Environment News Service: Knowledge Based Economies Fail to Reverse Pollution, Waste

Wesley Roe and Marjorie Lakin Erickson lakinroe at silcom.com
Thu Sep 21 07:28:28 PDT 2000

Hi Everyone
         here is a thought provoking article about design from 
Environmental News Service, I like this quote from the article.
"We must understand the entire materials cycle, since neither governments 
nor industries can effectively manage what they don't measure," Matthews said.



Knowledge Based Economies Fail to Reverse Pollution, Waste

By Brian Hansen

WASHINGTON, DC, September 20, 2000 (ENS) - The resource savings that the 
United States and other industrial nations have seemingly realized from 
their shift towards knowledge based economies have been completely negated 
by the output of wastes and pollutants, the World Resources Institute says 
in a new report.

The Washington based research organization analyzed the economies of the 
U.S., Germany, Japan, Austria and the Netherlands. The analysis found that 
up to 75 percent of the annual resource inputs to those economies are 
returned to the environment as wastes within a year.

According to World Resources Institute (WRI) senior associate Emily 
Matthews, neither the volume or the environmental significance of many of 
those wastes have been accurately reflected by standard economic indicators.

"These are all huge material flows which sometimes have quite significant 
environmental impacts, but they never enter the economy," Matthews said. 
"That's why we call them hidden flows - they may not matter in terms of 
dollars, but they matter in terms of the environment."

Coal mining overburden and carbon dioxide emissions are the prime examples 
of these so-called "hidden" waste streams, Matthews said.

Some 10 billion tons of bituminous coal have been produced in Pennsylvania 
during over 200 years of mining, about one fourth of all coal ever mined in 
the United States. (Photo courtesy Pennsylvania Coal Association)

"Those two together account for half the output flows by weight in the U.S. 
economy," Matthews reported.

On a per capita basis, the coal mining industry produces about 22 tons of 
overburden for every man, woman and child in the United States every year, 
Matthews noted. The per capita share of carbon dioxide emissions in the 
United States is only slightly lower, at 21 tons per person per year, 
Matthews said.

"These are major flows with substantial environmental impacts," Matthews said.

These types of hidden costs have more than offset the gains brought about 
by the rise of e-commerce and the shift towards knowledge and service based 
industries in the five countries analyzed, WRI reports.

Matthews says the analysis reveals that better government policies and 
savvy management practices can help to "break the link" between economic 
growth and resource consumption and waste.

For example, the significant decline in the arsenic waste stream in the 
United States illustrates the importance of looking at the long term 
effects of a pollutant, Matthews said.

Arsenic, once a common ingredient in many pesticides, has for years been 
strictly regulated for that use by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency 
(EPA). Consequently, the incidence of arsenic contamination in the 
environment has dropped off almost to zero, the report found.

But it would be a grave mistake to conclude that the dangers posed by 
arsenic contamination have passed, because the substance is now being 
incorporated into pressure treated wood products used to make patio decks, 
park benches and wood flooring, Matthews noted.

Pressure treated lumber. The American Wood Preservers Institute maintains 
that pressure treating wood and disposing of it properly saves forests by 
giving wood products a longer life. (Photo courtesy AWPI)

That arsenic will ultimately be released into the environment when those 
wood products wear out and are burned, chipped, or disposed of in a 
landfill. "We can see that down the line we're heading for a problem unless 
we either substitute for arsenic in wood, or we take better care of that 
wood when it comes to the end of its life," Matthews said.

The report recommends that national accounts be established to track 
pollutants through their entire "materials cycles." Such accounts, the WRI 
suggests, would provide policy makers, industry leaders, and the public 
with more comprehensive information on the extraction, use, and disposal of 
such potentially dangerous wastes.

"We must understand the entire materials cycle, since neither governments 
nor industries can effectively manage what they don't measure," Matthews said.

One company that did try to measure its materials cycle is Interface, Inc., 
a carpeting and floor coverings firm based in Atlanta, Georgia. Interface 
launched a study of its material flows in 1997 as a way to measure its 
progress towards its goal of environmental sustainability. Ray Anderson, 
the company's CEO, was quick to applaud WRI for its efforts in producing 
the new report.

"We were staggered, frankly, by the difficulty of this data gathering 
exercise for our $1 billion company," Anderson said. "How much more 
staggering is it that WRI has been able to do this for five entire countries."

Anderson said he was also surprised to learn just how much waste his 
company produced.

"When we look at WRI's report, we see that in 1996 we were just a typical 
industrial enterprise - typically bad," Anderson said. "This reinforces the 
conviction held by many thoughtful people that the modern industrial system 
is systematically destroying the earth's biosphere."

"This travesty must come to an end," Anderson continued. "And it will come 
to an end - either in our credit, in a new industrial revolution, or in our 
discredit, in species extinction, including perhaps our own."

Any company that wants to be around for more than the next decade had 
better heed the warnings articulated in WRI's report, Anderson warned.

"Knowing is the first step to reducing our outputs on this planet," he 
said. "WRI has, in my view, performed an invaluable service, and industry 
must now respond."

The full text of the WRI report can be found on the group's website at: 

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