China’s waste and pollution of water pushes it toward environmental disaster

Flickr photo courtesy of Hesiem.

We’ve been reading a steady stream of news stories from the New York Times about the mind-bogglingly large environmental problems in China. This latest article talks about a looming water crisis resulting from a combination of pollution, waste, mismanagement and population and economic growth, and it’s pretty alarming.

From the article:

For three decades, water has been indispensable in sustaining the rollicking economic expansion that has made China a world power. Now, China’s galloping, often wasteful style of economic growth is pushing the country toward a water crisis. Water pollution is rampant nationwide, while water scarcity has worsened severely in north China — even as demand keeps rising everywhere.

China is scouring the world for oil, natural gas and minerals to keep its economic machine humming. But trade deals cannot solve water problems. Water usage in China has quintupled since 1949, and leaders will increasingly face tough political choices as cities, industry and farming compete for a finite and unbalanced water supply.

China’s disadvantage, compared with the United States, is that it has a smaller water supply yet almost five times as many people. China has about 7 percent of the world’s water resources and roughly 20 percent of its population. It also has a severe regional water imbalance, with about four-fifths of the water supply in the south.

Mao’s vision of borrowing water from the Yangtze for the north had an almost profound simplicity, but engineers and scientists spent decades debating the project before the government approved it, partly out of desperation, in 2002. Today, demand is far greater in the north, and water quality has badly deteriorated in the south. Roughly 41 percent of China’s wastewater is now dumped in the Yangtze, raising concerns that siphoning away clean water northward will exacerbate pollution problems in the south.

Clothesline users of the world, unite!

Photo courtesy of Flickr.

Today’s Wall Street Journal writes about how the trend of using a clothesline for the eco-friendly reason of using less energy is running up against many homeowner association rules designed to keep a neighborhood looking “nice.”

The clothesline was once a ubiquitous part of the residential landscape. But as postwar Americans embraced labor-saving appliances, clotheslines came to be associated with people who couldn’t afford a dryer. Now they are a rarity, purged from the suburban landscape by legally enforceable development restrictions.

Nationwide, about 60 million people now live in about 300,000 “association governed” communities, most of which restrict outdoor laundry hanging, says Frank Rathbun, spokesman for the Community Associations Institute, an Alexandria, Va., group that lobbies on behalf of homeowners associations.

But the rules are costly to the environment — and to consumers — clothesline advocates argue. Clothes dryers account for 6% of total electricity consumed by U.S. households, third behind refrigerators and lighting, according to the Residential Energy Consumption Survey by the federal Energy Information Administration. It costs the typical household $80 a year to run a standard electric dryer, according to a calculation by E Source Cos., in Boulder, Colo., which advises businesses on reducing energy consumption.

Alexander Lee, founder of clothesline advocacy group Project Laundry List in Concord, N.H., says the clothesline movement is “an outgrowth of interest in what-can-I-do environmentalism.” Mr. Lee says he gets more and more email seeking advice on how to hang a clothesline despite neighborhood covenants restricting them.

Ten states, including Nevada and Wisconsin, limit homeowners associations’ ability to restrict the installation of solar-energy systems, or assign that power to local authorities, says Erik J.A. Swenson, a Washington, D.C.-based partner at law firm King & Spalding LLP, who has written about the policies. He says it’s unclear in most of these states whether clotheslines qualify as “solar” devices. Only the laws in Florida and Utah expressly include clotheslines.

One can only hope that parking an abandoned car on top of cinderblocks in the front yard never creates an environmental advantage, because I’m pretty sure that homeowner associations don’t go for that either.

For more information, visit the Project Laundry List site.

Wall Street Journal manages to criticize NIMBYs and wind power in one fell swoop

We recently wrote about the New York Times blog post by Stanley Fish, who didn’t want wind turbines near his summer home in New York.

Today’s Wall Street Journal has a short, four paragraph editorial that writes off wind power as a “bit player” even as it criticizes the Kennedys for opposing a wind farm near Cape Cod that would obstruct their view.

Reasonable people can disagree on the merits of putting turbines on Nantucket Sound, as proposed by a private company. Though costs have come down to 4.5 cents per kilowatt hour from 6.1 per KWH in 1999, the technology is still not balancing out as cost-effective for some areas. Last week, Long Island scratched its plans to build a wind energy center in the Atlantic when costs were running up toward $800 million. Projects in windy Texas have also been scrapped over cost considerations.

But advocates often tout renewable energy not for its economics, but because it’s virtuous. Many of those who are willing to impose the costs of various environmental schemes on other Americans based on “ideals” suddenly have started looking more closely at the tradeoffs when something they hold dear would have to be sacrificed, like a nice view. Wind energy is never going to be anything but a bit player in meeting the world’s energy needs. The Nantucket tempest is useful mainly as a real-world test of whether some of the world’s most privileged liberals wear their ideals all the time, or only when it suits them.

China, the industrial revolution so big that it’s shattering all pollution records

 Photo courtesy of Flickr.

If you want to read a depressing account of China and the environment, look no further than this long, comprehensive New York Times article about the toll that China’s industrialization is taking.

There are so many astounding facts that it’s hard to choose what to quote from the story, so I’ll just make a bullet point list of quoted facts from the article.

Nearly 500 million people lack access to safe drinking water.

Pollution has made cancer China’s leading cause of death, the Ministry of Health says.

Only 1 percent of the country’s 560 million city dwellers breathe air considered safe by the European Union.

For air quality, a major culprit is coal, on which China relies for about two-thirds of its energy needs.

Chinese industry uses 4 to 10 times more water per unit of production than the average in industrialized nations, according to the World Bank.

Chinese steel makers, on average, use one-fifth more energy per ton than the international average. Cement manufacturers need 45 percent more power, and ethylene producers need 70 percent more than producers elsewhere, the World Bank says.

Chinese buildings rarely have thermal insulation. They require, on average, twice as much energy to heat and cool as those in similar climates in the United States and Europe, according to the World Bank.

All these new buildings require China to build power plants, which it has been doing prodigiously. In 2005 alone, China added 66 gigawatts of electricity to its power grid, about as much power as Britain generates in a year. Last year, it added an additional 102 gigawatts, as much as France.

Plastic bags, the convenient sack that never goes away

 Photo courtesy of Flickr.

I found this depressing Salon article about plastic bags today via Boing Boing.

The plastic bag is an icon of convenience culture, by some estimates the single most ubiquitous consumer item on Earth, numbering in the trillions. They’re made from petroleum or natural gas with all the attendant environmental impacts of harvesting fossil fuels. One recent study found that the inks and colorants used on some bags contain lead, a toxin. Every year, Americans throw away some 100 billion plastic bags after they’ve been used to transport a prescription home from the drugstore or a quart of milk from the grocery store. It’s equivalent to dumping nearly 12 million barrels of oil.

Only 1 percent of plastic bags are recycled worldwide — about 2 percent in the U.S. — and the rest, when discarded, can persist for centuries. They can spend eternity in landfills, but that’s not always the case. “They’re so aerodynamic that even when they’re properly disposed of in a trash can they can still blow away and become litter,” says Mark Murray, executive director of Californians Against Waste. It’s as litter that plastic bags have the most baleful effect. And we’re not talking about your everyday eyesore.

Once aloft, stray bags cartwheel down city streets, alight in trees, billow from fences like flags, clog storm drains, wash into rivers and bays and even end up in the ocean, washed out to sea. Bits of plastic bags have been found in the nests of albatrosses in the remote Midway Islands. Floating bags can look all too much like tasty jellyfish to hungry marine critters. According to the Blue Ocean Society for Marine Conservation, more than a million birds and 100,000 marine mammals and sea turtles die every year from eating or getting entangled in plastic. The conservation group estimates that 50 percent of all marine litter is some form of plastic. There are 46,000 pieces of plastic litter floating in every square mile of ocean, according to the United Nations Environment Programme. In the Northern Pacific Gyre, a great vortex of ocean currents, there’s now a swirling mass of plastic trash about 1,000 miles off the coast of California, which spans an area that’s twice the size of Texas, including fragments of plastic bags. There’s six times as much plastic as biomass, including plankton and jellyfish, in the gyre. “It’s an endless stream of incessant plastic particles everywhere you look,” says Dr. Marcus Eriksen, director of education and research for the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, which studies plastics in the marine environment. “Fifty or 60 years ago, there was no plastic out there.”

I’ve been seeing more and more stories about plastic bags since San Francisco took the bold step of banning them.

Here’s a previous post we did about plastic bags, which includes a terrific comment from a woman who stopped using them about 10 years ago and estimates that she has saved around 52,000 from entering the waste stream.

Here’s a page on the Greenpeace site about the Trash Vortex, an area in North Pacific Ocean that is about as big as Texas where garbage ends up in a big swirling nightmare.

Here are a couple of terrific Squidoo Lenses about Saying No To Plastic Bags and Living Without Plastic Bags, with strategies for using fewer bags.

The New York Times also recently published an article about plastic bags and waste.

(Self promotion alert.) At Clean Air Gardening, we sell the Biobag line of bags that are made from biodegradable cornstarch. One is a bag for picking up dog poop, and the other is for keeping in your compost pail as a liner before you throw it into the compost bin.

We’re also looking into carrying a line of resuable shopping bags. Does anyone out there have a favorite type of bag that they would recommend that we carry?

On a personal level, my family purchased a bunch of reusable nylon bags for our grocery shopping. We use them most of the time, when we don’t forget to bring them. They’re actually a lot better than plastic bags, because they don’t fall apart when you put heavy stuff inside them.

Anyone have any strategies for reducing or eliminating the use of plastic bags that they’d like to share? If so, leave a comment.