Tuesday, April 22, 2008

A brief thought for Earth Day

So I went out to dinner with A Certain Someone last night, and as we were sitting in the Olive Garden waiting for the Giant Vat O'Salad, I found something interesting.

I spotted this amazing little piece of space-age material sitting abandoned on the table in front of me. It was almost perfectly transparent, weighed almost nothing, was waterproof, impervious to fluids or germs, and resistant to mild acids and caustics. On top of that, it was remarkably strong, yet cheap enough to be disposable.

So I remarked to myself on how cool this material was-- what a marvel of technology. Historical geniuses like Sir Isaac Newton or Antoine Lavoisier would have been thrilled to get ahold of this stuff, or even to know that it was possible to make stuff like this. We're pretty lucky to have stuff like this, and the technology that makes it possible.

To us, though, it's a piece of garbage that we don't think twice about throwing away or just dropping on the ground to blow away. It's the plastic wrapper off of a drinking straw.

Take a couple of minutes and consider all the little stuff in the world like straw wrappers and that sort of thing. Then follow that train of thought to the truck that carried it here, the factory that made it, the oil wells the industrial feedstocks ultimately came out of, the thousands of people who work for Dow Chemical or whoever made it, the amount of lab time and brain sweat that went into inventing it, etc. etc. etc.

Suddenly it's not just a straw wrapper, is it? It's the end product of a very long technological chain that depends on finite resources-- a lot of energy and material and time goes into making it, and it gets tossed into a dump after very little use. I don't know about you, but that seems pretty wasteful to me. Consider some of the other materials we use in everyday life-- copper, iron, steel, aluminum, etc. etc. The economics of production and recycling are generally such that it's cheaper to recycle a ton of copper than it is to mine and refine a ton of new copper-- and that's even before you get into the environmental costs of mining and so on. The cost of copper right now is sky-high. Personally, I think that the only stuff that should go into a landfill is material that cannot (or should not, e.g. polychlorinated biphenyls) be reused at all.

This is Earth Day. I said it pretty clearly on my profile-- I'm not a tree-hugger, but I do think that it's a bad idea to screw up the only planet on which we can live. So, in the spirit of humanity, I ask you to please stop messing up my world, or I will have to relocate to my moon base and set my army of ninja stormtroopers on you.

I'm serious.

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