Saturday, July 17, 2010

Is Waste Essential to Sustainability?

Elephant ears in the fryer
Recently, I visited Portland's Oregon Zoo with my wife and daughter.  Besides enjoying the animals, especially Samudra, the now not-so-small baby elephant, we made some purchases.  First were two elephant ears for my wife and daughter: tasty, zoo-themed slabs of fried dough slathered with butter and sugar.  At the end of our visit, we stopped in the gift shop, where my ten-year-old daughter got a stuffed animal.  In the gift shop, a sign announced an upcoming renovation that would enhance the shop's sustainability, with new bamboo shelves and paints with low levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

The sign got me thinking.  Certainly, the zoo's activities embody sustainability: education about the precious diversity of life; breeding and sometimes even releasing endangered species; and contributing to the economic well-being of the Portland metropolitan area.  But the concession stands and gift stores sell a lot of junk food that isn't good for us and souvenirs that we don't really need, like plastic toys, stuffed animals and T-shirts.

But everyone likes souvenirs, and they contribute to the economic viability of the zoo.   So, are they a good thing?   It seems that unnecessary consumption is an essential fundraising tool for even the worthiest of causes.   Consider the charity auctions and galas that consume significant resources just to get people to come and donate.  Why not just donate everything directly to the charity?  But I imagine that just asking people to write a check doesn't work as well.

A few days after our trip to the zoo, I read an article in the Oregonian about the Genesis Biopod, a new "green burial" kit for the disposal of cremains in bodies of water.    An entrepreneur has created a $750 kit centered around an open clay receptacle designed to serve as an aquatic habitat after holding a water-soluble bag of ashes.   Advantages of this product include preventing the wind from dispersing ashes where they are not wanted, and the opportunity to record GPS coordinates as a virtual headstone at sea.    Certainly, it is better for the environment than a conventional metal casket and embalming, but wouldn't a $5 water-soluble clay urn with a snug lid be even more sustainable?   

So here is my question to you:  Can we consume sustainably and support sustainable causes without wasteful incentives?

1 comment:

  1. So your question is the paradox, the very problem I see with "developed" nations, or perhaps all people who feel that they need to be wasteful in order to be happy. It seems that this is something left over from being jealous of a king's, CEO's, or other royalty's riches. Only royalty used to be able to afford to just throw things away once they were done with them, or waste food or other precious supplies. Indeed, it is still how the powerful in the less-developed areas of the world flaunt their wealth while their subjects starve.

    It seems to me that waste has become an inexpensive luxury item in America, anyway. If one can be wasteful like royalty, one can feel wealthy and be happy enough with much less. I think this was a major driver of waste and disposable things, but there were of course other cultural factors.

    When applied to living sustainably, even the initial selling points emphasized that if we all give a little we get more than we need in return. Not enough, more than enough. It seems that the human mind is now programmed to expect a return on investment. So no, unfortunately I don't expect wasteful incentives to go away anytime soon. Rather, I expect these incentives themselves to become more sustainable by hiring local organic caterers, healthier foods (somewhat, anyway), smaller helpings, and local artisans to make simple things. Economy is still one factor in sustainability, and without money circulating the whole system would collapse, so there will still need to be boutique items. In your funeral case (so to speak) I believe the entrepreneur is pricing the Biopod to be competitive with a standard casket that is simply buried and does no natural good at all, and it certainly maintains some human traditions while also being more natural. A sealed clay urn wouldn't decompose, and therefore isn't much better than burying it.