The voice of the cynic returns


This is the 2nd article in a series confronting "green paintjobs" on "business as usual" operations and pointing toward different ways that shoppers might relate to their purchases  


Today I got a bowl of soup at the deli and a box of half & half for my coffee.  I am drinking the organic Sumatra but I would rather be drinking a Dragonfly Chai.  It seems expensive at the checkout, but it is a pretty good fuel – and it comes in nice half-gallon jugs that don’t get recycled – they get reused. That is HUGE. Almost everything else in the Coop comes in one-way packaging, even the oranges and the hard-boiled eggs. But the Spicy Black Tea Chai flavor I want to drink is out of stock, except in the non-reusable quart jugs that I don’t want to buy, so I am stuck drinking coffee.


Which forces me to confront the mess I am making – paper filters, coffee grounds, coffee bags, coffee plantations, globalization, Shop 'til you drop on a Mexican wage, all that ethically-edgy Fair Trade stuff that I wrote about a few issues ago. Sometimes I’d rather live in the make-believe world my dad grew up in where he did not have to associate the milk on the porch with the reality of the cow’s marginalized existence.  But those thick glass milk bottles it came in were reusable, and they averaged 24 round-trips to the back porch before they got broken.


The point I am leading up to is one we all know, but forget - that it’s all connected – that the choices and the actions and the messes I make and the energy I waste DO matter.  Bulk coffee comes from bins that are loaded from small bags kept cold to assure freshness.  The bulk stuff is there for cosmetic reasons: cuz it looks cool and so that you will feel better about buying it. But if you think about it, you will immediately realize that the freshest-tasting stuff is NOT stuck off-gassing its CO2 in the bulk bins, it’s in the sealed bags and in the glass jars on the shelf below the bulk bins. It is my considered opinion that The Sumatra in the glass jar is worth the extra money, if not the big picture issues like the fact that stuff was shipped halfway around the world, or that the people who grew it for us grew it on their best land INSTEAD of growing food for their families.

What's this about?

I started looking at "green" and in particular and "biodegradable" packaging materials last year and discovered that the industry was poised for explosive marketing push: everyone in the food packaging end of the retail food industry wanted to be able to buy some crap that would make their same old business practices "green" and add labels to that effect to their packages. Like the "recycling is good for you" stickers on the bottom of the cherry tomato boxes that don't even have a recycling symbol molded in to the plastic. Then I looked at what actually DOES get recycled here and across America and as Hunter Thompson used to note: things started to get very strange in a hurry. 


So I proposed a test: It appeared, based on a few random in-store interviews that Coop Shoppers seem to believe that they care about their community and their world, and feel that their beliefs ought to be clearly reflected in their actions. Brier talked about this as a matter of "effectiveness" versus "efficiency" - about how the Food Coop is a place we can demonstrate and exercise our values. So I figured: OK, then the differences OUGHT to be clearly recognizable to an alien from another culture (the way I feel a lot of the time lately) who was merely looking at the stuff these shoppers were loading into their shopping carts. Not reading the intentions in their hearts, just the facts, maam.  To cut to the chase, the results were less than conclusive. Most of the obvious performance metrics that I unfold in the story below reveal very little in the way of "big picture differences" between Safeway and Coop shoppers. 

Looking at the energy in the package

A box of breakfast cereal that contains 10 oz of food is likely to contain nearly 3 oz of packaging (2.4 oz of printed cardboard and a .5  oz plastic liner). According to the numbers printed on the box, there are 10 servings, each worth 130 nutritional calories (Kcalories) or 400 BTUs. This means there are 4000 BTU of food inside the box.


The plastic packaging burns like diesel fuel and the cardboard burns like wood so the ratio between the energy in the food to energy in the packaging is about 3:1 until we consider the cardboard box in which the retail carton was shipped. The cardboard adds another 600 BTUs to each carton.



The ratio of package-to-product for a tub of roasted potatoes from the deli looks  better than the breakfast cereal.  But that does not even begin to address the deeper problem: from what foul beast’s belly did that plastic GENPAK or SOLO container come, and where is it going to end up?



Nor does it address the enormous volume of food service containers that end up in the Coop’s own waste stream even though we offer people really nice dishware to use in the store.


This scene that confronts me every time I really look at the Coop's waste stream simply blows my mind.


And I simply can't stop seeing this beautiful box of sunshine in terms of the diesel fuel and the plastic box

A grossly simplified Input-Output model for these beautiful Mexican Chilis looks about like this (and I don’t think this is the same “Triple Bottom Line” calculation we hear about at the Coop):


Transactions in a Three Sector Economy

Economic Activities

Inputs to Agriculture

Inputs to Manufacturing

Inputs to Transport

Final Demand

Total Output


























Don’t worry about the dimensions of these numbers yet. All that matters so far is that you recognize that all the energy units are the same. Calories, Kcalories, BTUs, Joules, Kilowatts all convert cleanly.


The numbers dummies, approximations that are there just so that you see how all these “inputs” are additive. The Total Output cells in each row are row-level totals, and the total output column totals as well – a number that is not shown.


That total is not shown because this simplified model assumes that everything is consumed along the way. The energy that goes into growing it, that goes into packaging it, that goes into transporting it, into consuming it and into dealing with the mess that remains after we have finished with it. So the total is not shown yet because that row is missing!


What is critically important to remember if we are to understanding the true cost of our actions is that our economic model must account for all the energy involved, not just the checkbook economics that operate at the cash register. In the case of this product the Manufacturing row would be applied to the creation and use of the packaging materials. We don't really eat them. And most of us don't burn them either. We embalm them.



Percent of the cost that is not reflected in the price

Society has not really confronted the cost of this trash yet – the consumer still pays to have this stuff “taken away”.  Since the cleanup cost is NOT calculated in either the manufacturer’s or the retailer’s bottom lines, there is no economic incentive driving them to reduce pollution. We pretend that we have done our part by buying stuff packaged in “recyclable” materials and sorting them and washing them and putting them out for curbside recycling pickup, and the rest of the cleanup cost is extracted from us via taxes and utility fees.


Another critical factor is ignored in the cost calculation: where the energy comes from. Just 200 years ago essentially ALL the energy consumed in the course of our lives was renewable energy – the sunlight that had been captured as sugars through photosynthesis by plants was converted back into energy by animal metabolism and converted into work by animal muscles. Around the time of the Civil War – about the time that the cost of labor was finally internalized in the US with the abolition of slavery – the shift to the fossil energy economy began.  Combustion engines were cheaper than slaves.


The imbalance in our renewable vs. fossil energy accounting completely dwarfs the financial debt we call our national debt. We have shifted from releasing energy by doing work to releasing energy by controlling work that is done by machines. A study for the UN FAO a decade ago found that 10 kcal of fossil energy are required to produce 1 kcal of food in the US. That 10:1 ratio means our food supply system consumes ten times as much energy as it produces. This is made possible by an enormous off-the-books investment of non-renewable fossil fuel. Assuming 2,500 kcal for the daily diet in the United States, the 10:1 multiplies to a cost of over 25,000 kcal per capita per day. But at the rate we can actually produce work, the current U.S. diet would require weeks of labor per capita per day. Do I need to repeat that?

Percent of the cost that is reflected in the price

Garrett Hardin was one of the first social scientists to offer some fundamental economic metrics for “progress” clearly and succinctly. He defined “progress” toward civilization as the “internalizing “in society’s calculation of profit of the “external” costs of production.  Seven stages were provided:



Previously Externalized Cost Internalized

Date Internalized (in the West)


Raw Materials private rights to property

Before Christ


Paid Labor (versus slavery, serfdom, etc)

From A.D. 1000 - 1862


Educating labor (creation of public schools)

From  about 1800 - 1900


Responsibility for Industrial Accidents

From about 1875 to 1925


Responsibility for Industrial Diseases

Positive from about 1900 until 2000


Responsibility for Pollution and Cleanup

Yet to be internalized 2000


Responsibility for Pollution Prevention

Yet to be internalized 2000

Percent of the cost that is ignored

We have not really looked at the cost of cleanup yet – that is supposed to get covered in Epoch 6 and Epoch 7 (if we get there) but at our current stage of civilization (we came into the new millennium at Epoch 5 but it appears that we are rapidly rolling back societal protection into the 4th Epoch) we still we pay people to take stuff away so that we don’t have to think about it. At least we used to pay them. You will note that the dirty work of your community's recycling is done by folks who are not getting paid the way most of us would like to be paid.  But away it goes: sewer, garbage, storm-water off our roofs and patios and driveways, trash collection, curbside recycling, oil filters.


Cast off computers at the Skookum recycling center.

our community has actually decided to take the problem of old computers seriously.


Look closely at what is getting dumped at the the moderate waste facility that the County provides for us down at the Port, look at those automobile wrecking yards.  And look at how we ignore the sweet smelling exhaust from our biodiesel behemoths – almost like China where pollution is pointed to with pride as an indication of progress into the industrial era.

Percent of the price that reflects production

There are lots of people pushing biofuels at you right now telling you they can solve your sustainability problems and still shop at the mall. I am here to tell you they are selling you the Brooklyn Bridge. And you can prove it for yourself on the back of a placemat. Just add up ALL of the costs, not just the ones they are showing you.


Based on most recent UN-FAO estimates (March 2005) , it takes an average of a ton of water to produce a kilogram of wheat[i].  Wheat is a relatively water-efficient crop, to produce 1 kg of corn requires nearly 50% more water 1,5 tons per kilogram of corn. Since lifting water is the basis of our calculation of horsepower, it is relatively easy to convert our agriculture’s thirst for irrigation into energy.


Energy Inputs and Costs of Corn Production Per Hectare in the United States






6.2 hrsq

1,000 f



55 kga




90 Lb




56 Lb




148 kgc




53 kgc




57 kgc




699 kgc




21 kga




8.1 cms




2.1 kgc


 1.00 j


0.15 kgc




13.2 kWhb




222 kgd







8,590 kg yield p 123,696 BTU

Input : output 1 : 3.65  aPimentel and Pimentel (1996).

Chemical Fertilizers

Depending on the product, this number can range from a very small amount to something dramatically exceeding the food value and the agricultural and transportation energy embodied in the product. The reason for this is the fertilizer production[ii] is “recursively consumptive” – the ammonia and nitric acid that are the basic ingredients of this stuff are made from nitrogen and oxygen distilled from compressed air  + hydrogen reformed from natural gas, but the processes involved are enormously energy intensive[iii], and the total energy value embodied in the fertilizer is shocking[iv].  

Agricultural activity (machines doing work)

The biggest change in human history since language 35,000 years ago is NOT the discovery that we can store and transport useless information and pornography using streams of 0’s and 1’s.  It is the shift from an economy powered by photosynthesis to an economy powered by combustion of fossil energy. As little as 150 years ago, over 90% of the work necessary for mankind to feed itself was done by animal muscles and fueled by the sun. This began to change in the wake or the Civil War, with the advent of railroad-based transportation powered by coal. But things really only began to change around the time that I was born, midway through the last century. Now, even our organic gardening movement is primarily powered by petroleum.


We have several soil-building operations in Port Townsend fueled by recycling (composting) kitchen waste from restaurants, espresso stands, and the Coop. Compostable organic waste goes out of the back of coop in barrels. Not long ago that waste stream was about 15 barrels a week. But even the “last mile” of transportation of this waste food to the soil builders is done using motor vehicles and if you do a full accounting of the energy that has been expended getting this food waste back to the soil, when the ingredients are coffee grounds from Sumatra or vegetables from Chile.

It’s not rocket science Well, really, maybe it is …

When I was a kid I made a lot of rockets. From scratch. Big rockets, little rockets. Cooked up the fuel in the kitchen in a double boiler. My favorite rocket fuel was sugar (karo syrup) and an oxidizer (fertilizer), cooked into candy and molded into the right shape for the motors (don’t try this at home unless you have VERY good healthy insurance. You can learn just as much physics making rockets from PET water bottles powered by compressed air). But there is a lot of caloric energy tied up in sugar. Enough to keep the birds and bees flying, enough to spit a stick of aluminum or cardboard (way safer) clear out of sight, and enough to power your brain thru the calculations I am about to unfold.

The oil we eat

It takes about a 10,000 kcals – a quart of gasoline – to get the average car to the Coop and the bags of booty back home. Most of the chemical energy goes into waste heat, not power to the wheels. But after we degrade the car’s inefficient conversion of fuel into work we can say that a gallon of gasoline is worth about 10 KHW (kilowatt hours) of work. That means it probably takes 2.5 KWH of work to get my car to the coop and back.


The problem of converting between standard Calories and Nutritional Kcalories is exacerbated by the lack of simple ways to visualize the role of nutrition in our bodies.

Here is one of the clearest explanations I have ever seen:




Met. Rate


























Fat Tissues




Rest of us









Most of us eat a few thousand calories a day just to keep going. Those are Nutritional calories – KCalories.  But that 2,500 Kcal diet doesn’t do much work (watts) beyond keeping our brains alive, our bowels moving and the surface of our bodies around 98.6 °F.  Doing hard physical work requires a lot more food.  And regardless of top-form athletes who can deliver 1 KW (1000 watts) in spurts, a healthy adult human can reliably put out about 0.10 HP or around 75 WH (watts per hour) on a sustainable basis.



Which means that delivering the 2.5 KWH of power at 75 Watts/hour - dragging my car to the coop and back with a block and tackle - could take me as much as 35 hours. This is where the discussion of “sustainability” threatens to fly off the rails.  You drove your car to a community meeting on sustainability ? Who the hell are you kidding ?



“Paper or plastic?”

Solid Waste, and I am counting just the Agricultural, post consumer and industrial waste generated in the US now exceeds 12 billion tons per year. This number does NOT appear to include effluent from sewer treatment systems and mills that is dumped into rivers and oceans. Since there are about 300 million of us, that means that more than 2 tons of solid waste per capita per year is created in the course of creating our bizarre neurotic lifestyle. And the deeper I look into the problem the numbers keep getting bigger! So while I sure that this number is the right order of magnitude it could easily turn out to be underestimating the problem by as much as 25% !!


In the US last year, approximately 3.5% of the plastic packaging produced was recycled. Compared to 34% of the paper. That is a nice round order-of-magnitude difference, and it reflects some important differences between paper and plastic packaging materials. The most important of which is that paper packaging is a lot easier to recycle. 

Plastic packaging

Most of the plastic waste stream in the USA is not recycled, regardless of what the label says about recyclability. Or whether or not you wash it out, or peel off the label. Because after you’ve put it out for curbside pickup, no matter how carefully the crew at Skookum sorts it at the recycling station and how diligently they compress it into bales or how much they pay to ship the bales to Seattle where it is resorted by color and other issues, it still can’t get recycled in the sense that paper gets recycled . The reason is that for most of the material, there is no easy way to recycle it. 

Here is the "end of the line" at Skookum. Regardless of which curbside bin you put it in, this crap goes back to the transfer station and gets trucked off to a landfill and embalmed. Putting GMO cornstarch-based bioplastic crap into the landfill may make you feel greener, but most of the data I have found indicates that it does not make it breakdown any faster. It just makes the stuff it gets mixed with, the stuff that does get recycled on the line, even less likely to get reused.


GenPak, mentioned above in the discussion of the Deli Potatoes, states on their website ”None of our products contain post consumer recycled material. We operate under strict guidelines for cleanliness when it comes to food contact packaging. We do however have a 100% in-house recycle policy which means we reuse all the scrap material that is produced when items are cut out from its’ sheet.


Some people are buying this stuff - for pennies on the dollar prices – and stockpiling it, and offering it for sale because it is a clearly a precious raw material that will someday have significant economic value. But the energy it takes to reuse it - ignoring the consumer-paid or state-subsidized cost of collecting it, sorting it, moving it around, storing it, resorting it, cleaning it and shredding it – and then the additional energy cost of distilling it and reforming it into on-spec resin ready to mold into packaging substantially exceeds the cost of using virgin material.  Therefore, the package-making machinery and processing lines are not designed to use reprocessed material and the bulk of the plastic we do manage to recycle (the 3.5%) gets burned or made into high-charisma stuff like TREX lumber or polar-fleece. 

Paper packaging

This is where it gets messy: if you look closely at your waste stream you will see that most of the paper packaging we buy intended for food contact is coated on at least one surface with some sort of polymer that keeps the paper from getting wet. This stuff is problematic to recycle. So those order-of-magnitude numbers 3.5% versus 34% don’t really hold water – because so much of the plastic trash stream IS food service  trash, the percentage of paper post-consumer being recycled would drop precipitously if the food was all packaged in paper. 


There is a lot more to this story. I did a bunch of interviews and shot video and wrote another 30 pages or so and I will add to it when I get a little time. But right now I have a really big project on my plate.


A rather gently lobotomized but MUCH friendlier version of this article (thanks Julie - I really do love you) with most of the text, the links, photos and footnotes surgically removed to fit the space available and keep me from rambling, was published in the Spring 2006 Co-op Commons, house organ of the Port Townsend Food Coop


Your faithful cynic

Joe Breskin

February 24, 2006


World energy consumption seems destined to expand rapidly with the projected growth of the world economy; and this is especially true in the most populous, industrializing parts of the developing countries, for example in China, India, South-East Asia and much of Latin America - precisely the areas where fertilizer use should grow fastest.

The entire fertilizer industry uses less than 2% of world energy consumption, and this is overwhelmingly concentrated in the production of ammonia. The ammonia industry used about 5% of natural gas consumption in the mid-1990s.

About 97% of nitrogen fertilizers are derived from synthetically produced ammonia, the remainder being by-product ammonium sulphate from the caprolactam process and small quantities of natural nitrates, especially from Chile. The production of anhydrous ammonia is based on reacting nitrogen with hydrogen under high temperatures and pressures. The source of nitrogen is the air, the hydrogen being derived from a variety of raw materials, including water, crude oil, coal and natural gas hydrocarbons. The hydrocarbons provide the energy for the energy-intensive process. The high-temperature catalytic synthesis of ammonia from air is by far the main consumer of energy in the fertilizer industry. Nitrogen and hydrogen are universally available and the issue is the availability of energy.

For economic and environmental reasons, today natural gas is the feedstock of choice. The use of natural gas is accelerating rapidly, because of economic factors but also and increasingly due to environmental pressures, which work against other fossil fuels. Natural gas is expected to account for about one third of global energy use in 2020, compared with only one fifth in the mid-1990s. However, processes for ammonia production can use a wide range of energy sources. Thus, even when oil and gas supplies eventually dwindle, very large reserves of coal are likely to remain. Coal reserves are sufficient for well over 200 years at current production levels, and their location is geographically diverse. 60% of China's nitrogen fertilizer production is currently based on coal.

At present natural gas is the most economic feedstock for the production of ammonia, as the West European figures below show.

West Europe

Natural Gas

Heavy Oil


Energy consumption




Investment cost




Production cost




Source: EFMA

Approximately 4% of total annual natural gas consumption in the USA and West Europe is used to produce raw materials, especially ammonia. In some countries, however, the use of gas for ammonia production accounts for a large proportion of national gas consumption. In India, for example, this proportion is roughly 40%.


 The intermediate product in the case of nitrogen (N) fertilizers is ammonia (NH3), which is produced by combining nitrogen extracted from the air with hydrogen from hydrocarbons such as natural gas, naphtha or other (heavier) oil fractions, and hydrogen which is obtained by means of the Steam Reforming Process. Approximately 85% of the anhydrous ammonia plants in the EU use natural gas. Measures to improve production processes have focused on reducing the amount of hydrocarbon feedstock required to produce a tonne of ammonia.

Booklet No 7 of 8: Production Of NPK Fertilizers by the Nitrophosphate Route
2. Description of the Production Process

2.1 Basic Concept

Phosphate sources must be converted into a form which can be taken up by plants ("available"). This can be achieved by using the integrated "Nitrophosphate" process which produces compound fertilizers containing ammonium nitrate, phosphate and potassium salts. This process aims to produce nitrate-containing straight and compound fertilizers starting from rock phosphate and using all the nutrient components in an integrated process without solid wastes and with minimal gaseous and liquid emissions


The case against synthetic fertilizers
Industrial process opens door to many environmental risks

Deborah K. Rich, Special to The Chronicle

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Until the 20th century, farmers seeking to provide sufficient nitrogen to their crops dug cover crops, manures or compost into their soils and relied upon soil microbes to make the nitrogen in these materials available to plants' roots.

Then, in 1909, German physical chemist Fritz Haber developed a high-temperature, high-pressure process to fix atmospheric nitrogen in his lab. Another German chemist, Carl Bosch, soon expanded Haber's process to a factory scale. Known as the Haber-Bosch process, industrial fixation of nitrogen combines atmospheric nitrogen and hydrogen into ammonia, the basis for all synthetic nitrogen fertilizers. Natural gas is most often the source of the hydrogen.

Imagine the power now vested in humankind. With the ability to fix our own nitrogen we could free ourselves from dependence upon lightning and microbial masses and ramp up agricultural productivity to feed a hungry world. Perhaps the human species could yet outwit the Malthusian math that predicted that population growth would always outstrip our ability to increase food production. Indeed, so marvelous was this alchemy that both Haber and Bosch were awarded the Nobel Prize for chemistry.

Imagine now, just a little less than 100 years later and as world hunger continues to rise, asking farmers to stop using industrially fixed nitrogen. It's a wonder that the organic movement ever got off the ground.

The National Organics Program, which regulates the use of the organic label in the United States, prohibits the use of synthetic substances unless their use is specifically allowed via exemption, an exemption not granted for synthetic nitrogen fertilizer.

The reasons why are of such import that they alone should set off a stampede to the nearest organic farmer's market.

Reason No. 1 is that synthetic nitrogen fertilizers are not sustainable. Building an agricultural system based upon industrially fixed nitrogen makes our ability to feed ourselves dependent upon a non-renewable fossil fuel and upon the wisdom, benevolence and cooperation of heads of state and multinational petroleum companies.

Remember that natural gas is a key component of the Haber-Bosch process and accounts for 70 to 90 percent of the cost of nitrogen fertilizer production. Natural gas is found either dissolved in crude oil, or as a gas cap above reservoirs of oil. Due to the high cost of shipping natural gas, fertilizer plants are located where the gas is relatively abundant and cheap. Venezuela, Trinidad and Argentina are big producers. So are Russia, China and the Persian Gulf countries. According to the Fertilizer Institute, the United States was the largest importer of nitrogen fertilizers in 2002, importing 6.6 million metric tons of nitrogen or slightly over half of its total nitrogen fertilizer needs (approximately 12 million tons per year).

Synthetic nitrogen fertilizers also fail to pass muster because of the environmental damage done when we pump enormous quantities of nitrates into the natural atmospheric and biological cycling of nitrogen. Overuse of nitrogen fertilizers are a primary cause of "dead zones" in coastal waters because nitrates are highly soluble; any nitrates not taken up by plant roots move quickly down through the root zone and enter ground water. When nitrate-laden rivers enter bays and estuaries, the excess nitrogen can cause larger than normal algae blooms. Decomposing algae draws oxygen from the water. Too large a drawdown of oxygen renders the water incapable of supporting most aquatic fish and animal life; anything that cannot swim or crawl out of the dead zone suffocates. The Mississippi River fertilizes a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico that fluctuates in size from 3,000 to 8,000 square miles.

Nitrates may create a dead zone of sorts on the land as well. Epidemiological studies have linked nitrates in drinking water to reproductive problems and bladder and ovarian cancer. When nitrate-contaminated well water is mixed with infant formula and fed to babies, the infants can suffer from methemoglobinemia, or blue baby syndrome. The nitrates decrease the oxygen-carrying capacity of infant's blood, causing them to develop a peculiar blue-gray skin color and to become lethargic and irritable. If the condition is not treated rapidly, it can quickly progress to coma or death.