Climate Change is intimately connected with Zero Waste


If you listen to the garbage flacks and the recyclers (yes, why would you want to do that?) you would get the impression that waste consists of a couple of shredded pieces of paper, glass, copper, steel and plastic and not much more. If you’ve been reading these pages, you know by now how false that picture is.

In its most fundamental description, waste consists of using up the planet’s resources to do something unnecessary. If we use resources to create food or warmth or mobility for humans or habitat for wildlife, for example, most of us give credit to that use as necessary. But what if one greedy person or corporation purposely destroys something perfectly fine, just so he can sell the unwitting consumer a replacement? What if  by controlling the design of a product and its associated patterns of usage and discard, he can force an early discard? Surely that is a global lack of necessity, even though that individual may profit mightily by his selfish action. I see this as a theory of valves. Many individuals have control over valves, which I see as choke points or decision points of great power over social choices, that can be controlled by a small and unrepresentative group of people. The power to design products for maximum profit and lessened utility is a common valve.

That is the nexus to climate change. Much of the accumulation of carbon dioxide arises when industrial activity operates to extract or refine raw materials (oil wells, refineries, mines, agriculture, shipping) or to shape them into finished products. This takes factories, transportation, machinery, fuel creation and consumption to begin with but equally important, it requires the participation of human labor which in turn uses up all of those very products while demanding even more products for clothing, entertainment, food, education and more. Finally, the entire world of law, business, investment and commerce exists to make such production possible. What is the purpose of all this activity if it serves only to create poorly designed products that are intended to have short lives before becoming garbage?

Can anyone fail to see the huge, inherent waste in all this avoidable activity?

It is one thing if all this activity is actually needed because no one can devise a better or more conserving way to accomplish a desirable aim. But what if the poor design is purposely created just because some self aggrandizing entity is controlling the valve? That is the huge waste represented by garbage creation.

Once a product has been manufactured, used and discarded, it is too late to avoid waste. The waste is already created by making the poor product and now having to make the (unnecessary) replacement. The few shreds of plastic, glass and other materials in the product have virtually no meaning.

The inescapable conclusion: if every single material from the shredding and crushing of all of our industrial and consumer goods were 100% recycled as materials, it would have no perceptible impact on the waste represented by the Garbage Society. The waste was already completed long before the item got to a recycling center. Recycling is indeed slightly better than dumping, but in terms of solving the problem of social wasting, it is useless.

Climate change will be reduced when design for discard is no longer the affliction that it is today. It will not be affected by any amount of recycling because recycling is part of the wasting syndrome.

Recycling is just one of the fraudulent proposals being put forward as some kind of cure for climate change. As I hope all readers are well aware, the fundamental problem is the combustion of carbon based fossil fuels. The word “fossil” distinguishes fuels which for millions of years have lain in the ground, binding up their contained carbon, from fuels which just recently bound up carbon dioxide from the air and simply return it to the air. In the former category is coal, petroleum, peat and natural gas while in the latter category is primarily wood.

In order to pull the wool over the eyes of the public, and be allowed to continue to burn fossil fuel coal and pour carbon dioxide into the air, the coal industry has come up with a sneaky, mendacious fairy story that they can prevent coal from contributing to the atmospheric burden of carbon dioxide. To coat this fraudulent claim with the patina of possibility, they have paid multiple millions of dollars into meaningless research and they have spread around widely a propaganda that they can capture the carbon dioxide produced and somehow keep it out of the air. What is the chemical problem we are dealing with?

Coal is primarily pure carbon and more so than any other fossil fuel. When it is burned for heat, the chemical reaction producing the heat is:

C + O2 ==> CO2 + Heat

Pure carbon dioxide creation! No way to hide it! So they make several claims about that CO2, none of which has a prayer of ever coming true.

  • They can capture the CO2 and force it down into some unidentified huge cavern underground where it will remain for millennia.
  • They can react it with lime (Calcium oxide) which will bind up all of the carbon dioxide chemically.
  • They can react it with an organic amine that will also bind it up.

These underground caverns are mostly a figment of their imagination. No one has any way to make sure that the CO2 under pressure won’t leak out or cause the overlying strata to push up and explode. As for lime, there isn’t any large deposit on earth. All of it has already reacted with CO2 in the air to form Calcium Carbonate. The way to change Calcium Carbonate to lime is to heat it red hot (uses lots of fuel) which releases the CO2 it contains into the air, so that it can be used to bind up new CO2 in a cycle that does no good at all. And amines are so expensive that making them from organic precursors, like petroleum, is absurd.

Every year that this absurd cock and bull story mystifies politicians and the public, that allows more coal to be burned, means billions in profit for the coal industry. And at the same time, it means more misery for victims of pollution and destruction from coal mining.

Recently however, an alternate idea has emerged. It has no potential to actually solve the problem of CO2 generation, but conceptually, it does use up CO2 in a way that is not pure fraud. Ways are being found to incorporate CO2 from the air into making polycarbonate plastics, best known as Lexan. Polycarbonate, like its name implies, has a molecular structure that seems to be based on CO2 but up to now, it had to be made from other carbon compounds, such as carbon monoxide. Recently a letter in Chemistry and Engineering News for February 10, 2014, p. 4 reports the recent commercialization by the Asahi Kasei company of Japan of a process for making polycarbonate directly from CO2. They project the use of 100,000 tons per year of CO2. This hardly makes a dent in the millions of tons of CO2 entering the atmosphere every day, and everything depends on the lifetime of the polycarbonate in its industrial applications i.e. burning it would send the CO2 back into the atmosphere, but at least this sink for CO2, however miniscule, is real.

 In the Chemical and Engineering News for November 28, 2016, page 8, there appears a new piece of fluff about carbon dioxide sequestration. To understand, you need to know that the making of cement is one of the greatest sources of atmospheric CO2 we know of. Not only does it require the burning of vast quantities of natural gas to heat minerals to white heat for hours, but some of those minerals are calcium carbonate which, when it is heated, releases its bound up carbon dioxide to the air.  The estimates vary from 5% to 10% of all generated carbon dioxide coming from cement production. The new article points out that much of the cement that sits exposed to air absorbs and ties up carbon dioxide from the air as it reforms the calcium carbonate. This is put forward as a sink for carbon dioxide, making cement production appear less responsible for climate change.

Superficially, this is actually true. Of course it ignores massive concrete structures like the domes over nuclear power plants or the concrete in dams. Maybe thin concrete structures like roads and walkways can have enough carbon dioxide diffusing into their bulk to totally react, but no indication is given of how deeply carbon dioxide diffuses into bulk concrete.

Nevertheless, the whole discussion is beside the point. In this country, the only kind of solution to a problem that is allowed to be considered is called end-of-pipe. First do something with terrible consequences, then try to invent an add-on fixit technical gadget to make it better. The idea of fixing a problem at its source is never entertained. Of course recycling is the prime example of that in resource wastage. For concrete, the added on fix is to smash unwanted concrete into a simulacrum of gravel and use it under roads as a filler.

In this case, the Zero Waste approach is obvious. clearly effective and easy. But it might cost someone a few bucks in profit lost and that can never be allowed.  The ZW approach would be to change the design for concrete usage so that instead of pouring it into random forms that merely solve a single problem,  concrete would be made into universal shapes that could be reused over and over.  How to do this is a  challenge in design, but, as they say, it isn’t rocket science.

Thus this story about a sink for carbon dioxide in concrete is old news that primarily serves the cement industry by pushing an irrelevant tale of absorption. If this country were serious about solving the problem of carbon dioxide coming from cement production, they would stop making so much unnecessary cement. Maybe they will be pushed kicking and screaming into trying this fundamental solution once tornadoes and hurricanes and drought have made life so unbearable that profits must be ignored.  Hopefully we will still be around by then.

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