Trash troubles


People in industrialized countries create up to one ton of solid waste a year, and for every ton of solid waste there are approximately 19 tons of waste from other sources. One way to avoid this future obstacle is to reduce it through recycling and render it environmentally safe with sophisticated sanitary landfills that drain contaminated water and monitor methane production. Decaying organic material produces methane that can be burned for fuel.

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Our accumulating piles of solid waste threaten to ruin our environment, pointing to the urgent need for not only better disposal methods but also strategies to lower the rate of waste generation.

As our ship surges forward, we notice a mound jutting up ahead, directly in our path. Like an iceberg, a much larger mass is hidden beneath the surface. If we keep running the vessel at current speed, we may have a major problem on our hands.

No, this is not the Titanic. The ship we’re on is our consumer-goods-dependent lifestyle that creates as much as a ton of solid waste per person each year. And the peak ahead is but the tip of a massive “wasteberg” that is 95 percent hidden from view: For every ton of trash we generate, there is an underlying loss of another 19 tons of industrial, agricultural, mining, and transportation wastes, building up into a mound that threatens to shatter our future.

The wasteberg entails a formidable economic and environmental challenge. For most local governments, solid waste management ranks behind only schools and highways as the major budget item. Improperly managed solid waste eats up dollars while polluting water supplies, threatening neighborhoods, and squandering natural resources.

So how is this odyssey progressing? Are we about to capsize on the wasteberg and drown, or can we successfully circumnavigate the threat? Better yet, can we shrink the wasteberg?


Circumnavigating the wasteberg

The simplest way to steer around the wasteberg is to try to isolate wastes from their surrounding environment. This has been the major approach worldwide–solid waste management has usually meant solid waste disposal.

In the United States, most solid waste is placed in sanitary landfills, which are specially designed garbage burial grounds. Mixed organic and inorganic wastes are methodically placed in sections called cells, which are then covered with dirt. Drainage systems are installed to collect rainwater that has percolated through the cells and become contaminated. And wells are installed to monitor how much methane gas is produced as the wastes decompose.

At one time, landfills were little more than covered dumps, waiting to contaminate the air, land, and water around them. But through trial and error, landfill technologies have become relatively sophisticated, and landfills that promise low long-term environmental impacts are now feasible.

The siting of landfills, however, is becoming almost exponentially more difficult over time, particularly in populated areas. The reduced availability of open land, the inevitable environmental impacts of transporting waste, and the pervasive “not in my backyard” opposition to landfills have diminished the prospects for future landfills while dramatically increasing their projected costs. Most major landfill projects now on the drawing board are in remote rural locations, where the short-term economic benefits offered by landfills are valued. To use these sites, wastes have to be shipped over long distances by rail.

Around the world, many nations have chosen incineration as the preferred way to dispose of solid waste. This is particularly the case where landfill sites are scarce. Japan, for example, has around 2,800 municipal incinerators that reduce solid wastes to ashes. In the United States, though, incineration has fallen strongly out of favor. Despite significant improvements in the technology, concerns that the incineration process may release toxic pollutants such as dioxins have brought this once-popular technology to near-obsolescence.

Shrinking the wasteberg

For every pound of trash that goes into the waste basket, another 19 are released elsewhere in the environment–in forms ranging from industrial byproducts to fertilizer runoff to wasted energy. Thus if we reduce our generation of solid waste, the “leverage effect” is enormous: Each ton of trash kept out of the dump means that 19 tons of waste, along with related environmental impacts and the dollar cost of producing it, are avoided.

There are three major approaches to narrowing the waste stream: reducing, redesigning, and recycling. All require vigorous participation by both producers and consumers.

Reducing. Producers reduce waste through offering products that are less wasteful. Consumers reduce waste by using less of the product and using materials longer.

Redesigning. Producers offer alternative products that have a lower environmental impact than traditional ones, while continuing to meet given needs.

Recycling. Producers make reusable products, utilizing waste materials in manufacturing these goods. Consumers reuse the products and collect the materials to recycle out of the waste stream and back to the producers.

Until rather recently, the emphasis on reducing this country’s waste focused almost solely on recycling. The consensus was that reducing or redesigning products interfered with market-based decision making. Product design and function should be left alone, it was reasoned, and waste reduction would come through recycling the leftovers.

Initial efforts in large-scale recycling led to many expensive failures. Most surveys showed that consumers did not want to presort their trash. And because recycling requires separating materials, the approach was to develop sophisticated technologies to separate mixed wastes at large central facilities.

Ultimately, however, thermodynamics and economics caused a rethinking of recycling strategies, as centralized recycling systems proved both costly and impractical. From Monsanto’s Landgard system in Baltimore to American Can’s Milwaukee Americology plant to the big National Center for Resource Recovery’s New Orleans facility, the large-scale “high-tech” plants (as they were then called) have disappeared.

A combination of factors has, on the other hand, led to increased efforts to separate wastes at or near their sources. These factors include increased public willingness to participate in environmentally oriented community programs, improved collection technologies (such as specially designed trucks), effectively targeted recycling campaigns, and local and state laws requiring separation. Most cities and towns across the United States now have source separation programs of some type. California’s ambitious mandatory separation program is targeted to divert 50 percent of the waste stream by the early part of the next decade.

While these projects are usually labeled as recycling programs, it is important to differentiate between programs that involve separation and those that perform actual recycling. A material is not truly recycled until it is remanufactured into a new product. The perennial fluctuation of recyclable (“secondary”) materials prices, combined with generally depressed virgin materials markets, means that recyclable products are sometimes virtually worthless.

Paper–the major component of most solid waste–is a telling example of the limits of separation programs aimed at getting used materials back into the manufacturing stream. According to one recycling industry official, secondary paper prices have been “in solid recession for the past three years.” Supply has outstripped demand. “The U.S. is collecting higher volumes of some specific grades of recovered paper than mills here can consume at current operating rates,” he notes.

The “relief valve” for paper recycling, this official points out, is Asia. China, in particular, is importing massive amounts of paper. Imports of secondary newsprint, for instance, were up 23 percent for the first quarter of 1998, compared with the same period in 1997. Other recyclables have also been faring well in the Asian market. While that continent’s recent economic turbulence could slow down such imports, the depressed prices of most secondary materials may, conversely, make them more attractive than their virgin alternatives. The organized their of separated curbside materials, occurring in many urban areas, can be directly attributed to the export value of recyclables.

Of the major solid wastes, glass has the least demand in recycling markets, while aluminum stands at the other end of the spectrum. Because of the unique metallurgical nature of aluminum and the high energy costs of producing it, the aluminum industry can cost-effectively recycle virtually all secondary aluminum (usually obtained in the form of discarded beverage containers).

Private-public sector partnerships have added to aluminum’s recyclability. In many parts of this country, state and local governments have established mandatory beverage deposit laws, which provide a fund to compensate recyclers. At the same time, the aluminum industry has long had an aggressive buy-back program for aluminum recyclables. Motivating this program is the fact that 95 percent of the huge energy costs of smelting aluminum can be avoided through recycling. Thus aluminum recycling has long-term economic appeal.


Landfills and incinerators as recycling centers

Landfills can potentially become energy recycling facilities. Decaying organic wastes produce methane–the same gas we burn in stoves and furnaces. In principle, therefore, concentrated organic solid wastes could become sources of usable methane. A number of groups have experimented with recovering methane from landfills and selling it to utilities. But the economics of methane recovery have varied widely, depending on the quality and quantity of gas produced.

Landfills themselves are recyclable. A number of parks and recreation areas across the country–including a golf course on the upscale Palos Verdes peninsula in Southern California and the Mount Trashmore sled run in Evanston, Illinois–sit on former landfills. While “hot spots” from methane gas sometimes pose problems on this reclaimed land, they are usually controllable.

Some people envision landfills of the future as full-fledged recycling centers. Separated materials could be buried there temporarily until reclaimed as secondary resources.

Incineration, too, has a recycling dimension. While incineration destroys materials, it recovers energy. The energy obtained from a ton of trash is equivalent to that from about two barrels of fuel oil. Several experiments have demonstrated that energy can be recovered cleanly and cost-effectively through waste incineration. Union Electric Company’s pilot project in St. Louis two decades ago was one such example. Outside the United States, energy recovery is a routine feature of waste incineration.

Reduce and redesign

The “green consumer” movement, along with increasing corporate interest in product stewardship, may hold significant implications for shrinking the size of future wastebergs. Market research consistently shows that an impressive core of about 20-30 percent of all consumers prefer lowerwaste alternatives and are olden willing to pay more for such products.

Many businesses have sought to take advantage of this trend, attracting customers through offering lower-waste alternatives to traditional products and services. From supermarkets that sell in bulk and encourage consumers to bring their own shopping bags to outdoor-wear makers (such as Patagonia) that incorporate the material from used plastic bottles into vests, a viable green market has developed.

Packaging is the part of the waste stream that could be most significantly reduced through redesign. It is also the most controversial. Many producers rely on packaging design as a major part of their marketing strategy. While most consumers would agree that products are overpackaged–who needs, for instance, potato chips wrapped in both a plastic bag and an aluminum-foil container–few product makers would concur. Most attempts to regulate packaging have been unsuccessful here, but some packaging standardization has been adopted in other nations.

Major changes in product form may significantly affect the size of twenty-first-century wastebergs. One intriguing example is the electronic book (or e-book)–an electronically activated, recyclable hardcover book whose text and graphics can be changed through simple downloading and uploading. Included in the purchase price of e-books (projected at $300-$2,000) will be access to hundreds of manuscripts. Hence, instead of keeping a shelf full of textbooks–which, when outdated, become throwaways–an ebook owner would have just one recyclable book.

As we approach a new millennium, we will have in place many tools for the efficient, cost-effective, and environmentally responsive management of waste. But as the “away” in “throwing away” becomes more elusive, the challenge lies in shrinking the size of the wasteberg as well as in navigating around it.

One encouraging development is that more and more corporations are minimizing waste as part of their business plans. Moreover, surveys indicate continuing strong consumer interest in low-waste products. Similarly, innovative approaches and greater flexibility on the part of environmental regulatory agencies will improve cooperation between consumers, producers, and government in shrinking waste streams. These concerted efforts will be necessary if we are to avoid a collision course with twenty-first-century wastebergs.

Arthur H. Purcell is a Los Angeles-based environmental management analyst and educator. Founder and director of the Resource Policy Institute, he authored The Waste Watchers (Doubleday, Anchor Press, 1980) and is a commentator for American Public Radio’s “Marketplace.” He has served on the President’s Science Policy Task Force and the senior staff of the President’s Commission on the Accident at Three Mile Island. He was a member of the U.S. delegation to the 1976 UN conference on “nonwaste technology.”

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