Wednesday, September 13, 2006

From Zero Waste to Biodiversity Conservation - of Recycling and Still-Undiscovered Species

Two stories in the last few days' environmental news have really struck a chord with me as far as just what it means on the ground - in terms of protecting natural habitats and their biodiversity - when we talk about working toward Zero Waste goals.

First, at a ceremony commemorating the State of California for achieving its goal of diverting over 50 percent (now 52 percent) of the 76 million tons of solid municipal wastes it generates yearly, Marin County was honored for recycling 65% of its garbage. That is both impressive and promising, and hopefully their achievement will guide other counties, cities, and states toward finding ways to achieve zero waste goals.

It is particularly important given the often forgotten linkages between these kinds of accomplishments in recycling and other types of accomplishments in protecting the environment. For achievements in recycling not only mean reduced waste going into landfills, and less space needed to be occupied (and purchased - expensive!) to put our garbage. They not only save us and future generations natural resources - allowing materials such as paper, cans, bottles and plastics to be made from recycled materials instead of raw materials such as trees, freshly mined aluminum, and fossil fuels (and the expansive amounts of water that it takes to operate extractive operations such as mines).

Achievements in recycling mean that we are making strides in protecting our remaining natural habitats - from forests to deserts, from oceans to rivers - and their biodiversity. For example, Conservation Value's brochures and business cards are made from Living Tree's Deja Vu matte paper, made from 40% post-consumer waste and 10% hemp/flax. According to Living Tree, using one ton of this recycled paper saves 12 fully grown trees, 3,466 pounds of wood use, 2,461 kilowatt hours of electricity, 1,049 pounds of greenhouse gases, 541 pounds of solid wastes, and 5,097 gallons of water. With Americans alone using 85 million tons of paper per year, go ahead and calculate the conservation achievement if all of us used this paper! By recycling and buying recycled, Americans can save about a billion trees per year!

The importance of this relationship between recycling and biodiversity conservation was demonstrated yesterday in India, where a new species of bird was discovered!

So what does the discovery of a colorful new bird species in India have to do with achievements in recycling?

The fact that new species of birds are still being discovered provides a reminder of the riches of undiscovered plants, fungi and other species that, likewise, remain to be discovered, and that could provide such societal benefits as cures for cancer, solutions to fossil fuel dependence, and rescue from diseases that attack our food supply. But that could also be whiped off the face of the planet, undiscovered by humanity, their benefits lost, if they are rare or localized species that end up being lost to such extractive forces of habitat destruction as deforestation, mining, and oil and gas development.

The more we recycle and buy recycled, the fewer habitats that could contain such undiscovered natural riches will be destroyed. And the more likely it will be that these riches will be found and used to improve our lives and the lives of our children for generations to come.