Knowledge Based Economies Fail to Reverse Pollution, Waste

By Brian Hansen

WASHINGTON, DC, September 20, 2000 (ENS) - The resource savings that the United States and other industrial nations have seemingly realized from their shift towards knowledge based economies have been completely negated by the output of wastes and pollutants, the World Resources Institute says in a new report.

The Washington based research organization analyzed the economies of the U.S., Germany, Japan, Austria and the Netherlands. The analysis found that up to 75 percent of the annual resource inputs to those economies are returned to the environment as wastes within a year.

According to World Resources Institute (WRI) senior associate Emily Matthews, neither the volume or the environmental significance of many of those wastes have been accurately reflected by standard economic indicators.

"These are all huge material flows which sometimes have quite significant environmental impacts, but they never enter the economy," Matthews said. "That's why we call them hidden flows - they may not matter in terms of dollars, but they matter in terms of the environment."

Coal mining overburden and carbon dioxide emissions are the prime examples of these so-called "hidden" waste streams, Matthews said.


Some 10 billion tons of bituminous coal have been produced in Pennsylvania during over 200 years of mining, about one fourth of all coal ever mined in the United States. (Photo courtesy Pennsylvania Coal Association)
"Those two together account for half the output flows by weight in the U.S. economy," Matthews reported.

On a per capita basis, the coal mining industry produces about 22 tons of overburden for every man, woman and child in the United States every year, Matthews noted. The per capita share of carbon dioxide emissions in the United States is only slightly lower, at 21 tons per person per year, Matthews said.

"These are major flows with substantial environmental impacts," Matthews said.

These types of hidden costs have more than offset the gains brought about by the rise of e-commerce and the shift towards knowledge and service based industries in the five countries analyzed, WRI reports.

Matthews says the analysis reveals that better government policies and savvy management practices can help to "break the link" between economic growth and resource consumption and waste.

For example, the significant decline in the arsenic waste stream in the United States illustrates the importance of looking at the long term effects of a pollutant, Matthews said.

Arsenic, once a common ingredient in many pesticides, has for years been strictly regulated for that use by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Consequently, the incidence of arsenic contamination in the environment has dropped off almost to zero, the report found.

But it would be a grave mistake to conclude that the dangers posed by arsenic contamination have passed, because the substance is now being incorporated into pressure treated wood products used to make patio decks, park benches and wood flooring, Matthews noted.


Pressure treated lumber. The American Wood Preservers Institute maintains that pressure treating wood and disposing of it properly saves forests by giving wood products a longer life. (Photo courtesy AWPI)
That arsenic will ultimately be released into the environment when those wood products wear out and are burned, chipped, or disposed of in a landfill. "We can see that down the line we're heading for a problem unless we either substitute for arsenic in wood, or we take better care of that wood when it comes to the end of its life," Matthews said.

The report recommends that national accounts be established to track pollutants through their entire "materials cycles." Such accounts, the WRI suggests, would provide policy makers, industry leaders, and the public with more comprehensive information on the extraction, use, and disposal of such potentially dangerous wastes.

"We must understand the entire materials cycle, since neither governments nor industries can effectively manage what they don't measure," Matthews said.

One company that did try to measure its materials cycle is Interface, Inc., a carpeting and floor coverings firm based in Atlanta, Georgia. Interface launched a study of its material flows in 1997 as a way to measure its progress towards its goal of environmental sustainability. Ray Anderson, the company's CEO, was quick to applaud WRI for its efforts in producing the new report.

"We were staggered, frankly, by the difficulty of this data gathering exercise for our $1 billion company," Anderson said. "How much more staggering is it that WRI has been able to do this for five entire countries."

Anderson said he was also surprised to learn just how much waste his company produced.

"When we look at WRI's report, we see that in 1996 we were just a typical industrial enterprise - typically bad," Anderson said. "This reinforces the conviction held by many thoughtful people that the modern industrial system is systematically destroying the earth's biosphere."

"This travesty must come to an end," Anderson continued. "And it will come to an end - either in our credit, in a new industrial revolution, or in our discredit, in species extinction, including perhaps our own."

Any company that wants to be around for more than the next decade had better heed the warnings articulated in WRI's report, Anderson warned.

"Knowing is the first step to reducing our outputs on this planet," he said. "WRI has, in my view, performed an invaluable service, and industry must now respond."

The full text of the WRI report can be found on the group's website at: