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Belinda Waymouth Headshot

Sex, Lies and Garbage

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With world population at 7 billion-plus, there are more potential people to have sex with than ever... not forgetting the inevitable result: more people. Some environmentalists lose sleep wondering how to feed these additional human beings. But what about all the extra trash that will be created?

A friend of mine -- let's call her Heidi -- has become insomniacal over the increasing amounts of waste deluging our planet. Heidi is like Andie MacDowell's character Ann in the movie Sex, Lies and Videotape. In the opening scene Ann is existentially angst-ing over a perpetually self-replenishing garbage can. Her agile movie-therapist eventually leads her back to her real problem -- sex. However, with Heidi, there is no distracting her from her never-ending trash thought-loop.

Heidi zeroed in on garbage in San Francisco in the '80s, when she encountered formalized recycling, and realized there was a serious consumption/packaging/waste problem. By the way, Heidi's grandparents live in the New England house her family built in 1804, with the original made-to-last furniture. There is no cradle to cradle for this stuff, it simply endures. Heidi's grandmother wears the same green polyester pantsuit every Christmas -- for 45 years! Her family's commitment to less really is more, reassures Heidi. She considers frugality noble. Which is how Americans used to view the wise use of resources -- the true meaning of frugality -- not the negative association of cheapness it's now given.

Heidi has good reason to freak out over how much trash we generate. The official average for an American is 4.5 pounds of personal trash per day -- adding up to 1,642.5 pounds per person, per year. Not pretty any way you compact it.

The trash in our landfills is so compacted, it cannot biodegrade. When manufacturers try to assure you every little environmental thing will be all right, if you purchase their lovely biodegradable product, it's a lie. When garbologists -- there is actually a science called garbology -- excavate landfills they find legible 50-year-old newspapers, and recognizable 20-year-old hot dogs.

What about biodegrading? Our waste is so compacted, there's no oxygen, or soil to enable microbes to do the degrading and nutrient cycling. Landfills one day becoming lovely recreational areas -- that's an idealistic 1970s fiction -- that only survives in children's books like Richard Scarry's Busy, Busy Town. Our detritus is staying put and mutating into leachate (toxic liquid) that percolates down through landfills and can contaminate groundwater. Landfills spew methane and carbon dioxide adding to greenhouse gas emissions.

Every year Americans use enough disposal diapers that, if linked end-to-end, could reach the moon and back seven times (G.T Miller, S.E Spoolman, Environmental Science); we throw away 2.5 million non-returnable -- but recyclable -- plastic bottles every hour, 3,200 plastic bags a second, and 27 million tons of food a year.

Many of us are recycling our butts off. But consider the statistics: Americans are less than 5 percent of global population, yet create half of all e-waste, and 33 percent of solid waste (I hope Heidi isn't reading this). Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek exhorts us to cultivate a new relationship with our trash. He claims garbage will be the most enduring artifact our present capitalistic-consumeristic-excessive-resource-using civilization will leave behind. He would advise Heidi to stop worrying and learn to love the bomb -- or in her case, garbage.

My city, Santa Monica, Calif., is aiming for zero waste -- meaning no landfill bound garbage -- by 2020. With a population of only 92,000, zero waste could be doable. The environmental benefits are obvious, not to mention energy gain. Those 27 million tons of food we discard, break down releasing methane (natural) gas.

The Hyperion waste water treatment plant deals with most of the sewage (450 million gallons per day) from the sprawling metropolis of Los Angles. Hyperion gets 85 percent of its energy needs -- in the form of methane -- from the waste it processes, by way of anaerobic digestion. Santa Monica's post-consumer food waste has gone to Hyperion and been converted into methane gas. So the food you can't compost to become part of your delicious home-grown tomatoes, could power your CFL light bulbs -- it's a win-win.

The U.S. Army has to come up with environmentally friendly ways to dispose of waste. Soldiers get sick when toxic military trash is incinerated in open pit burns.

Converting hardcore toxic waste into something reusable takes a lot of energy. But with plasma arc gasification, that's what happens. Trash is incinerated using heat equivalent to the surface of the sun. Some of it gets blasted back into its components, and a byproduct known as Syngas (cleaner than natural gas) is created. The beauty part -- the Syngas powers the process. Another big plus with plasma gasification over conventional incineration is virtually no dioxins (the most toxic of all substances) are released. Other emissions are also reduced.

U.S. Army environmental scientist David Robau promotes PAG as a superior way to dispose of municipal trash, too. Japanese city Utashinai uses PAG to daily convert 150 tons of waste into energy. The biggest plasma waste facility, which would daily gasify 400 tons of garbage, is slated for Reno, Nevada. It could be operational by 2014.

While some environmentalists caution against plasma gasification, it would enable the ambivalent to maintain excessive consumption, and sloppy recycling habits. I think turning trash into energy is infinitely sensible. Because news flash: recycling, while imperative, is a secondary solution that uses energy.

First, we need to use less stuff, for way longer. Look in your wardrobe for your version of Grandma's green pantsuit. Let's put the sexy back in frugality. If we could combine low-tech, wise use of resources strategies, we'd reduce waste. Then use medium-tech anaerobic digestion for organic waste, and go high-tech PAG for nasty toxic mess -- think of the closed-loop energy system we'd create. If we could capture and convert the heat energy released during sex into a reusable energy source, we could be green in terms of our sexual sustainability. Think about it...

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