The Business of Water, the Business of Trash

Have you ever felt guilty about watching your favorite sporting event or drama instead of the documentary that you should be watching?

CNBC has created two environmentally relevant docu-reports covering the worldwide water shortage and trash/landfill problems that are so good you won’t mind missing the other stuff. Liquid Assets: The Big Business of Water and Trash Inc: The Secret Life of Garbage are in-depth original shows developed in-house at CNBC that will reward you with insights, interviews and data. Both shows move quickly and will leave you wanting more.

The water piece is downright scary, articulating what we all know deep inside: the Western U.S. is so beholden to the Colorado River that if anything goes wrong with it, and/or, we don’t as a nation learn how to truly conserve water, a crisis will be upon us and before we know it. Did you know it takes 3 gallons of water to make one piece of paper? Or that 118.8 gallons of water are used to process one six-pack of beer? How about 12.69 cups of water to produce one plastic water bottle?

A little-known but relevant case history is Chile. Reporter Michelle Caruso-Carbrera takes us there to see the driest place on earth, where not surprisingly, an old small town is dying by the day. Contrasted with, a truly free market for water which Chile claims is a big success for landowners, holders of water rights, business and consumers. CNBC raises the idea that markets not governments should control the flow of water, a provocative idea indeed.

Photo By: Tomas Munita as seen in the New York Times

The trash expose isn’t just trash talk, either. We see the largest trash removal operation in America, Manhattan, and how it disposes of 12,000 tons of trash per day. A lot of which is actually taken to landfills in other states by truck or train. Apparently Manhattan does a good job with its $1.3 billion annual budget, there just isn’t any place else to put the waste…

Pelham Bay Landfill, New York

A genuinely disturbing investigation of trash accumulating unabated and unregulated in and around Beijing, China shows us one of the unfortunate byproducts of hypergrowth in a booming new economy. In general, a lack of adequate landfills and the difficulty in preventing seepage of trash and methane gas into the water table is explained clearly and succinctly by CNBC reporter Carl Quintanilla, who traveled to Beijing for the story. It makes you wonder how they managed to get this report past the Chinese government, which usually does not concern itself with “first amendment” rights when the publicity is negative?

There is hope, as evidenced by some of the scientists, students and entrepreneurs who are hard at work developing solutions for these problem areas. A surprise is former Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt, who served the Clinton administration, when he says we have plenty of water to sustain us indefinitely. I was aghast at this, although he does redeem himself somewhat by saying that farmers in particular need to be much more efficient in how they irrigate, as they are wasting almost 50 percent of the water used at present. Babbitt also favors free market pricing of water, which he thinks will eliminate water waste in a big hurry. Another surprise is the favorable treatment given to trash removal behemoth Waste Management, Inc. that is portrayed as a company spending major research dollars to make landfills better. Also featured is BMW’s Spartanburg, S.C. plant that devised an ingenious way to provide power from methane gas, which runs through a 10-mile-long pipeline, from beneath a landfill all the way to the plant’s generator.

So what can you do to help remedy these critical environmental problem areas? The answers come clear in both shows: conserve water, and recycle every bit of waste material possible. Recycling of plastic water bottles in particular is absolutely critical as only five percent of bottles consumed are currently recycled. There are a number of new companies that have made a business out of transforming used water bottles into tiny plastic chips that ultimately become fabric and other materials — plastic water bottles, for instance. And don’t forget home composting, which is not mentioned but is also critical in our waste reduction efforts.

CNBC typically airs these special shows a number of times so check your local cable company and/or the CNBC website for broadcast times. And again, kudos to CNBC for putting material like this on the air when unfortunately, middle America seems to prefer “Housewives of Orange County” and “Celebrity Rehab” to this type of programming.

Please post your comments once you’ve watched “Water” and “Trash” on CNBC. Thanks!

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