The garbage trail that leads to me

The gestation for this column starts with the computer I’m typing on. It’s an old warhorse Dell workstation, scavenged several years ago at the end of its useful life from a company that was modernizing. I have grown to like it (I’m a Mac convert) and put up with its idiosyncracies. But within a few months, I’m going to have to dump it–its OS will be ‘unsupported’ and I can’t really upgrade it.

This comes in light of my friend Kathleen Stansell, introducing me to a movie I didn’t know about called Bag It, a documentary of sorts about a huge problem–what happens to all those plastic bags we use once and then throw away. Bad news–they end up ‘somewhere’, and it takes about 500 years for one to return to dust. They do shred, however–like most plastics, they partially dissolve into smaller pieces. And the problem is that the bags (full and shredded) look like food to many ocean creatures, and the chemicals that are dissipating from the plastic (like BPA) are not only killing lots of ocean fish (up to and including WHALES)–the are ending up in our food chain, where predator fish like tuna and swordfish have large concentrations of such chemicals.

Meanwhile, it is understood that many of the chemicals used to bind common plastics together are endocrine disrupters. BPA mimics estrogen and studies show some rather interesting side effects on test animals that might translate to similar problems on humans. Phthalates (used in plastics but also in cosmetics) may have effects on human fertility and sperm count. Swell… there are whole ocean zones filled with nothing but swirling bits of plastic garbage, and we keep using these things for all sorts of needs. And plastics go hand-in-hand with consumerism–all those bottles of water or soda or those plastic shells that KFC hands out, have to go somewhere. And the ‘somewhere’ is someplace in your food chain (and mine).

And what’s our response on this? Some responsible people have made a practice of using cloth bags when shopping. But the above-the-radar talk about plastic comes from the likes of people like Glenn Beck, who encourages his listeners to use as many bags as possible.

All that said, I haven’t gotten back to my soon-to-be-defunct Dell box. This thing has a whole load of toxins in it–lots of lead and other toxic metals, a plastic motherboard with thousands of batteries and capacitors soldered to it. And there’s that big plastic shell that’s going to be around for some 500+ years.   And again, I need to point out that my computer hasn’t failed–it’s becoming obsolete because somebody wants to sell me a new one and has made software that makes this one obsolete (a wag of my acquaintance referred to Microsoft’s new OS as “Windows 8: Mr. Gates needs a larger yacht“). Yet if we’re not talking about plastic bags, we sure aren’t talking about computers and their planned obsolescence. This box will probably end up in a landfill in Asia, where it will be leaking its toxins into the soil for generations.

This is no way to run a railroad. Or a society.

One last thought on all this–the metals that make our society possible may themselves be running out. Several years ago Armin Reller, a chemist out of the University of Augsburg, started postulating that we would run out of critical metals in as little as a decade. He has since shied away from hard-and-fast predictions, but he sounded the alarm on Indium, a metal that is essential for creating lcd displays. There’s also columbite-tantalite (coltan), one of those rare metals necessary to make a cell phone. Rwanda had a war in part over control of access to coltan.  By the way, if you want to read what Reller said about other important metals (copper, for instance) before he became shy about predicting end dates, here’s an article from Isaac Asimov’s magazine.

Like peak oil, there’s no plan B for peak metal–nobody believes we’ll find these materials on the moon, and transporting them back from Mars is 50 years away assuming we could even have the rocket fuel necessary for the trip. And don’t count on nuclear-generated space flight–uranium 235 is on his list as well.

Worth thinking about on your next trip to Radio Shack, though. And if you’re going to buy yourself a new iPhone, at least take a cloth bag…

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