Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Looking for the Next Great Waste Product

Back in June I went to a conference on Biophysical Economics. Now before you all freak out, let me just tell you that it’s simply a ten-dollar word for sustainability. And as the people at the conference talked about the obvious things like carbon footprints, population growth, and our dependency on a decreasing supply of oil, I started thinking about waste products…and whales.

Yeah, waste products and whales. And I was wondering what the next great waste product will be..

You see, as I sat there listening to all these people, I remembered reading somewhere that gasoline used to be considered an unwanted and useless waste product from the production of kerosene. It was so unwanted that refiners used to dump it into Lake Erie under cover of darkness; and that’s where all those stories about Lake Erie catching on fire came from.

But what does this have to do with whales?

Kerosene basically saved the whales, who were being hunted to near extinction in order to provide oil for lamps.

But wait…there’s more. When I got home, I decided to look up this thing about gasoline being an unwanted waste product. I wanted to be able to back up what I was saying. And then I found something that amazed me. An article at wotwaste.com showed me that not only was I right about gasoline being an unwanted waste product from the refining of kerosene, but that crude oil itself was an nuisance that often came up as people mined for salt.

And then in 1854, Canadian Abraham Gesner discovered Kerosene, which was cleaner and less expensive than whale oil, and suddenly that murky nuisance became liquid gold.

And saved the whales.

But there was still the problem of what to do with all of the byproducts of kerosene refining, one of which was gasoline. Now the tables have turned and everyone wants gasoline, and very few care about kerosene.

The point still remains, though, that gasoline, kerosene, and all the other petrochemicals we depend upon so much were either unwanted waste products themselves, or came from something that was originally thought to be a nuisance in our pursuit of something else.

So I sat there wondering what is the next great waste product? What is the next great thing that we see as a common nuisance right now, but that will free us from our dependence petroleum?

And what new problems will it bring along with it.

Think about it; once kerosene became available at 1/3 the price of whale oil, more people started buying oil lamps, and using them longer, which meant that more kerosene needed to be produced. Similarly, once we found something that gasoline and the other petrochemicals were useful for, we used them more and needed more and more of them. In programming, this is called an infinite loop. In economics, I believe it’s called a Ponzi scheme.

It is indeed possible that we’ll find that next great waste product within the foreseeable future, but we need to realize that there won’t be an infinite amount of whatever it is. At some point we all need to scale back. Scale back our expectations, scale back our usage, and here comes the third-rail of all conversations about biophysical economics…scale back our family sizes.

But that…is a conversation for another time.

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