Sunday, June 07, 2015

The Price of Our Freedom to Waste

June 7, 2015, 8:00 a.m.

Note (from The Gazette): Members of the Writers Circle met in Iowa City last month to discuss the topic of “waste” — an issue proved to be more complex than it might have seemed at first blush.

The discussion kicked off with a handful of questions: What do we mean by waste? Where do we see waste in our lives and community?

What harm is there in wastefulness, and if it’s so bad, why does it continue to be a problem? What are some possible solutions?

Today, three members share their reflections about our discussion. [In addition to Nicholas Johnson's column, reproduced below, the other two are Bob Elliott, "Waste: It's Not Simple Anymore," p. C1, and Wilf Nixon, "Resources Looking for a Purpose," p. C4, all three currently available in The Gazette Online.]


Curbing Waste: Bad News, Good News

Nicholas Johnson, Writers Circle
The Gazette, June 7, 2015, p. C1

“Wasted” can refer to our money, health, food, building materials, garbage, last year’s fashions, lives of the most desperate of our fellow humans — or a binge drinking college student. [Iowa City Landfill; photo credit: Sujin Kim/IowaWatch)

Do corporations’ products built-in obsolescence, or their encouraging conspicuous consumption of “the latest thing,” create “waste”?

Rudyard Kipling advised us to “fill the unforgiving minute/With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run." Are minutes less filled a waste of time?

This column leaves those questions to others while focusing on next steps. Once there’s agreement on what “waste” is, what can we do about it? How, if at all, can Americans be motivated to change?

Here are some illustrations.

Last month we celebrated “Bike to Work Week.” Compared to car costs (running over 40 cents a mile), bicycling is virtually free. For short trips, with easier parking, they can be faster. They don’t require drilling in the Artic wilderness, or military protection of “our oil” under others’ sand. They don’t pollute or accelerate climate change. Biking keeps you trim, happy and healthy, reducing your (and our nation’s) health care costs.

One member of this Writers Circle walks, bikes, and seldom drives over 400 miles a year. The Sierra Club calculates that even far less — substituting a couple short bike rides for car trips each week — would save 2 billion gallons of gas, its impact on climate change, and billions of dollars.

Future wars will be fought over water. The best shower? Get wet. Turn off the water. Suds up. Rinse off. It’s both more effective and efficient than running water for 20 minutes. If millions would do it, billions of gallons would be saved.

The same can be said for turning off the lights when you leave a room, or throwing cans in a recycling basket rather than the wastebasket.

The literature is replete with hundreds more examples. We know what to do. And it takes little time or sacrifice to do it.

The problem? Americans don’t have to be Libertarians to believe the Constitution guarantees their right to act in ways a majority considers stupid — if they don’t harm others. As President Lyndon Johnson used to say, “I don’t shove worth a damn.” What we need is better understanding of how to motivate such people without criminalizing their behavior or denying them their choice.

But how?

Bad boys, for devilment, used to tie a tin can on a dog’s tail and watch it try to outrun the noise. It gave rise to one Writers Circle member’s insight: “tie your reform to the tail of greed, and watch it run off down the street.” Otherwise put, “You get what you measure,” or what you incentivize — whether the standards for faculty tenure, or the installation of seat belts once they’re mandated for the federal government’s cars.

We can be motivated by education, information, appeals by celebrities — whether public service announcements, such as anti-smoking TV spots, or programming. When the Harvard School of Public Health asked Hollywood producers to include shots of drivers fastening seat belts in their films, lives were saved as public compliance followed.

Informed discussions among those chosen as scientific polling samples produce more thoughtful responses. What’s called “deliberative democracy polling” could radically alter the public’s and politicians’ views on public policy.

The five-cent deposit on cans and bottles encourages recycling. Lower auto insurance rates for the accident-free encourages safer driving. “Cap and trade” pollution reduction (income for reduced pollution; choice to pay to pollute more) seems to work. A restaurateur’s smoke-free restaurant (before legally required) actually attracted more customers.

Some major corporations are discovering it’s profitable to move from a linear economy (raw materials to manufacturing, to sale and use, to landfill) to a circular economy (raw materials to manufacturing, to sale and use, to reuse of products’ raw materials through restoration and resale). This not only reduces waste of non-renewable resources. Unilever’s 240 factories in 67 countries now send zero waste to landfills. The sale of an electric car transportation service (rather than “a car”), for a monthly charge, with “new” rebuilt cars and batteries every three years, would be a win-win-win for manufacturers, dealers, drivers — and the planet.

No matter how we define “waste,” the bad news is there’s no groundswell of support to stop it, given the protests of those who profit from it. The good news is that we can be motivated to change.

Nick Johnson is a former Federal Communications Commissioner and author of Test Pattern for Living, writes at and

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