Closing the Loop on Waste

The cheapest, cleanest and safest "new" unit of energy is the one we don't use.

The system that powers our industrial economy was built long ago on the assumption that our energy supplies would last forever, and that the ecological impacts would be nil.  We now know that to be dangerously untrue.

But we still waste as much as half the energy we consume.  From the mining and moving of coal, to massively inefficient automobiles, to skyscrapers whose windows don't open (and that must be cooled in winter because of the excess heat produced by their obsolete lighting systems) our lives are filled with incredible, unsustainable waste.  Overall, America expends far more energy for what it produces than Europe or Japan.

Decades ago, Amory Lovins introduced the concept of "negawatts," through which massive quantities of energy could be safely and cleanly preserved at minimal cost.  Today he and others have shown that a dollar invested in increased efficiency can save ten times as much energy as one invested in a nuclear plant can produce.

Energy efficiency is a labor-intensive proposition certain to create tens of thousands of good jobs.  It's also popular.  Millions of Americans have insulated their homes, caulked their windows and installed heat pumps and other energy-saving devices.  They buy and install new energy-efficient light bulbs.  And they dutifully carry to the curb their weekly load of recyclables.

It's not all altruism.  A single energy-efficient compact fluorescent can save a homeowner thirty dollars and more in unused electricity and unreplaced bulbs.  Insulated homes are far more economical to run, and have better re-sale values.  Recyling programs preserve dump space and fund community programs.

Recycling itself is an energy-saver.  It takes many times the energy to make a new aluminum can, for example, as it does to recycle one.  It is far more economical now to recycle newsprint (with eco-friendly ink) as it is to make new from virgin forests (of which there are precious few left).

Wrong turns always abound.  Decades ago the concept of burning trash for power seemed a no-brainer.  But massive toxic emissions---mostly from plastics---made recycling a much better idea.   Today some believe compact fluorescents, which contain toxic trace elements, must quickly give way to LED and other forms of advanced lighting.

And then there's mass transit.  Hybrid cars, electric cars and the demand for higher fuel efficiency is hugely important.  But this nation once had the world's best mass transit system.  Virtually every American city had fast, efficient, much-loved trolley networks, linked to passenger trains that were fast, comfortable and cheap.

But between 1920 and the early 1950s, General Motors, Standard Oil (now Exxon) and the big glass and rubber companies stripped 80 urban areas of their light rail networks.  The corporations were convicted of the "eco-crime of the century" (and fined $5,000).  If Americans have experienced a "love affair" with the automobile, it's because our first spouse---the passenger rail system---was murdered.

Fuel-efficient or otherwise, America's freeways are now fatally clogged. Annual traffic deaths hover around 40,000.  The simple act of getting across town or to another city can be a nightmare of uncertainty, delay and expense.

Europe and Japan still boast extremely efficient mass transit systems.  We can't expect to compete with them---or with China, India or the rest of the developing world---until we once again find cheap, clean, reliable ways to get around our own country. 


Rocky Mountain Institute

The StreetCar Conspiracy: How General Motors Deliberately Destroyed Public Transit
By Bradford Snell

Institute for Local Self-Reliance

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