Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Throw-Away Culture

One of the first thing I noticed about the holidays season in the United States was the aftermath of bags of trash to the curbside. The idea of packaging and wrapping something in beautiful and expensive paper and padded custom gift boxes away escapes me, but after 20+ years of living in the United States, I have given in to the practice. Still, it bothers me. My father’s once told me how he collected empty cigarette boxes and used the blank insides as writing paper for school. He meant to tell me about the poverty back then to make me more thankful for what I have today, but that image of him standing on a pile of trash, hunched and looking for empty cigarette packs, hunts me in some strange way. What I throw away each year in wrapping paper would’ve supplied him for a whole year’s worth of note taking. I don't know just how I feel about that.

For more than 30 years, the US EPA has been collecting data on waste generation and disposal to measure the success of waste reduction and recycling programs around the country. Each year, the EPA generates a report on their findings. The most recent report is for 2012.

According to this 2012 report, Americans generated about 251 million tons of trash that year. Approximately 65 million tons were recycled and 21 million tons were composed.The 34.5% recycling rate doesn't seem so impressive, but it is much better than the 10% back in the 1980s. The EPA report also pointed to some good indicators of progress. For example, we are starting to recognize the impact of throwing away batteries. In 2012, about 96% of lead-acid battery was recovered and prevented from ending up in landfills. Paper recycling rate reached 70%.

“Over the last few decades, the generation, recycling, composting, and disposal of MSW [Municipal Solid Waste] have changed substantially. Solid waste generation per person per day peaked in 2000 while the 4.38 pounds per person per day is the lowest since the 1980’s.”

It’s not all rose and cheeky. We still managed to throw away 164 million tons of municipal solid waste and 21% of that throw-away was food. Plastic amounted to another 18% coming in as the second most popular throw-away material. Of this 164 million tons of throw-away cost, containers and packaging made up of 30% and durable goods accounted for 20%.

Recycling has many benefits. It reduces our demand on existing “green” resources (resources that has never left its organic life cycle). The process of recycling also creates opportunities for capital creation that is otherwise captured by the throw-away mentality. Smart people are making money creating technology and selling what is otherwise trash to willing buyers who uses the material to cut back cost of harvesting green resources. And along a more popular topic, recycling in 2012 accounted for more than 168 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emission.

Happy Holidays:

Thursday, November 13, 2014


Today, Chinese President Xi Jinping and President Obama made a historic announcement of their respective targets for reducing their greenhouse gas emissions.

President Obama pledged in 2009 to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by about 17% below 2005 levels by 2020. To accomplish this, he initiated a number of aggressive plans including promoting better vehicle fuel efficiency standards. Today, he pledged that the United States would cut emissions by 26% from 2005 levels by 2025. This is on par with the pace with his current plans. Let’s hope the new Congress and Senate won’t break this very important promise to the world.

The Chinese President pledged to peak Chinese CO2 emissions around 2030 and to make every effort to cut back early. This seems not so significant, but it is a very good pledge given that China still has a significantly vested interest in continuing modernization and lifting its people out of poverty. China also pledged to expand zero-emission sources in renewable and nuclear energy to match its current dependency on coal-fired capacity. While dependency on nuclear power is questionable and mere promise to “peak” emission is only as good as the promise, it is commendable that China is at least trying. With one-fifth of the world’s population and a very good model to alleviate poverty but at the high cost of corruption, it is just very difficult to do the right thing when it is very much influenced by the western consumption culture.

China’s goals seem achievable. A 2011 study by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory suggests that China is on course to meet this goal and a MIT study with more conservative estimates suggest China has to be aggressive in its policies to meet this goal.

It is unprecedented for the two largest economies, energy consumers and carbon emitters in the world to come together and pledge to work cooperatively. This signaled to the other world leaders to follow in anticipation of the next year’s United Nations Climate Change Conference negotiations in Paris. This is a good sign. We are finally seeing some global vision in moving beyond the climate change denial and doing something about it. For the U.S., it may be our coming to terms with good science and bad politics; for China, this is about necessity. The mounting social pressure and visible air pollutions just is too much for its people to burden.

Mind you, the two nations have also been discussing other economic cooperation and more progressive immigration policies to allow a better exchange for human capital and their expertise. This would encourage a more open exchange of social responsibility and good corporate governance for China and better access to the growing economy for the United States. With these things (environmental incentives, economic opportunities, and corporate governance) reaching for progress and balance between the two nations, the sustainability movement has a chance.

Full speed ahead I say.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The Creative Collective

Big Data is all the rage these days. It’s probably the first time in human history that we have gathered so much information about our individual and collective habits that we can actually do something meaningful with the information. Many marketers jump to the chance to better segment demographics and develop archetypical consumption habits to encourage selling more junk we don’t need.

Yes, let’s all catch the mad gold rush to Mt. Spendmore.

But there are better ways to use big data, isn’t there? Many industries are challenged to enhance reliability, reduce costs, and stimulate revenue while using materials and energy more efficiently with big data. This is a step in the right direction, but often overlooked is the ability for these industries to embrace information technology even further to leverage dynamic real-time demand response to optimize process—the whole process of consumption from producers to consumers. While some are using big data this way in small increments, they have not yet fully actualized the social tech’s offering of multi-stakeholder collaboration; and by definition they neglect the bigger picture of why it is important to achieve efficiency, reduce cost, and promote reliability. In my opinion, the end goal is to work our way to less dependency on the more scarce resources and turn our attention to utilizing more of the abundance we already have through collective efforts (trash recycling anyone?).

 So while the smart industries are sorting through mountains of information to figure out just how to be more efficient, they are turning a blind eye to combining information to form a dynamic communication method for a new way of thinking about the economy. This I find troubling. Perhaps it’s a mere symptom of linear static thinking that is prevalent in western metaphysics—where Americans seem to believe things are penultimate of the Monadology, Eastern thoughts often resolve to know things are in constant flux, that perfection is impossible because there is always room for improvement; and therefore, things are not as what they seem.

Where does this leave us in terms of innovation? If you really think about creativity and innovation, the components include originality and value creation. But to limit creativity and innovation to individuals is short changing the human race. While a degree of freedom is necessary for the exercise of creativity and innovation, but collective mentality and innovation are not mutually exclusive. I like to think we are somewhat capable of collaborating and creating common core solutions that are, well, ORIGINAL. So when we begin to think of the constant flux of things and the potential that big data offers us in terms of running into the next new big thing (Google for example), we see that the conundrum isn’t in why we can’t think in better ways. Rather it’s more about why we have not yet picked the better pack to believe in better outcomes.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Energy Bar For Thoughts

Let’s take a look at energy consumption. No particular reason, but because I feel this is as a good of a place to start than any.

Our collective demand for energy has been ever rising. There are few stock market crashes and bubble bursts in our timeline to slow the energy demand a bit, but we are resilient creatures aren’t we? We keep crawling out from under the previous recessions and building the GDP block game piece by piece, faster and faster.

Today, as the world’s GDPs rise on average by 3.2% per year, and in some places (China) where 7% is considered astonishingly slow, our global energy consumption will increase by 1.4% per year in the next twenty or so years according to a Bloomberg Sustainalytics Industry Report. At some point in the distant past, we would say that developed countries accounted for the largest share of energy consumption as if laying guilt is somehow making us feel better that much of the developing world hasn’t caught up to our level of unsustainable bad habits. But that’s changing. In 2007, energy use amongst non-OECD nations exceeded their OECD counterparts for the first time. China’s energy demand has increased by 150% and is now the world’s largest consumer of power. India is on pace to match China’s demand on resources by 2035. The Middle East is also expected to become a significantly energy intensive region and its vast natural reserves do not help curb the consumption habits.

Water in the context of power consumption is also being overlooked. Our current technologies, from burning fossil fuel to fracking to nuclear power, are some of the most water intensive operations known to man. The U.S. electricity demand requires an estimated 136 billion gallons of water per day. Each kWh of energy requires an average of 25 gallons of water. According to a Forbes magazine article, your iPhone can use up to 1kWh of power each year. That’s 25 gallons of water per person per year for Siri! According to the United Nations, 2/3 of the world’s population could be living under water-stress by 2025.

Water and energy consumption are also connected in another very intimate and devastating way. It often involves large spills requiring vast manpower to clean up and huge fines and bad PR for companies (*cough* BP).

For all these reasons and then some, including the highly debated and scientifically established thing known as “climate change”, regulators around the world are passing legislation to reduce the impact of our energy demand and method of production. The Canadians set goals to produce 90% of its electricity from low-emitting technologies by 2020. Europeans and the Japanese have put in place strict environmental control laws and have been successful in controlling acid rain and urban smog. The Chinese have aggressive clean production and circular economy laws in addition to its various environmental protection laws. Their effectiveness is impeded by a lack for social and political will and shall remain open to judgment of its success. These regulatory challenges translate to increased operational costs including major investment capital on new equipment and compliance costs paid to useless lawyers like me. Please, save yourself the penny and let us do something more beneficial for a change.