There is a tremendous opportunity to identify and better manage our hidden resources. Awakening to new uses for our by-products directly recharges our valuable earth. Improved inventories of what we discard will stimulate a greater understanding of new ingenious ways to grow. Such renewal creates new prosperity since such resource management taps into new energy and materials. Better tracking of resource and material use can provide us with a more holistic approach to “best use” and new enterprises. Preserving our world is a gold mine of new commerce and industry.
Over seven billion people now live on this earth. In the next decades, an additional several billion people are estimated to increase our ranks. It is imperative we measure, manage and sustain resources for the future uses.
Each year Americans use, discard and recycle more than 17.3 billion tons of waste including non-sewage wastewater. The total volume of non-waste water is 4.9 billion tons per year. Just in America’s households, we generate 1.6 million tons of hazardous waste including, paints, cleaners, oils, batteries, and pesticides.
Waste generators in the U.S. include: special waste (mining, oil and gas et at 2.3 billion tons per year): nuclear waste (1.2 billion tons per year); agricultural (789 million tons per year); construction and demolition (333 million tons per year with roads contributing another 164 million tons): forestry (280 million tons per year;) and what most people think is ordinary waste-municipal waste is estimated at 236 million tons per year. Coal combustion by-products account for 122 million tons per year and foundry sand roughly 6-10 million tons per year. Industrial non-hazardous, hazardous, used oil and medical waste combine to add another 226 million tons per year. Wastewater generation is huge at over 12.5 billions tons per year (roughly 99% of this water).
Placing both a price and cost on solid, liquid and gas resources is a first step in best investing our air, water and land. Some of the key issues facing us are:
· How to lessen climate change. We are 4% of the world’s population producing 22% of the climate altering CO2 (carbon dioxide) added to the atmosphere.
· How to sustain water quantity. Americans use three times more water each day than Europeans, and that’s not for purposes of cleanliness. Each day we use 137 billion gallons of water for irrigation. On the east coast in the summer months, one-third of our water goes to watering our lawns. Agriculture has been cited as the largest water user worldwide. U.S. Power plants consume 131 billion gallons of water each day. Experts estimate the clean-up of contaminated groundwater at 300,000 sites in the United States could cost up to $1 trillion over the next decades.
· How to safely dispose of our radioactive waste. Each year in the United States, 2,000 tons of spent fuel is generated by the nation’s 103 operating nuclear power plants that provide 20% of America’s electricity. Roughly 40,000 tons of waste has been generated by America’s commercial nuclear plants. Re-use of radioactive waste and final disposal is a challenging matter. Some estimates put the cost to reprocess spent fuel waste by separating the highly radioactive components from the low-level components using chemical processes costing hundreds of billions of dollars. Used plutonium lasts for 250,000 years, and the contaminated nickel in the core of nuclear reactors lasts 3 million years.
· How to manage used oil and gas wastes. Each year many billion tons of oil and gas wastes are generated by oil and gas exploration and production in America. Hydraulic fracking by-products must be better tracked. We consume more than 250 billion gallons of oil on an annual basis. On the back-end consumers waste hundreds of millions of gallons of used oil and anti-freeze along with hundreds millions of used oil filters that are improperly disposed of by millions of Americans who change their own oil (do-it-yourselfers).
· How to better manage our natural resources including our forests, minerals, water, and land. Building and road construction has a significant impact on the environment, accounting for one sixth of the world’s freshwater withdrawal, one-quarter of its wood harvest, and two-fifths of its materials and energy flow. Each year we lose 136 million tons of construction and demolition (C&D) waste from building and 200 million tons for roads (about 50% if concrete is recycled). Estimates for buildings and roads are 300 million tons per year. Buildings consume 40% of the raw stone, gravel and sand used globally each year. Each year 2 billion tons of topsoil is lost through erosion. New construction accelerates this. An average of nearly 17 tons of soil is lost per acre of cropland per year.
· How to improve the manner in which we dispose of municipal solid waste. Each year millions of tons of refuse is landfilled, some of which may be recovered and reused. Landfills are one of the largest sources of methane released in the United States, and some are converting theirs into useable energy. Roughly one-half of our solid waste is biodegradable. Besides paper, yard and vegetative waste, over 96 billion pounds of food a year-- or one quarter of America’s food-- is lost. Increasing composting can both generates new soil, and can improve our soil.
· Better manage our excrement. More than 16,000 sewage treatment facilities serving 190 million Americans generate biosolids or sludge. These facilities also serve thousands of industrial and commercial establishments. Approximately eight million dry metric tons of biosolids are produced annually--that's about 70 pounds per person per year. About 54% of these biosolids are land applied. In the agriculture sector another 500 million tons of manure is produced yearly by farm animals.
Exploring United States life cycle management opportunities offers a new frontier of goods and services. Looking at waste generation; reduction, reuse, recycling, composting, energy recovery, treatment, storage, and disposal—offer new material and energy supplies. Better life cycle management will reduce pollution and improved land use, improved product design and manufacturing, green purchasing, and numerous types of re-use and recycling can be used to reduce our waste inventory and provide a better system to manage our resources. New ventures such as “green building”, re-use of landfill methane and the recovery of electronics, mercury-bearing products and oil, are various ventures blazing a trail towards conservation and better resource management at the individual level. Just the simple act of leaving grass cutting on the lawn is one small example.
Profiting from pollution prevention we lessen potential exposure caused by possible releases. Fundamental to this process is how we engage people to become part of the solution instead of part of the problem. The quicker we identify the benefits to environment protection the faster we will reap the rewards.
We must take better inventory of our entire waste cycle and material flows to become more efficient and productive in using and conserving our dwindling resources. Such an effort can better identify important factors such as energy, economic and environmental impacts and leaders in new commerce.
Comprehensive environmental management and integrated planning of the entire materials-flow and by-products cycle will transform our liabilities into assets. Such new ventures can chart a course of action and conservation. Let’s become more ingenious and best manage our hidden resources.