The fundamental equation in thermodynamics for predicting spontaneous reactions and equilibrium in biological and chemical processes is G = H – TS. That is, energy available to do work or “Gibbs free energy” (G) equals “enthalpy” or the heat of the reaction (H) minus temperature (T) times (S) the degree of systemic disorder or “entropy.” The relationship of Gibbs free energy to enthalpy, entropy and temperature measures the inefficiency of energy transfers and transformations in the universe. When energy changes from one form to another, entropy (i.e. disorder or chaos) inevitably increases in closed systems. Energy lost by natural systems as unusable heat is the basis of the second law of thermodynamics and explains why ingesting protein from animal parts rather than directly from plants is tremendously inefficient. That’s because each step ascending the ecological trophic pyramid results in 90% energy loss. Otherwise, because flows of carbon, water, nitrogen and other life-sustaining elements are cyclical, nature is pretty much devoid of waste. One organism’s “trash” is another organism’s feast of decomposition. Only in the limited context of our own species is waste a societal design flaw, a uniquely human predilection towards trashing the biosphere’s finite resources.
If you doubt we live in a linear, disposable economy designed to generate waste, go to your local fairways for some anecdotal proof. I’ve been golfing for 52 years, and “ball-hawking” has never been easier. Fewer players seem to look for shots near trees or deep rough anymore. Whether due to laziness or lack of determination on their parts, lots of new, conspicuous and easily retrievable balls end up in my bag. Every year, globally, we convert 100 billion tons of raw materials into products. Less than 25% is converted into buildings, vehicles and other objects of measurable durability. About 9% is recycled back into the economy, and fully two-thirds is emitted as pollution or disposed conventionally as waste ─ atmospheric carbon from fossil fuels, solid waste in landfills, nitrates and phosphates leaching from synthetically-fertilized fields, plastics scattered and drifting into oceanic gyres. Obsolescence, too, turns longer-lasting products into premature waste. In the U.S., for instance, thousands of decommissioned but functional government and private aircraft and other vehicles sit idly in open-air storage, concessions to the elements. Even our sewer systems, hardcore circularity mavens would argue, divert precious nutrients away from farmers’ fields and forest floors where excrement should perform.
The job of achieving net-zero emissions by unplugging the industrial world from fossil fuels is daunting, but needs to be done, desperately before 2040. Years ago, a team of researchers was allowed to sort through Londoners’ garbage as part of a years-long assessment of British energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. Over half the UK’s wasted energy and atmospheric discharges came from inefficiencies in construction, discarded food, electronics and clothing. Perhaps indicative of Anglo-cooking, entire roasted chickens and other entrees were found buried in garbage cans. We Americans hardly fare better. Food production, fossil fuels, textiles and other manufactured commodities are heavily subsidized here and abroad. As the U.S. wastes roughly two-thirds of its energy, coal, natural gas and oil companies worldwide rake-in $5 trillion in tax-payer government subsidies each year. That kind of fiscal insanity must stop. If actions to mitigate global warming and climate change stay maladroit and slow, costs to the international community will top $26 trillion by decade’s end.
The U.S. remains improvident not because its plutocratic power base is evil (I’m willing to concede), but because our economy encourages wasteful consumption. The carbon footprint of American meals is a third larger than necessary because upwards of 40% of food production never reaches our mouths. Furthermore, every newly-developed gadget and profit-making device consumes electricity. Power demands for computers used in Bitcoin mining, before cryptocurrencies crashed in 2018, consumed as much electricity as a Netherlands-sized country. No doubt, as human population exceeds 8 billion, the future of the biosphere will depend on buying habits of people more densely concentrated elsewhere ─ China, India and sub-Saharan Africa. But that won’t absolve us of our responsibilities here. As Canadian Stuart Parker suggests, the West’s “climate nihilism” remains an inescapable karma. The average American, Canadian or European emits far more carbon than average Africans or Asians ever will. After all, most of the residual anthropogenic carbon in the atmosphere is attributable to U.S. historical discharges. Not only have we retained the title of world’s largest cumulative polluter for over a century, but on a per capita basisU.S. emissions still lead the field. No doubt we’ll hold that dubious distinction so long as proclivities for leaving air-conditioners on, idling vehicles in parking lots, and wasting food and other resources persist. Thanks to the second law of thermodynamics and escalating entropy, an estimated 70% of the energy produced by the planet is lost as unusable heat. If the average U.S. citizen merely reduced their carbon footprint to European size, our carbon emissions would halve. If the world’s richest 10% did likewise, global emissions would be lowered one third.
To reiterate, over 40% of U.S. produce is discarded as garbage and ends up in landfills, which EPA warns are bursting at the seams. That’s 60 million tons (or $160 billion worth) of produce annually, much of it vegetables, tubers and fruits. Globally, industrialized nations waste almost as much food each year (222 million tons) as the entire net food production of sub-Saharan Africa, a total net food wastage valued at $3 trillion. In the U.S., wastage of food grown, processed and transported here averages about 20 pounds per person per week. An American family of four thusly discards $1,600 of produce annually, and rotting food in landfills is a leading source of toxic methane, which contributes mightily to global warming and climate change. Forty percent American food waste translates into 25% more methane emissions, 32% more depletion of finite drinking water reserves (e.g. the Great Plain’s Ogallala aquifer), and 20% wasted U.S. land usage. Contributing to our idiocy are cheap food and unrealistic cosmetic standards. Our taxpayer subsidies for milk, meats, wheat and corn keep market prices well below other industrialized nations. Unaware of the hidden cost, we buy more than we need. And how that food looks has become an unnatural American obsession, superseding and ultimately squandering its nutritional value. Adding to the psychosis, many grocers refuse to stock shelves with bruised, oxidized or discolored produce perfectly good to eat. As a result, a lot of fruits and vegetables are left to rot in fields, fed to livestock (a reasonable alternative) or hauled directly to landfills because of unrealistic cosmetic standards.
Americans can’t be expected to go circular alone; systemic changes are needed, complete with inducements. Not every city can recreate Copenhagen’s waste-to-energy plant, which heats and electrifies Denmark’s capital, doubles as a ski slope and hiking trail, and even warranted a visit from Greta Thunberg and her father in 2019. But we can Reduce, Recycle, Reuse, Refurbish and Repair. We can serve more people with fewer products through business-sharing. We can insist on renewable energy to replace fossil fuels. We can take the Henry Ford approach and design machines and other merchandise to last longer, repair easily and disassemble into basic components for recycling. We can restrain ourselves by traveling less and more efficiently, eating all the food we buy, avoiding single-use plastics and wearing clothes we already have. Ultimately, it’s less a matter of choice than a question of necessity.
Scott Deshefy is a biologist, ecologist and two-time Green Party congressional candidate.