community designed and implemented a zero waste program in their own town, they would not be able to prevent waste from other municipalities or states from coming into a commercial facility in their borders.

In spite of local objections, government officials continue to work hand in hand with waste industry officials to permit massive expansions to landfills, increase waste tonnage in incineration, and develop new facilities-like trash transfer stations-to increase their profits. Governments are so pressured to find places to dispose waste that they devote very few resources to developing functional programs for recycling, and instead rely on short-sighted, quick-fix solutions. As a result, we have become reliant upon dying technologies to deal with waste. We are less creative and committed to developing new technologies to reduce waste and devoting resources to these programs. Problems with solid waste regulation include a lack of enforcement of environmental regulations at solid waste facilities by federal and state officials and a tendency of approving expansions once an initial permit has been granted. Furthermore, state and federal officials devote few resources to new solid waste programs that would reduce volume and toxicity of waste or increase recycling.

 Locally

  • As a resident and consumer, I currently pay a monthly City Waste tax (required with trash removal service);
  • This tax is allocated to various local recyclers – particularly those that process “difficult to handle” items;
  • My local “recycler” collects an additional fee for leaving this type of foam in their “holding” yard;
    • Eco-Cycle, my local recycler, charges a $3 fee for every vehicle coming to the Eco-Cycle/City of Boulder Center for Hard-to-Recycle Materials (CHaRM) to recycle materials. The fee is in addition to the recycling fees that apply to specific materials like electronics, bike tires and porcelain.

I’m willing to speculate that this recycler likely generates additional revenue for themselves as they move these items along the “repurposing” channel/cycl.

3.    ARE EFFORTS UNDERWAY TO ENSURE THAT MANUFACTURERS ARE HELD ACCOUNTABLE/RESPONSIBLE?

Now, the question becomes not how to do away with packaging, but how to use less of the less-harmful materials. To become more sustainable, designers must consider and improve each step along the entire product journey. Packaging, like any other design problem, will need to be rethought with a sustainable systems approach. Designers should expand and evolve creative processes to include strategies…

According to one web site entitled “THE PROBLEMS WITH WASTE” the “solution to waste rests in reducing the volume and the toxicity of our garbage.” and “lies in moving towards Zero Waste.”

Zero Waste aims for the elimination of, rather than simply the “management” of, waste.   “Waste” is something cast off with little to no value – but many items individuals throw away have value to other people, businesses, and communities. For instance, organic “waste” is the feedstock of a commercial composting operation, which turns food, leaves, brush, and manure into compost to feed the soil at farms and residential and business landscaping projects.

Zero Waste is not any single technology, program, or policy.  Zero Waste is a goal, a process, and a vision that shifts how we think about and use resources: it is a whole-system approach that targets a major change in the way materials flow through our economy.  It is the opposite of an end-of-pipe solution.   Instead, Zero Waste is a bold approach to waste management that looks at both the front end (production and design) and the back end (reuse and reprocessing) of material flow, and solutions to connect the two.  Zero Waste centers around reducing needless consumption, minimizing waste, maximizing recycling, and incentivizing the manufacturing of products that can be intentionally reused, repaired, or recycled back into the marketplace.

As I worked towards wrapping up this blog – finalizing my research and selecting what information to include – I came across this quote which seemed relevant…and wondered again if it was possible for us – you and me – as consumers to help make this happen – and to ensure that all in the recycling process step up and own their share of the responsibility??

“Recycling. Ho hum. Everybody does it, but what difference does it make? That was my original reaction … How wrong I was! …Recycling has morphed into a new concept called “Zero Waste” and suddenly…’recycling’ is posing a fundamental challenge to ‘business as usual.’ Zero Waste has the potential to motivate people to change their lifestyles, demand new products, and insist that corporations and governments behave in new ways. This is a very exciting development.”  – Peter Montague, director of the Environmental Research Foundation

Crafted, researched and written by:  LIZ CARLOCK
The Write Resources, LLC™
© 2014 EM Carlock

Graphic credits:  en.hesperian.org

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