Change Is in the Air
It’s been more than six months since the EPA’s venerable Office of Solid Waste morphed into the Office of Resource Conservation and Recovery (ORCR), a name change “…reflecting the breadth of the responsibilities/authorities that Congress provided to the EPA under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), the primary authorizing statute.”
The ORCR has consolidated the old OSW from six down to three divisions: Materials Recovery and Waste Management Division; Resource Conservation and Sustainability Division; and, Program Implementation and Information Division (more information is available at www.epa.gov/epawaste/basicinfo.htm).
Increasing climate change concerns have forced analysis of comprehensive mitigation strategies with the result that energy recovery has evolved as a major player. Rick Brandes, chief of the ORCR’s Energy Recovery Branch, points out that there is a growing internal consensus on the role of energy recovery as a renewable resource…recognized by many as reflecting the mood of current energy/climate change legislation.
Tasked by senior management to determine what energy recovery potential from hazardous and nonhazardous secondary materials is available, Brandes’ branch found that MSW is the only materials stream that contains sufficient potential energy to be important…able perhaps to meet as much as 4% of the nation’s electrical energy demand, a recognition that is more apt to fuel the already raging fires of discord within the waste management ranks.
For a field with few institutions dating back more than 50 years—recycling in our modern sense less than half that—our practices have managed to become surprisingly well set in concrete…a situation reflecting the public’s perception of the value of the materials entering the wastestream and therefore the level of acceptable investment in dealing with it. Part of the problem lies in the disconnect between what we acknowledge as waste and the factors that lead to its creation, making it difficult to apply management costs where they actually belong. Thus a great many of them flow through to the end of the pipe. The misallocation of the costs is one thing, but the greater problem lies in the removal of the proper incentive for change. Thus, for the past decade we have found ourselves sucked into a battle with lines so firmly drawn that any chance of compromise has long since vanished. Call the antagonists what you will—buriers, burners, recyclers, converters, exporters, enviros, plunderers, realists, or moonbeams—the result for the waste management community is the same…us’s versus the them’. But with the creation of ORCR, things are about to change, with or without the permission of those who for years have considered themselves the primary stakeholders in waste management policy.
Ever since the passage of the RCRA, environmental advocates have dominated discussions on how its goals were to be interpreted and pursued to the virtual exclusion of societal considerations. But by expanding the charter to that of resource conservation and recovery, where waste management is only a piece of the pie, then, as sports announcers are fond of saying, “you have a whole new ball game.”
Whether on purpose or by accident, the switch from the OSW to the ORCR seems to me a touch of genius, effectively moving the us-versus-them contingents to the margins of debate, and in so doing opening the door to assessment of the materials-management continuum by a variety of means such as the EPA’s own Solid Waste Management Decision Support tool (http://occainfo.org/documents/SolidWasteToolformanagement.pdf).
While public health and safety will continue to lie at the core of our waste management responsibilities, if you accept the premise that the expansion of the ORCR’s focus applies to us as well, we now have a chance to provide the public and its elected representatives with a realistic appreciation of life cycle resource-management opportunities.
To further our efforts in this regard, the EPA should take the opportunity to create a mirror image of its highly successful LMOP, which, rather than arrogating to itself the mantle of omniscience, spends its energy providing services requested by its partners.
Such a program, designed as a clearinghouse for information on programs, practices, strategies, technologies, and matters affecting the efficient and effective use of resources on the front as well as the back side of the equation, would help us focus our efforts where they can do the most good, eventually allowing us to apply costs where they belong.
Author's Bio: John Trotti is the Group Editor for Forester Media.