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Oregonians sending less to landfills in economic downturnPrint Email >Dylan Rivera, The Oregonian By Dylan Rivera, The Oregonian The Oregonian
on April 21, 2009 at 9:21 PM, updated September 30, 2009 at 5:48 PM
Earth Day 2009
A funny thing happened on the way to financial collapse: Oregon landfills started receiving less and less garbage.
It's not because people are recycling feverishly or because new strict regulations have clamped down. It's because there's less garbage -- likely the result of slowdowns in consumer spending, consumption and manufacturing.
Earth Day at the Oregon Coast Aquarium: Conservation-themed displays and activities include a scavenger hunt, information on sustainable seafood, a grounds tour and a talk on climate change and the Oregon coast. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Oregon Coast Aquarium, 2820 S.E. Ferry Slip Road, Newport; free with admission ($9.45-$14.95); aquarium.org or 541-867-3474
E-Waste Recycling Drive: Up to seven items of electronic waste per household allowed. Noon-6 p.m. A-Boy Plumbing and Electrical Supply Northeast Store, 4010 N.E. Broadway, Portland; free; 1800gotjunk.com/earthday
Climate Change Seminar: Karen Shell, OSU College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences, on "Climate Feedbacks in Climate Models." Burt Hall. 3:30 p.m. Oregon State University, Corvallis; free; 541-737-5193
Earth-friendly activities and crafts and a worm composting demonstration. For ages 5 and older. 3:30 p.m. Milwaukie Ledding Library, 10660 S.E. 21st Ave., Milwaukie; free; milwaukie.lib.or.us or 503-786-7580
As people worldwide celebrate Earth Day today, the curious green side of the economic downturn shows itself in strange ways. While a recession is no cure for global warming, it's not unlike the person who catches the flu and, in a few days, loses weight -- only to discover that's no way to diet.
Oregon and federal regulators are seeing an environmental difference as the Northwest and the country struggle to regain financial footing. The state's Department of Environmental Quality reports that in the final quarter of 2008, Oregon landfills saw 16 percent less trash than at the same time in 2007 -- reversing a decade-long pattern of steady growth in garbage disposal.
And yet there's a big downside. Cash-strapped factories delay the installation of new, environment-friendly equipment, instead holding onto relic smokestacks. And consumers who might have purchased a fuel-efficient vehicle are holding off, in some cases driving cars that pollute.
Robert Stavins, a Harvard economist, says the financial strain has buckled the nation's political will to meet President Barack Obama's promise for a program to limit carbon emissions -- the principal cause of global warming. Forcing industries to cap emissions or trade credits for spewing them is too expensive right now, industries say. So the really hard choice -- to cap and trade -- goes by the wayside.
So what is to be learned on this Earth Day about links between the economy and environment?
If you start with a look at Oregon's landfills, quite a lot.
Landfills are the last destination in a process of industrial creation: newly minted toys and furniture at the end of useful life, and the wrappings of so many foodstuffs as well as thrown-out food. Oregon's landfills -- one of them, the mammoth Arlington, serving the Northwest -- have seen steady growth of about 2 percent a year since the early '90s, when data was first collected.
But there were dips along the way: the 1997 Asian economic crisis, the 2001 recession.
Nothing, however, matches the current recession.
"It really seems to go off the cliff at the end of the year, which is what happened to employment numbers and mutual fund values and housing starts," says David Allaway, senior policy analyst for the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. "In the last recession, it wasn't this steep."
Air quality is tougher to track, but it will likely be better if it isn't already.
Most air data take months, even a year, to collect and analyze. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Oregon's DEQ have data through 2007, before the recession took hold. And often, air improvements are only measurable as economic trends months after the data are in.
But economists agree that air quality is improving in the current recession. Less driving alone means cleaner skies.
"Absolutely," says Portland economist Joe Cortright. "Is it any kind of policy for addressing environmental problems? Probably not."
Carbon dioxide emissions from U.S. power plants, meanwhile, dropped 3.1 percent in 2008, breaking with a trend of steady growth in prior years, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Integrity Project. The nonprofit group, which looked at preliminary EPA data limited to power plants, said mild weather -- and recession -- combined to lower demand for electricity.
The big picture
There are radical voices in Oregon, however, who say the current crisis proves a dark point about the health of the planet and industrial prosperity.
"The less industrial production, the better for the natural world -- that's quite obvious," says John Zerzan, a Eugene-based writer and activist. "Do we want a big recession? No, we don't. But the whole model is a loser -- a no-win thing to me."
Zerzan says it's time for a full retreat from global society to small communities based on an agrarian way of life.
But that's not going to happen anytime soon, says Bill Conerly, a Lake Oswego economist and founder of the Portland-based libertarian Cascade Policy Institute.
"The only way you can keep people in that kind of primitive way is through force," Conerly says. "Given a choice, they won't choose it for themselves."
How quickly an Earth Day discussion turns as political and social as it is environmental. But the question remains about what will happen to consumption -- and our landfills -- once the economy rebounds.
Will the landfills rev up with the economy? Stavins, who directs the environmental economics program at Harvard's Kennedy School, sees part of the answer in the car.
"Over time, the new car pollutes less than the old car," he says. "The old car was produced under an earlier policy regime, and pollution equipment degrades over time."
During recessions, people hold on to their old, inefficient cars, which pollute at increasing levels. And they do other things that have a cumulative negative impact on the environment.
Oregon officials note that during hard times households sometimes attempt to save on their garbage bill by burning trash -- even indoors, for warmth -- and sending unfiltered smoke into neighborhoods and the atmosphere.
"It's bad for people, but they do it," Allaway says.
Recovery is key
In boom times, by contrast, Stavins says it's easier to persuade consumers and businesses to invest in conservation measures that may cost more in the short term but promise future energy cost savings.
Stavins said he was unsure, without definitive data and analysis, whether the green benefits of a downturn outpace pollution from old smokestacks and delayed regulation. "I'm not prepared to say what the net effect is," he said Tuesday.
But the eventual economic recovery -- and how we manage the environment in a time of prosperity -- is gaining attention.
"What we need to think about is, 'Are we making the right kind of long-term investments and policy changes that will move us in the right direction?'" says Clark Williams-Derry, research director for the Sightline Institute, a Seattle sustainability think tank.
"It's not the recession, it's the recovery that's the key to how we do things in the long haul."
Recent studies show that small energy efficient retrofits for buildings could yield relatively quick economic payback.
But even a "green" high-rise, built with energy efficient windows and heating systems, requires massive volumes of CO2-heavy concrete and steel.
So Portland-area architects and developers are exploring ways to make "living buildings" -- office buildings and houses that don't just use less energy but also create enough, using renewable sources, to sell power back to the power company.
Beyond that, many Americans on Earth Day look elsewhere for inspiration, if not for answers. Residents of Japan and Europe live quite well with fewer cars, smaller houses and more bicycles than the average American.
That sensibility also shows up in many Portland-area neighborhoods.
"There are examples that we can aspire to that don't involve the end of civilization," Williams-Derry says.
-- Dylan Rivera; email@example.com>
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