Some years ago a friend of mine and I were backpacking in the Adirondacks. As so often happens when backpacking, our minds, well really his mind, turned to waste. Waste is a much bigger problem when far from plumbing and a municipal sanitation system. My friend thought it would be awesome if we were confronted with the piles of waste we had made during our lives. In particular, he thought he’d be impressed with his own, well, bodily waste. I turned right around and hiked back to the trailhead. Haven’t seen him since.
Not really, but I did do some basic calculations; he was disappointed with the size of his accomplishments. I suggested that perhaps he should turn to some more productive ways of making a mark on the world. He’s a journalist now, so there went that idea.
I think of this now because I’ve just had my yearly compost delivery. I vacillate every year in the amount of compost I get mostly because I don’t like spending money. My garden is roughly 750 square feet (excluding perennials, brambles, blueberries, the herb garden and fruit trees) and to cover that 3 inches deep in compost would require about 6.9 yards of compost. This year I had 6 yards delivered. That’s 6 yards of cow poop and bedding.
To make room for the compost I had to finish moving a similarly large load of chipped waste wood that was dumped in our driveway (it was free and I’ve used it to mulch the perennials). A week previous to that I’d had two cords of wood dumped in the driveway and had spent many early mornings stacking it in the shed. I spend a lot of time moving piles of things around. Over the next few weeks, using my standard 6 cubic foot wheelbarrow, it will take me 27 or so trips to the garden to move that compost.
These raw materials disappear into the gaping maw of my household, their presence as large piles displays the immensity of our consumption – all three will disperse (slowly or rapidly) as carbon dioxide. I do realize that spreading woodchips or compost isn’t really the same as driving a hummer, but the job of moving them into the house reminds me of shoveling coal into a train.
What really drives the household is the invisible piles of consumables we use. We get water, electricity and gas from pipes or wires. Because it is delivered on demand, one has a hard time picturing how much we use. I looked at our gas bill from last winter. In February (the coldest month this year) we used 113 Ccfs or 100 cubic feet of gas. I wondered what that would look like.
Since you can’t see gas, it wouldn’t look like anything, but it would smell, then you’d blow up. If you could containerize it in say a railroad tank car (a dot-111 is standard at 34,500 gallons) it would take about 2.5 tank cars (748 gallons per 100 cubic feet at 113 Ccfs is 84,524 gallons). That’s staggering and it doesn’t include our electrical use which is largely also natural gas generated. At 127 KWH per 1000 cubic feed we’d add a bit less then another tanker car in an average month.
In case you’re wondering 84,524 gallons is about 11,300 cubic feet. If I had a pile of natural gas it would take me about 1,883 trips a month with my wheelbarrow. I’d be pretty tired.