Hidden Waste in Things We Love


UGH!  I just finished reading a disturbing book called Stuff: the Secret Life of Everyday Things by John C Ryan and Alan Thein Durning.  The book is published with Sightline Institute, http://www.sightline.org   by NEW Publications.   Sightline Institute is a not for profit research center based in Seattle, Washington fostering sustainability as a way of life.  I started my day with the authors, traveled around the world and discovered what it takes to support that first moment of joy everyday, after Martin, of course.  Travel opens my eyes to diversity and new ways of seeing even the most common things done differently with different resources.

Let’s start with morning coffee. . . . my first thought everyday brings me a feeling of rejuvenation and joy! The Coffee moment! Grinding the beans, inhaling the first aroma from the grind, listening to the percolating sound of the finishing brew, warming the milk, choosing one of my many favorite mugs, smelling that awakening aroma throughout the apartment and situating myself into my morning spot to taste distant lands.

Let’s follow those 100 beans into the grinder.  They represent 1/60th of the beans that grew on a coffee tree that year from a small mountain farm in Colombia. That’s twelve coffee trees just for one person!   “Modern” farmers now use 11 pounds of fertilizer and a few ounces of pesticide to “protect” those trees that once grew under a canopy in a tropical forest full of life, in order to meet the growing demands of coffee drinkers all over the world.  Coffee is the world’s second largest (after oil) export commodity and source of foreign exchange for developing countries. The United States consumes 1/5th of the world’s total.  Colombia, a biological superpower, started cutting down its forests to plant high yield coffee varieties that increased soil erosion and decimated its bird diversity.

Farm workers, paid less than $1/day, wearing westernized shorts, T-shirts and backpacks spray the trees with pesticides from Germany, inhale some of the chemicals, and unknowingly allow the remainder to be washed or wafted away and absorbed by other untrackable plants and animals. Fertilizers, pesticides and other chemicals incorporate labor, technology, transportation, and fuel from 3 continents generating toxic wastes along their way. The handpicked berries are fed into a crusher powered by diesel to remove the beans from the fruit. The unwanted 2 pounds of pulp for every pound of coffee gets dumped into the Cauca River, where it decomposes, consuming oxygen needed by the fish.  The beans are dried under the sun, packed into a 132 pound burlap bag and travel to New Orleans on a Japanese ship fueled by Venezuelan oil.   The steel in the ship came from Korea using iron mined in western Australia. Upon its arrival in New Orleans, the beans were roasted using natural gas from West Texas, packed into a polyethylene, nylon, aluminum foil and polyester bag and an 18-wheeler consuming 6miles/gallon of diesel oil trucked 2,719 miles to unload it in a warehouse near Seattle.  A smaller truck packed up its deliveries and brought some of it to a local store.

One pound of those beans, packaged in that non recyclable bag with a ziplock top,  get driven home in an unbleached craft paper bag from Oregon burning 1/5 gallon of gas.  In the morning, the beans go into the grinder made in China from imported steel, aluminum, copper and plastic, powered with electricity generated by Ross Dam on the Skagit River in the Washington Cascade Mountains.  The ground beans go into a mesh filter made of German steel and Russian gold which goes into a plastic and steel drip coffee maker from China using more electricity to heat and pump water.   The water came through a metal pipe originating at a water processing plant from Chester Morse Reservoir on the Cedar River in the Cascades.  Heated by an electrical element the water seeped through the ground beans dissolving some of its oils and solids, trickled into a glass carafe and was poured into a ceramic mug handmade in NY.  Washing the mug took much more water than the drink, plus detergent from Minnesota. The used grounds went into a GLAD plastic garbage bag from California, which will travel by truck to a landfill in Oregon.  The teaspoon of sugar, stirred into the hot liquid came from cane fields in Southern Florida that were once sawgrass marshes. The cane field irrigation water, with nutrients and pesticides, now drains directly into the Everglades, contributing to a 75-95% diminishment of vertebrates like turtles and storks, or it is transferred by canals to the Atlantic Ocean.  The milk came from a grain fed cow in Skagit Valley that liked to wade, drink and graze in one of the water shed streams, warming the water, creating mud and expelling waste that depletes the oxygen needed by the Coho Salmon and the Steelhead Trout.  After drinking the coffee, the human waste and the leftover brew passed into the Seattle sewer system, carried by Cedar River Water under the streets.  It is mixed with other organic and inorganic waste on its way to West Point Sewage Treatment Plant on the shores of Puget Sound, where it is filtered, concentrated, digested, and sterilized with screens, settling tanks, bacteria and chlorine.  An engineer deemed the sludge clean enough for agriculture and a truck hauled it away to use as fertilizer and soil conditioner.  The remaining treated liquids were carried by water through metal pipes to Puget Sound where tides flushed it into the Pacific Ocean.

Even though, the United States has experienced significant improvements in air and water quality, industries and consumers alike are growing more concerned about our collective environment.  Because, everyday, we consume 120 pounds of natural resources extracted from farms, forests, rangelands and mines through chains of production that reach us from all over the world.  We obviously don’t consume 120 pounds of product.  The impacts of this trade are hidden from our view in rural hinterlands, fenced off industrial sites and far off nations.

How You Can Help:

Until Next Week,

Garbage Girl


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