Canadian Consulting Engineer

Dealing with stuff

Perhaps it's some hardwired DNA linked to our prehistoric hunter-gatherer past that draws people to go shopping seven days a week, cruising the endless aisles and picking through the racks. Whenever I...

June 1, 2005   By Bronwen Parsons

Perhaps it’s some hardwired DNA linked to our prehistoric hunter-gatherer past that draws people to go shopping seven days a week, cruising the endless aisles and picking through the racks. Whenever I go to the mall or the local home renovation store, I’m torn with ambivalence. Just as my eye rests on the gleaming object of my desire, a voice inside my head issues a warning. I remember the words of the 19th-century anti-industrialist William Morris: don’t have anything in your house that isn’t useful or beautiful. And I remember that my closets, our house, and our garage are already quite full of stuff.

Too much stuff. In the developed world we’re acquiring goods at an unprecedented rate, filling our ever larger houses with ever larger objects, consuming ever more mounds of the earth’s resources as we do so. Managing and processing all that stuff has become one of life’s chief preoccupations. Indeed a whole new set of entrepreneurs such as “rent-a-wife” (what an audaciously politically incorrect name!) makes a living out of organizing people’s homes. There’s even a TV reality show devoted to helping the most hopelessly cluttered families throw out their superfluous goods.

Of course, all this stuff — machines, chemicals, fabrics, diapers, bottles, newspapers — whatever — doesn’t disappear. Most of it sticks around for decades and is creating a huge and mounting problem for municipalities. They’re calling on consulting engineers who specialize in waste management to help them decide how to deal with all this dirt and detritus.

Landfills, the traditional solution, will no longer do. Nobody wants them in their backyard. Recycling is not a bad option, but for materials such as plastics it becomes ridiculously inefficient due to processing and transportation costs. Container ships are now plying the oceans carrying wads of compressed plastic bottles from our blue boxes to China, where the material will be reprocessed into new items to ship back again to feed our unending appetites. “Reuse” is the tactic preferred by environmentalists, but to make a car or a washing machine so that it can be reassembled for another life requires expensive engineering design — something that is hardly going to survive in the Big Box store price wars.

Environmentalists believe that through methods like the above we can divert almost 90% of our waste. At the Americana environmental conference in Montreal in April, waste experts from Europe suggested the best way to achieve that diversion figure is with financial incentives. Apparently, for example, the high fees charged for garbage collection in Switzerland ($3 per bag) have led shoppers to start dumping packaging in the stores before they take products through the checkouts. Fed up with this, the retailers are putting pressure on the manufacturers to reduce their packaging — solving the problem at the source.

For the remaining 10% of waste surely the most logical answer is incineration. Although North Americans are still highly suspicious of the health effects, experts say that the new technologies make the burning of our residual waste relatively safe. The emissions from a modern incinerator, said one speaker at Americana, are less than the emissions from two or three vehicles — never mind the emissions from hundreds of trucks carting Toronto’s garbage down to Michigan.


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