“The Story of Stuff” All our stuff goes through a process in the materials economy: extraction, production, distribution, consumption, and disposal. It sounds so simple but there are a lot of loopholes in between each step goes through. The first stage is extraction. Extraction means taking the planet’s resources – wood, minerals, coal, fossil fuel, water, plants, animals, and soil out of the earth and starting their journey through the materials economy. The problem here is simple: we are using too much stuff, the processes by which we extract all that stuff cause more damage and we are not sharing the stuff equitably.
We are trashing the planet. We are using and wasting more resources each year than the earth can renew. And on top of using too much, the processes we use to extract all that stuff like clear cutting forests, mountain top removal mining, bottom trawling fishing and others further damage ecosystems, change the climate wipe out species, use up water and create pollution. Extractive industries are linked to wide ranging health problems resulting from pollution, water, degradation and toxic associated with the extractive processes.
In mining, oil and gas sites, residents report increased asthma, respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses, autoimmune diseases, liver failure, cancer and other aliments. Workers are getting trashed too. Workers in extractive industries bear a disproportionate burden of health and safety threats. Mining, for example, accounts for only 0. 4% of the global workforce, but is responsible for over 3% of fatal accidents at work – about 11,000 per year, about 30 each day. Forestry is among the three most dangerous occupations in most countries.
In a globalized economy, the risks of extractive industries are disproportionately borne by communities in developing countries while the rewards consistently accrue to the corporations and consumers in the wealthier countries. The second stage is production. In the production stage, we use energy to add toxic chemicals to the natural resources to make toxic products. Our industrial production systems use vast amount of natural resources, water, energy, and chemical compounds to chum out pollution, worker and community, health problems and products, many of which contain toxics known to be harmful to human health and the environment.
Industrial production systems create wide ranging environmental problems, including climate change, water depletion, waste and toxic pollution. Today’s industry relies on a toxic brew of synthetic chemicals which end up both products and released as pollution. In the United States, industry admits to releasing over 4 billion pounds of toxic chemicals a year. As long as we use toxic in our production systems, we’ll keep getting toxics in our air, water, food, and of course… our stuff. These toxic enter our homes, schools, workplaces and bodies through pollution and consumer products.
Toxics, which cause a range of illnesses from cancer to disruption of our neurological and hormonal systems, are so prevalent that they are routinely found in every body tested, even new born babies. The people who bear the biggest brunt of these toxic chemicals are no other than the factory workers, many of whom are women of reproductive age working with reproductive toxics, neurotoxins, carcinogens and more. Protecting people in the workplace is a fundamental responsibility of companies and governments, yet workers are routinely exposed to toxic chemicals in the manufacture of everyday consumer stuff.
Because the government wants to lessen pollution in their own country, they decide to move their production factories in other countries, most of them are third world countries, in search of less stringent environmental regulations which causes worker rights and salaries to lower and to weaken public access to information and opposition. But much of these toxics travel right back, carried by air currents or as imported toxic products. The third stage is distribution. Distribution involves transporting and elling all the stuff quickly and cheaply. The goal here is to keep the prices down, keep the people buying and keep the materials flowing. A key strategy business use to keep prices down is to externalize costs. That means that the price tags on consumer products don’t capture the true costs of producing and distributing all these stuff. Distributing all these stuff creates more environmental impacts. Energy is used to transport the stuff around the world as well as for lighting and temperature control of all the shopping malls and stores.
The sprawling retail infrastructure is chewing up farmland and wildlife habitat, contributing to car traffic, increasing greenhouse gases and urban runoff, and adding to local solid waste streams. The failure of some big commercial retailers to provide adequate health coverage for workers is well documented. Requiring low paid store workers to cover health care costs, increases their stress, diverts already short earnings from other basic needs may undermine workers’ long term health.
While big box stores tout the jobs they provide, most of the new service sector jobs are in suburbs, yet the highest concentration of unemployed workers is in urban areas. Increasingly globalized distribution systems present obstacles to promoting sustainability and justice in the distribution of goods. It is harder to track the location and conditions under which products are made and harder to hold decision makers accountable along the way. Most retailers don’t even know all the companies in a product’s supply chain and, if they do, they often choose to keep it confidential.
The fourth stage is consumption. In much of the world, consumption rates are soaring, with more people using more resources and energy, and creating more waste and greenhouse gases than ever before. At the same time, millions of people consume barely enough to survive. Yes, when we shop, we should buy the least damaging product available and affordable, but consumption is a systems problem, meaning our choices at the supermarkets are pre-determined and limited by political and institutional forces beyond the store. Over consumption impacts our mental and physical health.
We have more stuff than ever before. We’re trashing our planet and overworking ourselves to buy stuff that is so toxic that it contaminates our homes and bodies and, on top of everything, all this consuming isn’t even making us happy. The U. S. exports its extractive industries, its polluting production plants, and its dirty disposal facilities, but the most hazardous export of all is this consumption-mania that is trashing our planet and our communities. Globalization facilitates the spread of this economic and cultural model, persuading other countries to follow suit.
If everyone consumed like those in the U. S. , we would need three to five planets… but we’ve only got ONE. And finally, when our stuff breaks or when we get sick of it, we dispose of it. Virtually all the resources flowing through the materials economy eventually end up as waste to be disposed somewhere, usually dumped or burned or recovered for recycling. And all these process of disposing just pollutes the air, land, and water; releases poten greenhouse gases; wastes resources that could have been conserved and diverts attention and funding away from real solutions.
Recycling conserves materials and energy, but is often itself a dirty process and isn’t always possible with today’s mix of toxic and poorly designed products. As the volume and toxicity of waste grows, recycling can’t solve the whole problem. Waste needs to be designed out of the system from the start – through cleaner production, better design, composting, recycling and using stuff overall. We can extract fewer resources from the planet. We can improve our extractive practices to be less harmful to the planet, workers and host communities.
Progress now is being made on many fronts including increasing materials efficiency, ming reform, sustainable forestry, renewable energy and more. Production can also be clean, just and sustainable. Products can be designed to be more durable, less wasteful. Industrial processes can run with renewable energy, non-toxic inputs and greatly reduced materials use. Overall, materials and energy can be used more judiciously and equitably. While we cannot stop the distribution of all this stuff, there are many strategies available to improve the environmental and social impact of distribution systems.
Successful strategies include Fair Trade certification, Community Benefits Agreements to ensure new business benefit the community, Green Buildings, Sustainable Land Use Planning, and Local Living Economies which build communities with a healthy social and natural environment. We can even support locally made products to decrease the demand of imported products, which in effect would decrease distribution. In disposing, combining Clean Production at the front end with Zero Waste approaches throughout the materials economy transforms wasteful, linear systems of production and disposal to be cyclical, safe, sustainable and socially sound.
This succeeds in reducing the quantity and toxicity of production inputs and wastes outputs and slows the overall materials flow to a level the planet can sustain. In conclusion, like I said in my other papers, it is everyone’s job to take care of the planet. Since our government is not doing anything about it, we ourselves can do something about it… even in the slightest way – from buying Zero Waste products to simply just putting our trash in the right place. Sources: http://www. storyofstuff. com/