Think like a Remora

(Picture from here.)

Back when I was in college, I worked briefly at the local food co-op.

The co-op was the sort of shoestring business you could expect. A mix of volunteers that had different agendas such as the quality (organic) nature of the food sold, local production and support of farmers, sustainability of the process, etc.

One of the things I noticed was how much was packaged in plastic. We’d get cheese in chunks or wheels—wrapped in plastic—and then cut them into sellable chunks, wrap them in plastic and put them in the refrigerator for sale.

I asked if we couldn’t reduce our dependence on plastic.

I mean, maybe we couldn’t influence what the producers gave us the cheese in, but couldn’t we figure out a better way to package it ourselves.

It didn’t go over well. For one thing, at the time plastic wasn’t seen as the villain that it is now. For another, the co-op, like all such businesses at the time, was extremely low margin. If the volunteers were ever paid, the business would sink like a stone. Other packaging mechanisms were too expensive. Besides, we just threw it away, right? How bad could it be? At least, in comparison with other things.

Forty-plus years later, we know how bad it is. These days, every time I see a balloon fly away from a birthday celebration, I see wasted helium and a dead sea turtle.

That said, disposable technology gets a bad rap. The problem is disposability. The problem is we do it so badly.

Disposability is one of the fundamental ecological mechanisms. Every trophic level excretes or leaves behind something that the next trophic level exploits. Remoras follow sharks to consume what the shark leaves behind. Dung beetles make a living on the leavings of herbivores. Plants consume manure. Bacteria pick up the slack at the end.

So, there’s nothing inherently wrong with disposable technology. Humans just do it badly.

We make a number of mistakes in our handling of this. I’m going to call this the quality, quantity, and level mistakes.

Quality mistakes means that we create things that can’t be consumed. We did this intentionally—plastic was hailed as something that could not be degraded. Plastic didn’t rot like wood. It didn’t mind water. It did fail under UV light but that was either not realized or ignored in those heady days. (Remember the magic words so symbolic of the future given to Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate? “Plastics!”)

Eventually, everything will degrade. There is no high energy carbon source that will not at some point become fodder for life. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch will eventually be absorbed. But natural processes work over evolutionary and geologic time scales. We might see the GPGP become incorporated into carbonate rock. But that’s not going to happen anytime soon. Bacteria are now evolving to eat plastic but they don’t do it quickly.

A good example of this is oil consuming bacteria. Everyone knows that there are areas in the world where oil is found under the sea: the Gulf of Mexico, the North Sea, etc. If human beings never drilled an inch, there is still some seepage. Oil is a high energy carbon source. So, not surprisingly, there are several families of bacteria that eat it. Like Ian Malcom said, “Life finds a way.” All it takes is mutation and time. Our oil eating bacteria took millions of years to develop that technology.

But there’s too much of it.

Which brings us to the second problem: quantity.

We could probably get away with almost anything if we were just running at about 1% of the load we are now. (Some would say .1%.) Let’s say, we were just running our current American economy, as it stands, with about 150 million people worldwide. The CO2 we’d produce could be handled by the trees. The forests would be largely untouched—most of the farming and meat production would be minimal. Plastic production would still be a problem but it’s likely that natural systems could tolerate it.

But there are seven billion of us and we all want cars, trucks, and planes.

Those poor oil consuming bacteria just can’t keep up.

Which brings us to the last issue: level.

All of the other natural systems have some trophic level approach to the disposability problem. At the gross level, we have large animals leave behind smaller bits, consumed by smaller animals, all the way down to bacteria getting the last bits. Then, the bacteria and other microscopic materials are themselves consumed by things a bit larger all the way back to the big guys.

Lions->hyenas->vultures->smaller omnivores->insects->bacteria->plants->herbivores->Lions

Some animals short circuit that process. Baleen whales and whale sharks eat things pretty small on the food chain. And I’m presenting the whole trophic level concept very simply. It’s actually astonishingly complex, where some members of a given trophic level become incredibly specialized on particular substrates. Others, can occupy more than one at the same time. Life is always trying to game the system all the way down to how enzymes work. And we like to think we’re good innovators.

Humans, though, jump all that. We have a strong tendency to pick what we want, use a fraction of it, and then dump it out in a form that only the lowest of trophic levels have even a prayer of handling.

Plastics are a good example.

Petroleum is, essentially, a collection of saturated hydrocarbons of various lengths. A “hydrocarbon” is a carbon-hydrogen compound. A saturated hydrocarbon is one that has all of the bonds associated with a single hydrogen atom. It is the simplest of organic compounds. Methane is a single carbon with four hydrogens. Ethane is two carbons with six hydrogens. Etc. They have the maximum number of hydrogen atoms a given carbon chain can hold. It takes less oxygen to break those bonds in combustion. Which is one of the things that makes them good fuel. They are easy to burn. They are not easy to metabolize.

What we do is take those hard to digest hydrocarbons and put them directly into the environment as oil waste, burn them into CO2, or transform them into plastics. Next time you think about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, consider the idea of pumping oil up out of the ground and dumping it into the ocean.

All of the above said, I said disposability gets a bad rap and I’m sticking to that. Using soap is disposability: the soap materials bind to dirt and we wash it away. No one wants to reuse hypodermic needles. And I need not discuss sewage.

What we need, then, is to attack the quality, quantity, and level problems.

There are only two ways to attach the quality problem: make plastics degradable and/or reuse them ourselves. Remember how I said saturated hydrocarbons are difficult to metabolize? They have nothing on most plastics. These things can be recycled. (See Precious Plastic.) But it’s hard in the current way we handle disposal.

Western culture likes to do things by machines, whether we have actual machines or use people in the same way. By considering the means by which we do a certain thing a machine, we turn on the process of driving the cost of that machine as low as possible. This means either developing a cheap widget to execute that action or hiring progressively cheaper to do these dirty and often dangerous jobs.

Each disposable item as a specific way it needs to be handled. Hypodermics need one way. Polyethylene needs a different one. CO2 requires a third, and so on. Biological systems self-sort on this all the time. Humans are bad at it. But we could do it but for the quantity problem.

We’re terribly bad at scaling well. When we do scale something up—building cars, producing plastic, burning fuel—we are incredibly dirty about it. This wouldn’t be bad if there were other systems that used our refuse as input—it’s amazing how much a lion leaves behind of the carcass. But when the different systems are done with it, there’s nothing left but a greasy streak on the ground.

But we don’t have that. We need to build it.

Humans have developed an analog of trophic systems. It’s called business. What we need to do is subdivide all this effort down to small enough chunks that an individual business can consume it. We will need machines for each component—CO2, polyethylene, etc. We need to create incentives and opportunities for those businesses to thrive. After all, the remora didn’t start following sharks around for good will. They did it because there was food to be had.

I’ve been harping on plastic recycling because it’s easy to discuss and I don’t think it’s been given the same air time as CO2. CO2 is a more interesting nut to crack but I think we can view it the same way.

Right now, we’re being idiots about CO2. We need to look at it as a resource. We need to think like a remora.

Plants take in CO2 and with the use of sunlight make wood. We need to take in CO2 and, at the very least, turn it into methane: CH4. Something we can use. Possibly turn it into long chain hydrocarbons as feedstock for fuel or material.

Whenever I say these things, I get push back: look at what it will cost.

Sure. But that’s only because we don’t look at cost correctly.

The problem with solving these problems is economic. We burn coal because it’s cheap. But it’s only cheap because we look at a very narrow view of cost. If coal is costed against its environmental effects, it becomes the most expensive fuel on the planet. We don’t like nuclear because we’ve had problems with it. I’m not arguing about any of that. But vastly more people have died, and are dying or become sick now, from using these other fuels. (See here for a good visual explanation of the fuel density of uranium vs others.)

These things must all be analyzed in the same playing field, without the hidden assumptions biasing towards one agenda or another and over a long enough time frame to be meaningful. (Here’s a good example of this when used against CO2.)

I like living in a heated house, eating good food, drinking clean water, and breathing clean air. A good chunk of people living on this planet don’t have these opportunities. They should. And they should in a way that doesn’t cost me my house, food, water, and air.

The agendas of people that oppose this sort of approach tend to view the world as a zero sum game—if I have my house, you don’t get yours. If I get my car, you don’t get yours. If I get to breathe—well, you get the idea.

We can’t afford that kind of thinking any more. It’s too expensive.

We have to think like remoras.




Think like a Remora — 1 Comment

  1. Thanks, Steven, for another clear exploration of the way humans impact the world, and possible directions to pursue for a better (or any) balance. Keep it up!