A Method to Carbon Madness?

Sometimes you have to look differently to see the obvious.

I’ve always been a little bit perplexed when well-intentioned friends act as though solving the climate change challenge is someone else’s problem. I don’t dispute that governments and businesses need to reduce carbon emissions. Unfortunately, they are dragging their feet.

Another simple piece of arithmetic that says that each of us has a role to play because the average American generates more than twice the carbon emissions of the average citizen of China. We’re not the dirtiest citizens in the world, but we’re very far from being the cleanest.

Which means that if the developing world is going to continue developing, Americans are going to have to find ways to reduce—even eliminate—greenhouse gas emissions very, very rapidly.

While this sounds like bad news to many people, I don’t think it is.

I say this because I conducted a simple experiment with my small company and found that we could eliminate two-thirds of our annual carbon emissions by taking extraordinarily simple steps. Our steps have saved the company money year after year without any sacrifice productivity or quality of life.

We discovered that a tremendous amount of waste is built into the ways we use energy. Eliminating the waste is easy and cost-effective.

The fact that my small business wins awards for being a pioneer means this fairly obvious reality is one of our nation’s best-kept secrets.

This knowledge helps me feel optimistic, but there’s a catch. It’s called “drift.”

When my company recently applied for a sustainability certification under the new APEX/ASTM standards for our industry, I figured the record keeping we’d done for other certifications would be sufficient. The auditors said no.

They told me to audit our landfill waste and recycling and document the results. This request sounded like make-work to me because our office only fills one residential-style curbside waste bin and about half of a recycling bin each week. Those numbers seem pretty small because we’d already reduce landfill waste by half.

It seemed like small potatoes, I was busy, and I didn’t want to do the audit. But they insisted, saying that audits help people discover surprise.

So, reluctantly, I reviewed the city’s recycling website to ensure that we were putting the right stuff in the bins. Then I went out side and lifted the lid.

What I saw was bags. Our cleaning service hauls recycling out of our desk-side bins to the curbside bin in plastic trash bags. But the recycling hauler doesn’t accept bundled materials. They want everything to be loose, just like it is in our desk-side bins for easy sorting.

The auditor was right: taking the trouble to conduct the simplest of all possible audits—just lifting the lid and looking—revealed that our recycling efforts were for naught.

The most embarrassing aspect of all is that I’d seen these bags in the recycling bin time and again and never given them a second thought.

That’s how the mind works: I saw stuff in the recycling bin, considered the matter closed and moved on. It was the audit—in this case, an imposing word for a very simple action—that forced me to stop taking what I was looking at for granted.

Perhaps this little anecdote is a metaphor for our collective shrug when we think about climate change. The problem is huge and we elect people to tackle huge issues. The trouble is, elections are so familiar that it’s easy to elect and forget.

But today, right now, each of us is still generating more than twice as much carbon dioxide as our average Chinese brothers and sisters.

Asking the janitors not to put recycling in plastic bags is pretty easy to do. So is eliminating energy waste. Maybe it’s time to lift the lid and take a closer look at the opportunities we’re wasting.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo courtesy of kingdesmond1337 via creative commons license.

About the Author

Tom is founder and CEO of Bowman Change, Inc., a consultancy dedicated to helping organizations reap the benefits of working with purpose—making social issues and environmental change central to their missions.