Standing in line for water in preparation for Hurricane Irma, I wondered how many water bottles would end up in the landfill. After this manic push to collect the recommended three gallons per person per day of incalculable outages it will be the equivalent of a mountain. Having survived Hurricane Andrew, I know recycling is the last thing on victims’ minds. Twenty-five years ago, plastic water bottles were not as ubiquitous as they are today.
We pragmatically filled empty milk jugs and added a few drops of chlorine. The Good Year Blimp’s overhead message board warned us to boil water from the faucet before drinking. We now understand the risks of refilling water–or milk bottles. Bacterial growth is a real possibility. The bottles, intended for a one-time use, are flimsy and not intended for reuse. Washing them puts soap and detergent into municipal water supplies, a whole other issue.
Forty billion plastic bottles are produced every year in the U. S. Two thirds of them end up in landfills. Those which are recycled become some other sorts of plastic, mainly polyester. The majority of beverage bottles are exported to plastic manufacturers in emerging markets to make synthetic fabrics for clothing and carpets. According to Greenpeace, six of the largest soft drink companies used a combined average of just 6.6 percent recycled plastic. This excludes Coca-Cola, which declined to share a percentage.
Six billion pounds of plastic bottles get thrown out every year and only about thirty percent are recycled.
The American Chemical Council estimates the average consumer uses 166 plastic water bottles for convenience, creating unnecessary waste in landfills. This space is limited and it is nearly impossible for bottles in a landfill to biodegrade. Earth911 reports 7.4 cubic yards of landfill space is saved by every ton of plastic that is recycled.
Here in Alachua County, any plastic container is recyclable. Remove caps and lids and step on plastic to save space. I understand that gutting the wallboard in your house and piling up carpets and furniture at the curb don’t inspire one to set aside ubiquitous water bottles for recycling. But as high as those piles get, mountains of trash looming over our cities are inexorably becoming the alternative.
Technosphere. Who knew there was a term for all the junk humans have made? Every week I dutifully haul the recycle bins to the curb and place them next to my trash can. I wonder how much is actually recycled and how much trash I contribute to the landfill. Do my castoffs and disposables add up to inches? Feet?
A paper published in The Anthropocene Review this week divides “contributions” to the technosphere into categories: urban, rural, subterranean, marine and aerial. Although I am contributing carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, my weekly trek to the street probably contributes more depth to the urban sphere than any of the others: cords from out of date technology, jeans with holes in the knees, the Styrofoam box with restaurant leftovers I never ate, empty Bic pens, irreparable household items…
I decided to figure out how much of the sphere I’m responsible for. According to the Review, humans have accumulated an estimated 30 trillion tons of “stuff” – enough to fit over 100 pounds worth over every square meter of the planet’s surface. I went to Worldometers to learn what the world population is currently (7,475,632,700 when I clicked on), thinking I would divide the 30 trillion tons by that figure. Trouble is, the meter is racing. I thought about all those babies being born, requiring how many disposable diapers, all growing up to fill their own recycle bins and trash cans.
It’s scary thinking about how humans of the Recent Epoch (Holocene, 11,700 YA to present) are impacting the planet with our innovative creations. The technosphere, a relatively new phenomenon in geological time is changing the planet. I fear the consequences, yet I continue to assist its evolution. “The technosphere is a major new phenomenon of this planet – and one that is evolving extraordinarily rapidly.” -Professor Mark Williams, University of Leicester.
As much as I would have liked to go to Paris, I couldn’t attend the United Nations COP21 climate conference where nations agreed to reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Parties attending the conference agreed to set a goal of limiting global warming to less than two degrees Centigrade compared to pre-industrial levels. They will pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees which will require zero emissions sometime between 2030 and 2050.
Does this seem as overwhelming to you as it does to me? Could I possibly make any difference? What impact is my existence having? I decided to find out. It’s actually not that hard. There are numerous sites online to help you determine your own carbon footprint. There’s even one for kids at PBSKids. Most of the calculators have simple questionnaires. There are four major areas covered.
1 Home and energy source: How many people live under how many square feet? Your electric bill will help you here, so have it handy. Also be prepared to be shocked by how great an effect lowering the heat or raising the a/c one degree can have!
2 Food: What you eat and where it comes from. You’ll be asked what foods you eat, including beef, pork, fish, poultry, eggs and dairy, and asked how frequently you eat them. Some calculators will ask where your hamburger was raised, were your tomatoes were grown. Were they purchased at Publix? Lower carbon emissions result if your food is not trucked over long distances.
3 Transportation: What kind of a car do you drive? What is the mileage? Do you carpool? Bike? Take the bus? Carpooling daily to work is great, but even once a week to church or to a meeting once a month can add up.
4 Do you recycle? Reuse? Reduce? This one surprised me. I thought I was doing a good job filling the recycle bin every week and carrying my cloth bags to shopping venues. A calculator challenged me. Do I shop for pleasure, for therapy, or just to replace as needed?
If I were ever convinced that I am not contributing to the release of excess CO2, this checklist helped put me in my place. As someone who wants to contribute to solving, not contributing to the problems of the world, I need to be aware of how I shop, dress, drive and live and I must consider every act an ethical choice. The slow leak in my irrigation system rightly weighed on my mind, not because I have a water bill (I don’t, since I’m on a well), but because I was wasting our most valuable resource. The personal decision to pay $310 to locate, much less correct the leak, was part of my commitment to change the world by tweaking the way I live.
I urge you, my friends, to check out your own carbon footprint and see where you can tweak your life to make a small, but effective difference for the sake of this beautiful world we’ve been given. One of several good calculators can be accessed at www.nature.org/greenliving/carboncalculator.