This article first appeared on the website of the Worldwatch Institute's Transforming Cultures project.
This past week I had the opportunity to share the Transforming Cultures message in Portland [Oregon], and it was refreshing to see so many efforts to grow a sustainable culture wafting out of the Rose City. Though there were some scary trends oozing out from there as well. But let’s start with the positive:
Living in D.C. for 11 years, I have seen many cyclists hit by drivers distracted by their cell phones or simply because the motorists assume they have the right of way. So spending a week in such a bike-friendly city was very refreshing. From the city Bike Map that shows the best ways to commute by bicycle to the new “Bike Boulevards” that have speed bumps and no stop signs (and minimal car traffic); and from the comprehensive long-sighted Bicycle Plan for 2030 to the “Bike Bar” that has long rows of bike parking for the thirsty cyclist, the biker has a much higher place in the transportation pecking order than in any other American city I’ve been to.
While in Portland I spent a few nights at a youth hostel that was impressively green. It captured its rain water to use in its toilets, it had a green roof, a garden, it composted, and was energy efficient. And most importantly, it effectively educated guests about all of these efforts (including in the most strategic way possible—by putting signs next to the toilet, where one’s attention is quite captive). In a fun neighborhood and right on a bus line, it is an affordable place to stay when visiting this city.
One of the true highlights of the trip was to take a tour of Metro Paint. This is a government-run initiative that recycles 300,000 gallons of house paint each year and sells it at a lower cost to consumers.
Metro Paint produces 18 colors, generates $1 million in revenue, and now has 5 percent of the market share. It’s a self-sustaining operation, when this revenue is added to the funds that come from a disposal tax on paint (70 cents a gallon). It’s a great government initiative to prevent perfectly good paint from ending up in the landfill. It seems that all major cities in the U.S. should follow suit—though ideally coupled with more aggressive efforts to encourage citizens to not paint as frequently in the first place. Like with most things, we often paint more out of novelty than out of need.
Now onto a couple of less happy moments: along with touring Metro Paint, I visited an e-waste facility, which seemed to be doing a good job at recycling e-waste (the manager noted that everything that comes in gets recycled except for the wooden particle board sometimes found in TVs and other appliances). But the horrifying thing was that the facility processed 13 million pounds of e-waste in 2010 from about 2.4 million people. That’s about 5 pounds per person per year.
On the positive side, this recapture rate has tripled since 2008, due to a new extended producer responsibility law that Oregon passed. But that is A LOT of e-waste. At one of the conferences I spoke at a representative from the Consumer Electronics Association described how the CEA had a goal of recycling 1 BILLION pounds of e-waste in the U.S. by 2016.
While a noble effort—I guess—that means billions of metals, plastics, glass, and other materials will have been ripped from the Earth’s crust to supply our marketing-stimulated demand for the latest iCrap. And I’m not sure the Earth can handle all that (especially in the context of 6.7 billion other people also craving fancy electronic gadgets and American lifestyles).
Even worse than getting a peek at the overwhelming scale of e-waste, I visited a carpet “recycler,” or in reality, a carpet downcycler. This company shaved carpets and took the nylon to make fake wood, fabric, and other things. But there seemed to be more nylon floating in the air than was ending up in bundles and the place screamed lung disease. I don’t know the effects of inhaling nylon day-in and day-out, but I imagine it can cause serious problems, just like silicon or even the fake buttery flavor of microwave popcorn. Yes, there’s a disease called “Popcorn Lung” so I’d bet “Carpet Lung” is a concern too.
This visit—as I exited the facility and again as I removed black snot from my nose the next morning—made me think that people need to simply stop using industrial carpets and for the few places carpet is really valuable (perhaps at the entryway to one’s home), we should return to traditional Turkmen carpets—made from organic wool and plant-based dyes, made by hand with no fossil fuels, made to last 100+ years, and fully compostable at the end of their lives. Yes, they’d be expensive but not when costed out over their full lifespans.
Perhaps even worse than the carpet recycler was the series of advertisements by the Portland Humane Society, calling on people to “End Petlessness.” On the surface, this is a noble effort, and has been wildly successful in increasing pet adoptions. According to Leopold Ketel & Partners, pet adoption rates have increased 6% to 96% for all pets since this advertising campaign has started, and web-based donations have increased 20%.
But of course, the last thing we can afford as a species is to provide a “furry soulmate” to every man, woman and child. Not if we want to somehow curb our consumption and our ecological impact and prevent the mass die-off of our species, and in turn the mass die-off of dogs and cats (What do you think we’ll turn to when food suddenly becomes scarce during the collapse?).
But as I learned from friends living in Portland, pets are sacred there, and unfortunately the odds of shifting this trend is probably as high as getting people to stop buying modern carpeting and new electronic junk (Did you hear Amazon is making a new tablet?! Where do I get one!?). We are consumers to the core (thanks to a hundred years of cultural engineering), but at least in Portland more people consume bikes than cars. That’s something to celebrate–-perhaps over a local microbrew at the Bike Bar, or at home over a genuine Hot Dog and some homegrown fries.
Erik Assadourian is a Senior Fellow at the Worldwatch Institute and Director of the Transforming Cultures Project.