Our current lifestyle is based on mass consumerism that fills our houses, basements, and storage spaces. When we go into a store we are amazed by the variety of products, plastic at every turn, all to make our life more convenient and fun. We take for granted our technological gadgets and we feel they should be replaced each time a new version comes out. We use these products without ever thinking about the waste they produce when we throw them away. Neither do we think about the energy required for their manufacturing, transportation, and functioning.
In one word, we are completely unaware that we live in a thermodynamic system that we can’t escape. This means that the more energy we use to do work, i.e. the more we increase our industrial and electronic production, the more waste we will have. Every living thing on Earth lives under thermodynamic rules; we take energy from the sun that has been transformed by the plants to feed up the food chain. In this exchange there are many waste products; for plants, it happens to be oxygen that is beneficial to us. Our solid natural waste created problems once we became sedentary and we have been struggling with its disposal ever since. Still, when compared to the waste of our industrial output and consumerism, it becomes an easy waste to deal with, biodegradable, and even useful in the case of animal manure.
Our current way of life could be called ‘industrial metabolism’ (Ayres and Simonis, 1994), our industrial economy uses low entropy energy to transform raw materials into consumer goods that later turn into waste after use. This process was studied by mathematician and economist Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen who showed that the Entropy Law of thermodynamics properly applied reveals how the economic process has an entropic (tending towards disorder) nature and waste is an output as unavoidable as the input of natural resources.
Our culture has a strong belief that technology can solve any problem, but we conveniently forget about the inevitability of the waste it implies. We even think that we can bypass nature and create all our materials. The advent of plastics greatly improved our quality of life; we would find it quite difficult to function without them. Green advocates advise us to limit our plastic use with a focus on what we can see, like shampoo bottles or plastic bags; yet, most people remain unaware of the ubiquity of plastic in absolutely everything we use. Their production has increased dramatically in the past years; plastic is the man-made material that outpaces any other and its production tends to double every 15 years. About half of the resins and fibers used in plastics were produced in the last 13 years.
Our civilization also thinks that we can bypass the thermodynamic laws of waste and that recycling can save us from our excessive industrial production. According to Georgescu-Roegen, in a closed system such as the Earth, complete recycling is impossible. This is because, in a closed system, any material including waste tends to stay where it is unless there is an effective mechanism to recycle it. The recycling needs machines powered with energy and ends up producing more waste; the whole process becomes an unsustainable vicious circle that can’t maintain the ecological balance or the economic process.
Green advocates insist on recycling as our savior, yet only 9% of the single-use plastic produced in the world is recycled. This means that even if we all do our duty and put the plastics, paper, and glass in the right bin, only 9% of that ends up truly recycled. While thermodynamics keeps creeping on us, we are busy using energy to transform things into something useful, but not very interested in what happens to them after we discard them. Most of what we think is being recycled ends up in landfills where the waste is degraded by sun and water leeching their toxicity into the soil and water or burnt, a process that emits toxic fumes. Plastics contain many toxic elements and take about 400 years to degrade.
Most of the recycling from industrialized countries is sent to other countries for disposal. China was the biggest recipient of recycling material until it imposed a ban on it in January 2018. Other countries like Malaysia and the Philippines have been reducing their intake and sometimes even returning the waste to the country of origin. Third world countries are taking up the slack, but they usually don’t have the capital to dispose of them correctly, so it is a problem that is not solved but taken out of sight from the wealthy countries. Most of the waste ends up as litter in nature, eventually arriving in the oceans where it creates islands of waste that disintegrates into a toxic foam or chokes marine fauna. It is estimated that more than 8 million metric tons of plastic end up in the ocean every year.
Environmental advocates correctly notice the problem with all this man-made material waste, but it is evident that limiting our personal use of plastic and following recycling rules doesn’t solve the problem. We have to understand that in the thermodynamic world in which we live, industrial production and technological progress imply waste. The proponents of Green New Deal insist we have a bright future with renewable energy; all we have to do is sequester enough carbon to become carbon neutral, allowing us to combine what is left of fossil fuels with renewable energy and continue our energy-guzzling way of life without any disturbance.
The insistence on renewable energy is based on the belief that it is clean, even if its infrastructure, manufacturing, and waste produce pollution and emissions. Wind power is the most promising modern renewable energy but few people are aware of how much it contributes to the problem of waste. When we see the slender turbines from afar we aren’t able to gauge their true size; a turbine with a 7 MW output requires nearly 300-foot long blades, as long as a football field. These enormous blades are mostly made of composite plastic that is extremely difficult to recycle, so it ends up in landfills where the blades are cut into pieces before being buried.
According to Low-Tech Magazine, the blades are made of a mix of unique composites, polyvinyl chloride foam, polyethylene terephthalate foam, fiberglass, balsa wood, polyurethane coatings, and epoxy. This is a sad list of very toxic elements. Let’s just take one of them, PVC (Polyvinyl chloride), which due to its high chlorine content creates toxic pollution in the form of dioxins. These accumulate in animal fat and travel up the food chain to us. PVC also contains very dangerous additives like phthalates, lead, cadmium, and or organotins (organic compounds with tin), which can leach out or evaporate over time.
According to Eco Magazine and Greenpeace, we should avoid PVC and other toxic compounds in our products like shampoos and children’s toys. At the same time, they advocate a drastic increase in wind power, neglecting to mention that the blades are full of PVC and toxic compounds that end up in landfills polluting the air, soil, and water. Manufacturers say their blades last about 20 years, but most are taken down after 10 years to replace them with newer more powerful models. This only compounds the waste problem and shows how green-energy advocates remain unaware of the thermodynamic rules of our world. Texas is the state with the most wind power and the largest amount of toxic blade cemeteries. Iowa and Oklahoma follow it, but Wyoming is the biggest recipient without even having much wind power.
The blade of the wind turbine isn’t the only toxic part; the magnet at the center of the turbine that converts wind into usable electricity is a mix of rare earths, 80 tons of neodymium, and a similar weight of dysprosium. Rare Earths are not only toxic but produce equal amounts of radioactive waste. The disposal of these toxic magnets is also impossible. Wherever you put them, they will seep, adding to the environmental disaster we still refuse to see.
Solar panels, the second-best modern renewable source of energy, are not recycled either, mostly because the cost of recycling is more than the economic value of the materials. The panels are either put in landfills in the West or sold to developing countries that can only afford discarded, less efficient panels for their renewable energy efforts. Their disposal in landfills joins the rest of the e-waste pollution with heavy metals like lead and cadmium that can be washed out by rainwater. In the Third World, people scavenge the landfills for panels to burn and salvage the copper wires for resale. The smoke is quite toxic with carcinogenic and birth defect causing properties when inhaled. Solar panels are not just toxic in a landfill; the cadmium can leach out when it rains even if the panels are intact and well functioning.
China is the country with the highest solar power production and usage, and yet it has no laws that would impose a recycling plan. Most countries don’t have one either, and in the US, the only state that requires the manufacturer to develop a recycling plan is Washington. This requirement adds up to the cost of the panel, reducing its competitiveness and causing the companies to go bankrupt. If you search for solar panels on Google most of the results advertise their decreasing prices, meaning that they aren’t taking into account the recycling cost; cheap solar panels imply a high ecological price. Japan’s Environmental Ministry has calculated that it would take Toshiba about 19 years to recycle all the solar waste Japan has produced until 2020. With each year that passes, there will be more solar panels and more to recycle, increasing the problem dramatically.
Most people are unaware of the toxicity of solar panels so the story of Colorado Company Abound Solar is quite informative. The company received tax-payer money as part of federal loan programs, but even with the help, it went bankrupt. The company left behind a toxic mess of carcinogens, broken glass, and contaminated water, and now the taxpayer has to also subsidize the clean-up that will require around US$ 3.7 million so that the building is safe.
The above examples of wind and solar energy are just a big part of the better-known problem of e-waste. Electronics have flooded our lives and the importance of data in our economies relies on more and more electronics to sustain our clouds and information habits. The COVID 19 pandemic has prompted a trend to rely even more on electronics with virtual doctor visits and meetings; we think it is great for the environment, but the data centers that handle our information produce more greenhouse gases than the airline industry. We want ‘smart’ everything, we dream of Artificial Intelligence becoming more ubiquitous, but never think of how it will greatly add to the e-waste. Currently, there are about 40 M metric tons of e-waste produced each year in the world.
The US is the biggest producer of e-waste in the world, followed by the rest of the industrialized countries. Only 13% of that waste is recycled, mostly in developing countries. The biggest e-waste producers ship it to other countries where most of it ends up in informal recycling areas in countries like China, India, Pakistan, Vietnam, and the Philippines. Its residents show sharply increased rates of respiratory, neurological, and digestive problems; the kids are the most at risk, especially for lead poisoning.
A further problem of the toxicity of e-waste is that it is not just local; studies have found that the wind patterns can disperse these toxic particles through wide areas, entering the soil-water-crop-food pathway. These heavy metals are not biodegradable and persist in the environment for a long time, increasing exposure risk.
The batteries that store the energy for our electronic devices, electric vehicles, and storage of renewable energy compound the e-waste problem greatly. The current ecological mantra advocates the preference of an electric car over a conventional one, adducing a huge reduction in greenhouse emissions. They seem to ignore that most of the emissions of a car come from its manufacturing and the infrastructure it requires, and the emissions from the manufacturing of an electric car surpass those of a normal car. The batteries of the vehicle gradually lose the capacity to store energy and when it goes below 80 or 70%, most owners feel the need to change them. In general, they tend to last about 100,000 miles without much use of the air conditioner.
In 2019, there were about 2.2 million passenger electric cars sold in the world, an average market share of 2.5% (1 in 40 new cars). A study shows that this amount of cars will produce about 550,000 tons of discarded lithium-ion battery packs. The probability of these packs ending up in a landfill is quite high, implying the seepage of toxic chemicals and a high risk of burning or exploding due to what is called a thermal runaway process.
The manufacturers of lithium-ion batteries prioritize the needs of the consumer by reducing costs and increasing battery longevity and charge capacity, while ease of recycling is often overlooked. Though the industry repeats that these batteries are recyclable because the recuperation of the components is profitable, they haven’t devised a clear path to large-scale recycling. Only a small percentage of batteries are recycled in a process that requires high-temperature melting and extraction or smelting, similar to those used by the mining industry. This means that lithium-ion batteries cause greenhouse gas emissions not just during the mining, manufacturing, and assembly of their components, but also during their potential recycling. The current car battery recycling rate in Europe and the US is about 5% and in Australia 3%. In sum, most used batteries end up in landfills polluting endlessly. It is calculated that 11 million metric tons of Li-ion batteries will end their service lives by 2030.
We don’t like to look at the waste our way of life produces even if it is inevitable in a Universe ruled by the laws of thermodynamics. We think we can always improve things, but we don’t notice that improvement requires energy and implies waste. The thermodynamic impossibility of recycling all that we produce and discard implies a toxic accumulation in the closed system in which we live, the Earth. Our waste used to be localized and affected us locally, but globalization and the rapid industrialization and digitization of our lives are now affecting the whole Earth. We can’t escape anywhere; our waters, soil, and air are being polluted by the mountain of plastic and electronic waste; the pollution affects all living life and accumulates as it goes up the food chain to us.
Any increase in renewable energy will escalate the size of this mountain dramatically, increasing the dire environmental pollution situation. Our blind acceptance of progress and technology as the eternal saviors of humanity constitutes a denial of the realities of the thermodynamic-ruled world we live in, very similar to the climate change denial. This denial is considered the status quo since most green energy proponents defend it and so does the media; this means that the majority of people remain unaware of the huge waste problem and the impossibility of its total recycling. We are convinced that our only responsibility is to reduce our plastic use, put the items in the right recycling bin, and get an electric car. It seems easy enough and it reassures us about our commitment to the defense of the environment, even as the elephant-in-the-room of our mountain of waste will continue growing until it chokes us. We like creating and producing, like a lonely chef who likes to cook delicious dishes but refuses to wash the dishes or clean the kitchen. At some point, he won’t be able to cook, the entropy around him will engulf him.