Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Is waste the century's greatest sin?

Even before I started worrying about global warming and peak oil, I had a real thing about waste. I don't know where it comes from. True, my parents grew up in the Depression and my mother, especially, was marked by it, but I don't remember her being a particular demon about wasting things. We sure produced out enough trash - as I remember vividly, since throwing it out was my job.

But the older I've gotten, the more intense have been my efforts not to let anything go to waste. I am a maniacal turner-out of lights and a passionate recycler; how many people, I wonder, would have crowed with delight on discovering that you can recycle used textiles at some of New York's greenmarkets?

As we look harder at the burden we're putting on the environment, it turns out that my hatred of waste is downright sensible. Waste may be the biggest energy-hog of all. Take, for instance, food. In a scarifying article in the Financial Times, Tristram Stuart
(author of the appropriately-named Waste) reports that the average UK grocery store throws out enough perfectly good food every day to feed 100 people. A typical day's haul included 28 ready-meals; 16 Cornish pasties; 83 yogurts and other desserts; 18 loaves of bread; 23 rolls; one chocolate cake; five pasta salads, and 223 fruit and vegetable items ranging from lemons and fair-trade bananas to leeks, avocados, and mushrooms. Oh, and margarine, milk, and a potted orchid.

I have to confess that when I'm shopping at the farmer's market, my eyes can sometimes outrun my cooking capacity: at one point, tempted by truly beautiful heirloom lettuces from the Queens County Farm Museum stand into buying more than we could possibly eat as salad, I was reduced to making lettuce soup and lettuce risotto, and I still had to throw some away. But my guilt is somewhat alleviated by the possession of two rolling compost bins and a worm composter; at least the vegetables that, despite my best efforts, don't manage to get eaten before they spoil will be put to some use.

My current musing about waste, though, has been prompted by a more recent event: we finally got around to getting an energy audit. And let me tell you, it was scary. For one thing, we were forced to face the absolute necessity of replacing our furnace, which is so old that once upon a time it burned coal (our house is roughly 150 years old). We've been dodging this one for years, largely because all the pipes in the basement are wrapped in asbestos. But now it turns out that besides leaking heat and CO2, we are leaking oil - the oil tank is beginning to spring holes.

I expected the furnace verdict (though not the oil tank one). What I did not expect was the lousy energy efficiency of some of our newer appliances, which seem to be working just fine. I didn't think about the cracks in our beautiful but ancient wooden front doors; since there's another set of doors inside them, and a radiator next to that, the only time we notice how breezy the front hall really is, is when there's a snowstorm and snow blows right in through the cracks. (You'd think that my use of the hall as an extra refrigerator might have driven that point home, but no.)

And I didn't even think about the fact that the insulation we had blown into the roof some 30 years ago might not be doing its job any longer - especially as the occasional roof leak has probably turned it to mush, or worse.

We haven't yet gotten the report, so I don't know how much we'll save by getting all these things fixed - a bundle, I hope, since I am absolutely certain it will cost us more than a bundle to fix them. But given the amount of waste that a waste-hater like me has managed to tolerate out of sheer inertia, I'm not a bit surprised at the recent McKinsey report that says the US could cut its energy consumption 23% by fixes considerably less dramatic than some of the ones we're about to undertake. By spending $520 billion, the study says, we could save $1.2 on our national energy bills over the next 30 years, and cut our total energy use by 23%. I only hope the improvements we're embarking on prove that cost-effective.

But I'm not holding my breath till the country actually reaps those savings Yes, making those fixes would provide jobs that couldn't be outsourced - our house alone is likely to keep 3-4 people employed for a couple of months. Yes, they'd make it much easier to cut our carbon emissions as deeply as we need to cut them. Yes, the average American would end up saving money on the deal.

But...I have known that furnace needed to be replaced for at least 20 years, and I haven't done anything about it. The problem was too big, and too complicated, and too expensive even to think about, let alone tackle. So every winter I'd grit my teeth, cover the windows in plastic, turn down the thermostat, and live in sweaters.

Inertia is powerful, in my case more powerful even than my passionate hatred of waste. And what conquered it in the end wasn't any moral awakening on my part - it was the government, which finally put some weight into the other side of the scales in the form of tax incentives, rebates, and low-cost loans.

Are there a lot of other people out there who need just the nudge of some government-sponsored bargains to finally realize the sense of spending money now to save it later? And is the government willing to provide those bargains? To the tune of several hundred billion dollars? In a recession?

There are hopeful signs. Some northeastern states, for instance, are offering rebates when you trade in an old refrigerator or freezer for an energy-efficient replacement (though given the cost of an energy-efficient refrigerator, the promised $30 rebate seems unpersuasively skimpy).

Last winter, on a sleety, windy night, I went to a symposium sponsored by my state representative on New York's energy-saving programs, and despite the ghastly weather, about 40 people showed up. A good start. But reaping that $1.2 trillion in energy savings is going to take more than a few local meetings - it's going to take the kind of door-to-door, call-every-telephone effort that got Obama elected.

I hope it happens. But I'm not holding my breath.

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