While building cordwood walls, your mind tends to wander a bit. Besides wondering if the Cubs will ever make it to the World Series again, I sometimes think about other things too. Of particular interest to me has been the serious degradation to our environment and the unconscious actions that we make on a daily basis that has either a positive or negative effect on Mother Earth. Literally, every action that we take has some form of positive or negative reaction towards the ecosystem that sustains us.
I'll be the first to admit that not everything I do ends up having a positive impact on this planet, but I am becoming more conscious of my actions and I am making attempts to change some of my habits.
While attending the Midwest Renewable Energy Fair this year, I stumbled across a book that was quite an eye opener for me. The book is entitled "Stuff - The Secret Lives of Everyday Things" written by John C. Ryan and Alan Thein Durning. The book follows the day in the life of a fictional, typical North American -- a middle-class resident of Seattle. It is a day in which nothing terribly unusual or dramatic happens. Or so it seems.
The reason I bring this book to your attention is to at least raise your level of awareness. There are so many things that we do that are wasteful and the first step to changing our habits is to be aware of our actions.
With permission from the publisher, the following is a chapter from the book that describes the events that take place to make a can of cola.
I dug some change out of my pocket and bought a can of cola. I saw the cola company's logo on the machine, and for the rest of the day I couldn't get that stupid jingle out of my head.
My cola was 90 percent water from the Cascades' Cedar River, carbonated at a Seattle plant. Americans drink more water carbonated in soda than they drink plain from the tap. The world drinks about 70 million gallons of soda every day.
The cola contained high-fructose corn syrup from Iowa, a state where even the rain usually contains traces of pesticides. A milling plant used water, enzymes, acids, heat, grinders, and centrifuges to run corn kernels into starch and then corn syrup. Making syrup is the second largest use of corn in North America; feeding livestock is the largest. On average, Americans consume 48 pounds of corn syrup a year.
To make my soda, the bottling plant combined corn syrup, citric acid, and flavor concentrate (a secret recipe containing flavors, preservatives, caffeine, and artificial coloring) first with water and then with carbon dioxide. The same corn-milling plant in Iowa fermented corn to make the carbon dioxide. The caffeine was a byproduct of making decaffeinated coffee.
My cola was in an aluminum can weighing 15 grams (about half an ounce). Five grams was recycled from melted-down cans and scrap. The other 10 grams began as 40 grams of bauxite ore in the Australian outback. Massive machines--with 15-foot-high tires and shovels big enough to scoop up a car--strip-mined the ore from a thin layer of underground rock. Bauxite mining destroys more surface area than mining any other ore.
Near the mine, the bauxite was crushed, washed, dried, pulverized, mixed with caustic soda from California, heated, pressurized, settled, filtered, and roasted with calcium oxide from Japan. Forty grams of bauxite yielded 20 grams of the aluminum oxide powder known as alumina, which looks like wet sugar crystals. Most of the caustic soda was captured for reuse. The process also created 16 grams of "red mud", a skin-burning mixture of oxidized metals and other contaminants. Pipes siphoned the mud to a settling pond, where a fraction of it leached into groundwater.
A Korean freighter hauled the alumina across the Pacific Ocean to the wall of breakers at the Columbia River bar, the four-mile-wide river mouth that Lewis and Clark called "that seven-shouldered horror." The ship's captain used sonar and satellite linkups to plot his course through the bar's chaotic waves and shifting sands. He motored between the two-mile-long jetties. He entered the deep channel dredged into the Columbia's shallow estuary by the Army Corps of Engineers. The dredging stirred up old sediments containing high levels of heavy metals and pesticides like DDT, which was banned 20 years ago. Jetties, dikes, and dredges have washed away or filled in two-thirds of the river's tidal marshes. Tidal marshes and other estuary habitats are nurse beds for aquatic life, sheltering young fish, birds, and many other animals.
Despite all the electronic gadgetry and all the efforts to tame the river, the bar--where the misnamed Pacific Ocean and the biggest river on the west coast of the Americas pound against each other--remained the most dangerous part of the freighter's 24-day journey. Once past the entrance, it was smooth sailing upriver toward the aluminum smelter in eastern Washington.
The smelter dissolved the aluminum oxide in giant steel pots filled with a bath of cryolite (sodium aluminum fluoride). Carbon electrodes (made from Alaskan petroleum) were lowered into the pots and delivered a massive 100,000-amp jolt of electricity. The powerful charge broke oxygen atoms away from the aluminum and attached them to the carbon, forming carbon-dioxide. Small amounts of fluorine attached to the carbon and escaped the smelter in the form of perfluororcarbons (PFCs)--green-house gases that trap thousands of times more heat per molecule than carbon dioxide. Few processes are as damaging to the global climate as aluminum smelting.
Smelting is so energy intensive that aluminum earned the nickname "congealed electricity." Making a soda can of smelted aluminum takes energy equivalent to a quarter-can of gasoline. My 33-percent-recycled can took about a sixth of a can of gasoline of energy.
The smelter ran on purchased hydropower 24 hours a day. The smelter bought the electricity at discount rates from the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), the Pacific Northwest's main provider of electricity. BPA markets power from 29 federal dams and a nuclear power plant. Eight of these dams along the main stems of the Columbia and Snake Rivers annually kill millions of young salmon heading to the Pacific. Dams, damaged stream habitats, hatcheries, and overfishing have eliminated more than 97 percent of wild salmon in the Columbia Basin.
Aluminum smelters use almost one-fifth of the electricity sold by BPA, yet employ very few people. The eight aluminum smelters in Oregon and Washington provide about 7,500 jobs--one-tenth of 1 percent of the regional total. The same smelters drink up to 16 percent of all electricity used in the two states--more than the million residents of Portland and Seattle combined. Because BPA undercharges the smelters for electricity, other customers must make up the difference: the average household served by BPA pays about $2 per month extra to subsidize the smelters.
The smelter's end products--giant slabs, or ingots, of aluminum--were trucked to the Seattle area. There, a mill pressed each thick ingot into a thin rolled sheet of aluminum. Then, at another factory, a high-powered press punched cups resembling tuna cans out of the aluminum sheet. Other machines stretched my can out to its final height, trimmed its edge, printed its colorful design, and applied a clear protective varnish. Ovens baked the can twice, once to dry the printing and once to cure a synthetic coating sprayed on the inside of the can. At the bottling plant, machines filled the can with near-freezing soda and immediately crimped the top on. The can cost more than the soda inside.
I threw my cola can into a recycling bin. It was one of 100 billion beverage cans used each year in the United States; 40 billion are tossed into landfills, and 60 billion are recycled. My can was later trucked to a recycling center, shredded, and melted down. Within two months of being tossed, it reappeared as a new can. Recycling the can took 5 percent of the energy required to mine and smelt a fresh one.
What to Do?
Buy drinks in refillable bottles, once a common form of drink packaging. Refillables consume much less energy than aluminum cans--even if 90 percent of cans are recycled. Use aluminum only where its light weight will save energy, as in cars or, better still, bikes.
Drink less soda. It's just fizzy sugar water. Have some water instead.
A special thanks to http://www.northwestwatch.org for allowing the reprint from the book.