The First Law of Thermodynamics

The total energy of an isolated system remains constant. Energy can neither be created nor destroyed; rather, it can only be transformed or transferred from one form to another. Lavoisier, Mayer, and physicists who followed.

The world seems to have gone crazy patting itself on the back due to recent commercial bans of plastic bags and straws. I've been worrying, ever since, that we may have stopped seeing the forest for the trees.

The interesting thing about waste, or what we call waste, is that it was only shortly before something useful. That coffee cup, pre-fill, holds the promise of a morning wake up beverage. That plastic bag will help us get some groceries home. That pizza promises to fill a grumbling hole in one's stomach. There are, of course, plenty of forms of waste that aren't so forward facing. Having worked in retail (eons ago, it feels), most clothes that come neatly hung on hangers in store arrive in cardboard boxes, each item neatly folded inside a plastic bag with sheets of fine paper protecting fragile edges. Buttons and zippers may also be neatly packaged to prevent damage to the rest of the item. These resources are then stripped from the garment before being displayed, dazzlingly, for your eyes. Your favourite can of cold-brew likely arrives to the store in a box, on a crate, perhaps wrapped in thick plastic. These layers are carefully unfolded before that glorious drink makes it to your lips.

In the back room of your favourite restaurant, sacks of flour are unloaded, bags of vegetables unpacked and wheels of cheese revealed to piece together your evening meal. This is then cooked up, and served to you in a big pizza box with cutlery, plates and napkins at the ready. And the whole lot will be delivered to you via (likely) gas-guzzling means in a plastic bag. If you don't finish your pizza and forget to eat the left overs, the box, utensils, napkins and food make their way to your building's waste management system, which is probably a combination of recycling and trash.

But what happens then?

This question has been what sent me down a rabbit-warren of reading. The answer is: not where you thought it would go.

New York City (all five boroughs) produces about 400 millions tonnes of waste per year. Or at least, that was the calculation back in 2012. That's at a cost of upwards of 400 million dollars (that's just what it costs the City, not what businesses pay) to haul it all away from the hustle and bustle. The City is responsible for waste collection from residences, government buildings and some non-profits. The rest of the City's trash is collected by an array of private companies. Once upon a time, these companies were the domain of the mafia, a somewhat fitting analogy to launder money through the city's garbage juice. Now with greater regulation, these companies service all five boroughs and compete for garbage share, driving prices down at the expense, reportedly, of safety and worker wages.

Waste management is arguably one of the most dangerous jobs you can perform. It's done late at night, at the expense of one's circadian rhythm, on questionable trucks while running up and down streets to collect rubbish that may pose an immediate risk to the worker's health. But, it seems, these private companies offer jobs to people who struggle to find work anywhere else. And when finding anything to pay the bills is hard, anything that will pay is taken. These workers are thus at risk of exploitation and harassment, and may not be aware or able to make complaints to anyone with the authority to crack down.

Once waste is collected, there is no guarantee that those carefully curated bins in your home or workplace end up in the place you thought they would. For various reasons, recyclable goods are not always recycled. Sometimes they are deemed too contaminated at the plant. Sometimes, particularly with private companies, there may not be enough time or resourcing to separate the different forms of waste into landfill/paper/plastics. And so, despite your efforts, it all ends up going to the same place.

The same place, the other, the final destination, is not necessarily what you would expect. There used to be a landfill facility within NYC limits, the Fresh Kill waste management centre in Staten Island. It was closed down in 2001. Waste is now shipped or trucked upstate or out of state, or to India or China. This is, arguably, better than the former city plan (centuries ago) of dumping everything into the ocean. There are a few problems with this. First, it's economically expensive. Shipping trash, which is heavy, along road, rail or shipping routes costs a lot of money. Second, it's environmentally costly, as all these methods of transport require energy, most of which is from fossil fuels.

Organic waste, once the saviour of farmers who wished to replenish their soil, persists as a waste management issue. First, there's the issue of storing it. The things we gave up on eating (that pasta salad past due, the pizza we didn't finish or the apples tossed from the grocery store because they got damaged in transport) don't necessarily return to the earth from whence they came. Even in landfill, these normally biodegradable items may not breakdown due to the compacting of waste. And so a valuable resource is wasted. Some enterprising folk have come up with ways to turn food waste into fuel, though this has not been widely taken up within city limits both due to legislative roadblocks and communities...shall we say, turning their noses up.

The more packaging, food and disposable items we bring into the city, the more waste we will need to ship out. The answer lies in the wisdom of our grandparents, who grew up in a time of limited resources. Only buy and use what you need, reuse what you can, recycle what is possible and only throw out what is left.

New York City does not appear to have taken to personal reusable containers with the same fervour as Melbourne or Sydney. Every time I forget my KeepCup (a brand which has become synonymous with a reusable coffee cup), I have an internal crisis about whether to waste a disposable cup or go coffee-free. In the cases where my fatigue gives way to those plastic lined paper cups, my order comes with multiple apologies to the barista and many silent prayers to the ecological powers that be. With a NYC population of about eight million people, if there was an average of one bought coffee per day per person, the waste from this act alone would be approximately 41 million tonnes (a 14g per cup and lid - weight obtained from this useful KeepCup factsheet). These paper cups are, unfortunately, often not recyclable due to the plastic lining. And if you don't believe me about the lining, try making a bowl out of a newspaper and putting liquid in it - you'll find your bowl doesn't last very long (please don't actually try this, I don't want to be responsible for your soggy desk).

As an end user with very little control over the City or State waste management programs, it's hard to know what to do as an individual. Which is why, though relatively small in impact, campaigns like banning straws take off. Strict bans fail to account for situations where the straws may be necessary. Those with physical restrictions may need these straws in order to enjoy a nice drink. Paying at the counter for a thicker, more heavy duty bag may encourage reuse, but if one constantly leaves these at home they quickly become a bigger ecological burden than their forbearers.

So what can you do to make a difference? First, use less. Be conscious of where your products are coming from, how many hands have been involved in getting them from the ground to you, and where they go to once they leave your hands. Second, separate your waste carefully. Third, advocate for more environmentally friendly solutions at your local eatery or grocery store. Fourth, use reusable utensils and crockery where possible. If that means eating in rather than taking out, that extra slowness in your day will be good for your mind and the planet. Fifth, advocate for better waste management options within your building, workplace and city. Sixth, teach children the importance of respecting the environment and their impact upon it. The things we do now impact their future even more than it does our own. And finally, seventh, start conversations that matter. If we hide waste in the dark of night, we risk not recognising a problem we can solve.

Please read the links, they are very interesting.


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