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The Theory of Relativity, Part 2

Nothing exists in a vacuum. There are alternatives. The degree to which something is good or bad depends on what you compare it to. We need to stop thinking in black and white terms, and embrace the shades of gray. And by shades of gray, I am referring to the full spectrum of alternatives, not the E.L. James bestsellers that cause me to get funny looks from some clerks when I go to the hardware store to buy electrical cord zip ties.

Each Step In The Spectrum

One reason to think in shades of gray is that it makes incremental steps easier to envision and to take. Sustainability has often focused a lot on big goals: carbon neutrality, zero waste, etc. But we need to recognize that sometimes big goals can be as daunting for some people as they are inspiring for others.

When you think in only black and white terms, change can become almost impossible because the amount of change needed to change from black to white, or white to black is too much, too daunting for some people to visualize. In the interim, too often, no change happens. Could your lofty goals be inhibiting the change you seek?

But what about smaller changes? Look at all the gray swatches in a well-stocked paint store. A mix of gray that is 11% black is almost un-perceivable from a mix that is 10% black. That is a change that most people would be comfortable making. Then what about the difference between 11% and 12%, from 12% to 13%? Each of those small changes is easy to visualize and to accept. Consider building your program with those sorts of incremental changes, and incremental costs. Build momentum. The next step is easier to take after you have taken the first one. Think of it like marathon running, hiking, or biking. If you focus on the 10 miles you have to run, hike, or bike, your task will seem overwhelming. You won’t see how you can do that. But if you focus on taking one more step, or pushing the pedal down one more time, you can do that. And after you have strung together enough “one more times” the next thing you know, you have finished your 10 miles, and may even have enough energy left to go beyond that.

If you have not yet set goals, or if you are struggling to meet your lofty goals, have you considered instead using goals that focus on continuous quality improvement? Sometimes the improvements might be big, and sometimes they might be smaller, but with a continuous improvement goal, you continue to move in the right direction, and you continue to build momentum. You ensure that you don’t have the stagnation, retreat, or questionable accounting that I have found too often accompanies more dramatic goals. Keep in mind too that a continuous quality improvement goal is easier for folks to continuously support over time. You don’t have to be perfect – you just have to be a little bit better than you were yesterday. There are more than 300 million people in the U.S. I think there is far more potential for far more significant change if all of us are continually better than there is if a handful of us try to be individually perfect.

Staggered Stages of Better (or worse)

In part 1 of this series, The Theory Of Relativity, I noted that too often we throw around terms. We declare that something is sustainable, that something is “green,” that something is recycled, that something will save money, or will save energy. Or conversely, we ask whether something is one of those things. But just as much as we need to look at a single point of comparison (e.g. recycling vs. landfilling), we need to focus on a full spectrum of comparisons, all the shades of gray. For example, in the recycling vs. landfilling comparisons, not all recycling processes are the same, and not all landfilling options (or other disposal options) are the same. As a further example, one of the key environmental benefits to recycling glass is that if you use glass to make new glass bottles, you don’t have to heat your furnaces as hot to melt recycled glass cullet back into a liquid as you would to make virgin glass. If you use crushed glass cullet for civil engineering purposes, none of the materials you are displacing (essentially rocks or sand) get melted. Thus displacing the civil engineering materials, while still recycling, will not get you the energy benefits of displacing virgin materials in the manufacture of new glass bottles. Yet most most recycling programs and recycling metrics will count both types of recycling as exactly the same. Is that fair, or should bottle-deposit programs and source-separated collection programs get more credit if they can ensure more of a product goes back to a recycled use that provides more benefit?

Likewise, not all disposal options are the same. Historically two of the bigger environmental problems with landfills were the methane emissions from the anaerobic decomposition of organic materials and ground water contamination from liquids leaching out of the landfill. A modern landfill with a well-functioning landfill-gas-to-energy collection system and leachate collection system will significantly reduce both issues. So too will a well-run waste-to-energy facility that has sufficient pollution controls. Thus, should sending stuff to “the dump” or diverting stuff from “the dump” count the same in all three options?

Do You Trust What Your Dashboard Tells You?

What you find when you mix all of this stuff together is that the options are not black and white but a vast spectrum of gray. But what if your metrics and dashboards do not measure those shades of gray?

In his novel A Scanner Darkly, Phillip K. Dick wrote the following passage: “You as the driver have only an indirect relationship to the fuel tank, via the gauge or, in your case, gauges. In fact, the tank could fall off entirely and you wouldn’t know until some dashboard indicator told you or finally the engine stopped.”

I think this condition is currently happening within the recycling and sustainability industry. Too many people are disconnected from the process and view it only through metrics and dashboards. But what if those dashboards aren’t sophisticated enough to measure all the shades of gray? What if they are giving us misleading information? Would we know that the fuel tank had fallen off until the entire engine stopped?

In fact, going back to the previous recycling and landfilling examples, if you add up the various options, you may find instances in which solid waste systems that have lower diversion rates may actually have higher environmental benefits. For example, if your higher diversion rate is coming via a system that downgrades all your recyclables from a higher-benefit recycling option to a lower-benefit recycling option (e.g. your glass is going from bottle-to-bottle recycling to bottle-to-road-base recycling and your office paper is going from office paper-to-office paper recycling to office paper-to-cereal box recycling), and the trash side is going to a landfill without methane collection, you may actually be worse off than an alternate system with a lower diversion percentage, but one that sends the recyclables to their most-beneficial use, and that shifts the disposal of their remaining waste from a landfill without methane collection to a well-run waste-to-energy facility or landfill with top-quality methane and leachate collection systems. Do your metrics and dashboards reflect that potential? If not, do you trust the information you are getting?

As the earlier Phillip K. Dick passage continues: “There should never be two gauges reporting conflicting information, because as soon as that happens you have no knowledge of the condition being reported on at all.” If our metrics and dashboards are not sophisticated enough to measure the shades of gray, are they relevant at all?

Viewing the world in shades of gray can be hard. It involves leaving the safety of our black-and-white positions and wading through some sometimes uncomfortable decisions. Sometimes it involves standing on some pretty slippery slopes to make your stand. But in the end, I think we are all better for it. I think we have more credibility when we embrace the full spectrum of gray and use terms like “more-sustainable” and “better” as opposed to “sustainable” and “good”. Slugging our way through the shades of gray may be hard, but I think it’s worth it.

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Roger Guzowski

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