Does trash affect our well-being?

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We’ve come a long way in 50 years—our streets and rivers are no longer lined with litter and backyard burning is mostly taboo. But our overproduction of trash still degrades our well-being.

How will good waste management improve well-being? 

I grew up in the U.S. and am old enough to remember when good waste management meant that I was responsible for gathering our household trash for burning in a small cement incinerator in our backyard. That was one of my family chores, along with mowing the lawn. It was a big step forward when my city outlawed backyard burning and started sending a truck to our house every week to pick up our trash and take it “away.” All I had to do was make sure that the new trash bin was full and in the right place in the alley. This new system improved my personal well-being.

That was 50 years ago, so how do we answer this question for 2016? Or, even better, how do we answer that question for 50 years into the future?

First, I understand that many areas in the world would be happy to have my old 1960s system of making waste disappear through an efficient citywide collection system. But why would we, the intellectual elite in the waste industry, support that idea knowing there are better ways? Isn’t there a way for the Global South to leapfrog the old “collect, mash it, and bury it” approach to discard management? After all, we don’t see overhead telephone lines being strung across Africa. I suggest that we don’t want to see large compacting trash trucks either.

Finding new ways requires new definitions of well-being for both the personal and the community. In the Global South, the first thing we need to do for personal well-being is address the litter issue. In the U.S., the recycling movement grew hand-in-hand with the anti-litter movement in the late ’60s and early ’70s. When it suddenly became anti-social and against the law to litter, then the public sector had to show leadership through organized and reliable trash collection systems. Once our discards were picked up and aggregated in one place (a transfer station or landfill) then some entrepreneur looked at that big pile and said, “I could do something with some of that stuff and make money!” Thus the modern approach to sorting out certain items for recycling was born.

The definition of community well-being is a fairly new concept that is expanding every year. Our learning curve really took a jump after the anti-litter movement as we discovered groundwater pollution from unlined landfills. Then we learned scary facts about the toxic air emissions from landfills and incinerators. As we looked deeper, we discovered that our city streets were crumbling under the weight of too many trash trucks from different companies traveling neighborhood streets numerous times each day. Then we watched land values on the edge of town go down as new landfills were sited there, only to have urban expansion encroach and conflicts arise. All of these issues are still in play today.

Looking ahead, I think the definition of future well-being is best captured in the phrase “we don’t have a waste problem, we have a resource opportunity.”

We can assume that the current negative trends we see today will only be worse in the future. This includes greenhouse gas emissions, soil depletion, resource wars around the world and a lack of jobs. Those four global problems are all made worse by the act of destroying natural resources through landfilling and incineration, especially when compared to the alternative of pursuing a “zero waste” future. The resource managers of the future need to embrace this challenge and create a new approach to waste – one that respects the value of our discards and feeds an efficient circular economy with less effects upon the climate, puts organic nutrients back into the soil and creates more jobs in every community.

I’m a big proponent of zero waste, cradle-to-cradle and circular economy strategies as the way forward, but they will be immensely challenging. The system of our how world produces, consumes and disposes of the “stuff” in our lives is so well-established that sometimes it feels like small change can only be made on the fringes. The challenges are not only downstream at the disposal end, but also upstream at the production facility. How can we actually implement these new strategies on a large scale?

First, we need to know what we need to create that doesn’t exist today. My answer is the Zero Waste Park, a 20-acre parcel of land at the existing landfill entry which all waste must go through before being buried. The park’s facilities would include:

  • Material recovery facility for sorting dry discards (recyclables and non-recyclables)
  • Composting facility for all organic and bioplastic materials
  • Center for Hard To Recycle Materials (CHaRM) for e-waste and other items
  • Reuse and used building materials (UBM) facility
  • Construction and demolition facility
  • Materials Recovery & Biological Treatment (MRBT) facility for all unsorted discards
Zero Waste park concept

This schematic for a Zero Waste Park co-locates the big six facilities you need to replace your landfill.

The diversion capability and economics of the Zero Waste Park could be very competitive. We did a study in Seattle, where their residential recovery rate was 71% (by weight) at that time and the remaining 29% of “leftovers” were hypothetically processed through the MRBT facility. Another 8% percent of recyclable materials was pulled out, and the remaining waste mass lost 8% of its weight through moisture evaporation before eventual landfilling of the biologically stable material (to prevent methane generation underground). In this scenario, the total landfill diversion for Seattle increased to 87%, which is as good or better than if they had burned everything and landfilled the ash.

Such a facility doesn’t exist yet, but the economics are based on existing technologies. We did another study in southern California that showed if the tipping fee at a landfill/MRBT facility was $80 per ton and the recyclable goods sold at $80 per ton then the park would break even. This included paying haulers for delivering their recyclables, charging a reduced rate for cleanly sorted organic materials and not charging for CHaRM, Reuse or UBM deliveries. The Zero Waste Park would also produce employment opportunities, reduce pollution and provide future flexibility to ensure ever greater resource recovery in the circular economy model.

The upstream waste side of the future lies with something that is boring, but important – how we all spend our money. The marketplace will follow the money, so the place to start is with public tax dollars being spent only on products and services that are compatible with zero waste.

The answer to how we actually implement these big visions is one the most vexing problems in the world today. We have all the answers we need in books and reports in our offices, but it seems as if very little is changing. My experience with social change related to waste issues is that it takes good government leadership supported by community engagement. Usually the community has to stand up and demand change in order to the ball rolling. The challenge then is good community organizing and mobilization of local citizens, something that is much easier said than done.

The final critical question is why bother mobilizing government and citizens to change the way the world deals with waste? The four big global problems – greenhouse gas emissions, soil depletion, resource wars and a lack of jobs – must be dealt with immediately. Their connection to waste is real and problematic. Burying and burning our waste makes all of these problems worse. It is incumbent upon us as waste professionals to understand our connection to these issues and work to make them better.

This blog originally ran on be Waste Wise as part of the 2016 Global Dialogue on Waste.


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