Dealing With Zero Waste
Is it a waste management challenge, or is it a public policy issue?
Yes. Zero waste is not a religion. Zero waste is a movement. It has moved from west to east, from grass roots to establishment, and from radical Earth First tactics to public policy implementation. Some in our industry, however, do not feel positive about the emergence of this concept of zero waste. Nationally as well as locally, north and south, east and even in the west, early solid waste conferences had members privately chiding the notion of zero waste. The title “zero waste,” many said, set the movement up like a Tina Fey straight line for immediate ridicule. The title implies perfection, and, as any baseball fan will tell you, perfection has happened only 20 times and nothing else could possibly come as close to that goal of goals, the transcendence of human fallibility, as the Perfect Game.
The Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA), on the other hand, is the organization that represents the mainstream of the public solid waste professionals in this country and abroad. SWANA promotes professional management practices in the field of solid waste, and there is still a long way to go in this endeavor. As far as zero waste is concerned, SWANA has offered sustainable and zero waste sessions at its numerous conferences but has never organized a sizable gathering on this topic—until now. SWANA devoted a full conference to the concept of zero waste at its Thinking Outside the Blue Box: the Road to Zero Waste this February in Los Angeles. (As a point of full disclosure, the reader should be aware that the author helped organize the conference.)
Indeed, there are many issues to be worked out between the zero waste movement and the mainstream in our profession. But there is no doubt that many of SWANA’s members are increasingly going to have to consider the ramifications of zero waste in their planning and management strategies. Where, for instance, do conversion technologies fit in zero waste management strategies? What are the financial ramifications to a solid waste system with diminished waste? Will local governments be able to implement zero waste programs using 20th century bureaucratic models, or will they have to develop something new? Will the zero waste movement continue to evolve and expand or will it alienate potential supporters, shrink, and become a subset to some other ruling paradigm? There is even the topic never to be mentioned, the Voldemort element inevitable to any competing organizational movement, which group, zero waste or SWANA, will gain hegemony over the professional corps of public solid waste servants?
In his public presentations, Eric Lombardi, who has been one of the handful of people at the heart of the zero waste movement for the past twenty years and is the director of Boulder, CO’s Eco-Cycle Inc., which is a nonprofit plus 10 (the amount of profit) organization that has 60 employees processing 57,000 tons a year through its materials recovery facility (MRF), makes a point to say that zero waste is “an intense, high-quality, all-encompassing policy for dealing with social issues and not an integrated solid waste management strategy.” There is a moral imperative among zero wasters that separates them from mainstream solid waste professionals. The mainstream primarily focuses on the delivery of solid waste services, whereas the zero waste proponents desire to transform cultures by moving them from consumerism to sustainability.
Many people make the mistake of describing the zero waste movement as simply recycling in a new suit when, at its heart, it is about the totality of the world’s resources and their allocation. We are at a critical time, they believe, because the world cannot sustain humanity’s sheer numbers and consumption. Richard Anthony, along with Lombardi, has helped to spearhead the national strategy for zero waste and states this in a more personal manner: “We don’t want to apologize for polluting water, air and/or wasting resources for our children.” In 2008, Global Footprint Network published a graph (Figure 1) which represents its understanding of human consumption of resources as calculated through their studies of resource consumption in 201 countries. This graph illustrates the belief that humans are consuming a third more of the earth’s capacity than the planet is capable of sustaining. We, in other words, are running a resource deficit that cannot be sustained. It would be, however, a mistake to believe that the folks at SWANA do not believe that they, too, are helping to move toward sustainability, but it is also true that they are primarily focused on end-use services, a critical difference between the two camps.
Perhaps there is no place better to find more heat than light between these two camps than on the topic of waste to energy. In nearly every description of zero waste in this country, one will find that zero waste prohibits incineration even if it were to create energy. The definition of zero waste created by the Zero Waste International Alliance, www.zwia.org, states the following: “Zero waste is a goal that is ethical, economical, efficient, and visionary, to guide people in changing their lifestyles and practices to emulate sustainable natural cycles, where all discarded materials are designed to become resources for others to use.
“Zero waste means designing and managing products and processes to systematically avoid and eliminate the volume and toxicity of waste and materials, conserve and recover all resources, and not burn or bury them.
“Implementing zero waste will eliminate all discharges to land, water, or air that are a threat to planetary, human, animal, or plant health.”
Many of the zero wasters are technologically suspicious and remember watching reports of large corporations dumping toxics illegally into the environment. The first generation of WTE facilities did have their problems, proponents of WTE facilities argue, but the ones operating now are safe. Much of the science seems to support this, as detailed in SWANA’s “Waste-To-Energy As A Green Solid Waste Management Option For Non-Recycled Waste,” published in 2009.
If one is predisposed to questioning the soundness of these technologies and the science reviewing them, then the current investigation by Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley into the allegations that managers of the 35-year-old Wheelabrator Saugus WTE plant knowingly released toxic chemicals into the environment certainly would give them pause. Filed in Essex Superior Court on behalf of 15 cities and towns that contract with the WTE facility, the suit alleges that Wheelabrator Technologies regularly mishandled such items as toxic ash and wastewater generated from the incineration process, while lacking the proper use of air-pollution equipment and releasing excess wastewater improperly. The investigation has not been completed and no ruling has been made, but the stories out of the Boston Globe fit nicely with the mindset that WTE facilities are dangerous to human health and therefore qualitatively different than other forms of high temperature processing.
The burning of resources one time to produce energy falls short of the higher goal of zero waste, which is to “conserve and recover all resources.” Proponents of WTE facilities point out several things. WTE and recycling are compatible. Jurisdictions that operate WTE facilities in this country, on the whole, recycle more than communities that do not. Studies performed by Jonathan Kiser in the 1990s and by Eileen Berenyi in 2009 support a consistent fact that jurisdictions with WTE “have an aggregate recycling rate at least 5 percentage points above the national average.”
Jeremy O’Brien, SWANA’s director of applied research, says, “WTE reduces greenhouse gas [emissions] significantly by avoiding the combustion of fossil fuels, recycling additional metals not targeted in curbside programs, and avoiding landfill gas emissions.” O’Brien makes the point that many of the people who oppose WTE are, in fact, proponents of other conversion technologies, such as composting, anaerobic digestion, and gasification. “I don’t see,” O’Brien says, “any difference between these conversion systems and WTE systems, in that both destroy the original properties of many of the materials being processed.”
Rick Brandes, a former USEPA official who is now a consultant (“EPA-free for a year,” as he says) laments that the US expends “energy to create commodities and then throws over 60% of it into a landfill” each year. The US, he says, is “very far away from a zero waste system” and “landfills the most MSW in the world….despite the conservation and waste elimination goals of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act” (RCRA) of 1976. Considering the sheer volume of our nation’s trash, Brandes suggests, we should give more emphasis to diverting this volume away from the landfills to something that “provides a significant and positive carbon savings; provides partially renewable energy that can qualify for state renewable standards portfolios…without the need for extensive new transmission lines; more quickly reduces landfilling to the lowest possible level and extends the lives of existing landfills by 80% to 90%; replaces energy from fossil fuels thereby contributes to the reduction of environmental impacts from mining.”
Looking at how the others in the international community of waste are doing with the intention of keeping as much out of the landfill as possible, Brandes turned to Columbia University’s Earth Engineering Center’s “Sustainable Waste Management Ladder,” which ranks countries waste management system by the amount that is landfilled. Climbing the ladder, Brandes says, one sees that the countries that landfill the least have done so by a combination of recycling and WTE.
Another argument falls in line with many non-zero wasters but with a twist. Lombardi says WTEs are “extremely expensive … and are built large in an attempt to lower their operating costs and generate large revenues to pay back the big investment made to build them.” This line of reasoning suggests that WTEs must be fed larger and larger amounts of waste to sustain their costly habit. They are, in other words, waste strategies that are “too big to fail.”
Lombardi’s questioning of the financial concerns of WTEs is certainly not a complaint limited to those within the zero waste movement. Many members of SWANA can be heard questioning the financial feasibility of WTE given competing inexpensive landfill costs in the United States. A capital intensive and financially leveraged WTE must certainly maintain a level of trash to burn so as to pay the bills. Yet there are examples of solid waste systems using WTE to generate electricity while improving both their financial outlook and diversion numbers.
Marion County’s Environmental Services in Oregon is one such solid waste jurisdiction using a WTE and has the highest diversion rate (57%) in the state of Oregon, a state that prides itself on counting real tons and not abstractions based on assumptions calculated with a three-dimensional abacus plus bonus points. The county’s long-term objective has been to develop a solid waste “system that is environmentally sound, technologically feasible, cost-effective, locally controlled, and publicly acceptable—and that provides for an overall reduction in long-term per capita waste generation and toxicity.” The county built its WTE facility in 1986 and has sent approximately 185,000 of its annual 500,000 tons of waste generated to the WTE to be converted to electricity and sold. “When we built the facility,” says Bill Worcester who is its director of solid waste for the county, “it did drive up the tipping fee from virtually nothing to $67 per ton, but the facility’s debt was paid of in October of 2008, the tipping fee did not increase since we opened the WTE, competing landfills in the area now have similar tip fees, and our facility is paid for.” The Marion County WTE did not become a smoking Leviathan, demanding to be fed ever more trash, sucking the life force from progressive programs, but, rather, a consistent consumer of set tons generating electricity and revenue while progressive recycling and other diversion tactics in the county grew between 1986 to present, becoming the recycling flag ship of the state. The county believes it is “working along the path toward zero waste and searching new ways to continue to push that diversion percentage up,” says Worcester.
|Figure 1. The world’s ecological footprint versus biocapacity
Both strategies, WTE and zero waste, have the same common enemy: low landfill disposal costs. Cheap landfills diminish the chances of initiating progressive activities. Marion County bit the political and financial bullet when it built the WTE and dramatically raised the tipping fees. Zero waste programs compete with landfill tip fees, which are the same obstacle to making a WTE financially feasible. This competition with cheap disposal rates, Lombardi says, is a failure of the market to adequately account for the full cost of our discarding habits. Lombardi believes this is “dishonest economics” because it does not take into full account the long-term costs of emissions, greenhouse gases, and “ecosystem destruction from virgin resource extraction, compared to using recycled feedstock.” Since the market has failed, Lombardi believes, the pricing of these services must be a social issue, because we need to look after what is best for society in the long run. This appears to be the same reasoning reached by the leaders in Marion County back in 1986 when they decided to build a WTE facility.
Will the zero waste camp and SWANA come to an agreement on the concept of WTE? They will not if both sides continue to see the other as monolithic in their positions. In the United Kingdom there are two zero waste organizations that are separated on exactly this issue. One is led by Mal Williams who is a founding member of the Zero Waste International Alliance Planning Group and has worked with Lombardi and Anthony to promote zero waste ideals. Williams says, “…It is fair to say that [the zero waste movement in the UK] consisted of two distinct camps—one leading on anti-incineration and one rejecting that stance…[with] many people attending both camps.” Williams supports the notion that thermal conversion technologies are viable strategies to achieve zero waste. Ralph Ryder, however, whose personal history of seeing workers physically debilitated in 1974 from plumes emitted by a hazardous waste incinerator and was appalled by the lack of response by regulators and politicians to these problems, is the director of the Zero Waste Alliance in the UK and is opposed to WTE.
Just as in the UK, it seems reasonable to suspect that not all members of SWANA believe WTE is a viable strategy, and also probable that zero wasters are not monolithically against this technology. In 2008, the California Resource Recovery Association (CRRA) awarded the actor Ed Begley Jr. its Recycler of the Year award for all the fine education he has done on resource conservation. In his acceptance speech to approximately 800 attendees, he talked about the future and the possibility of using trash to create electricity. This author, who was in attendance, estimated that a third of the attendees applauded in support of that statement. Was this a sign that, at least conceptually, proponents of zero waste are open to thermal conversion technologies?
The financial question for many solid waste practitioners when thinking about zero waste is how does a jurisdiction fund a solid waste program when it receives nothing to bury? Zero wasters point to localities that have implemented such goals and appear to financially survive. The Del Norte Solid Waste Management Authority in the northern coastal area of California that buttresses Oregon has long been touted as one of the earliest jurisdictions to proclaim a goal of zero waste. The current tip fee in Del Norte is $120 and change for MSW and construction debris. Del Norte had found itself with a landfill that it had to close, then having to transfer the trash 120 miles up Highway 1 and across the Pacific Coastal Range of mountains to Dry Creek Landfill in White City, OR. The cost of the transportation is high, thereby creating a financial incentive to divert material.
“Zero waste made political sense,” says the director of the Del Norte Authority, Kevin Hendrik, “because it was a financial plan.” The authority contracted out the hauling and transfer station operations to a local contractor, Hambro WSG, whose manager, Wes White, says diverts “2,250 tons of material from the total tonnage (20,750) that” crosses the scales over the course of a year. Once the materials cross the scales, Hambro WSG takes ownership of them and has implemented a financial incentive plan to encourage workers of the transfer station to divert material out of the trash, thus eliminating the need to haul the material to the landfill but still getting paid by the authority for each ton that passes over the scales. The incentive is that the workers “receive a percentage of all sales of recyclables recovered after deduction of the direct expenses other than labor,” White says. The transfer station implemented an idea provided to them by a team of consultants, including Anthony, Neil Seldman, and Gary Liss, to have a price incentive to have customers separate their material at various stations at the transfer station and to have an eco-store, operated by the contractor, across the street from the transfer station to sell material back to the public for reuse. Del Norte’s situation fits nicely with a zero waste goal because of its high cost of disposal. Yet, as once can see from the numbers of tons diverted, there is much more to be done.
San Francisco’s zero waste program is well known, but its solid waste financial situation is not. It has a disposal contract based on 15 million tons of capacity or 65 years, whichever comes first, with Waste Management’s Altamont landfill in Livermore. Once that volume of material is used up, the city must negotiate a new disposal price, which it is currently doing, as it sends 1,800 tons of trash to the landfill each day. San Francisco has a financial incentive to conserve that cheaper capacity. The city is also a closed system because of a 1932 refuse collection and disposal ordinance giving a company monopoly status. This company, now called Recology (formerly NorCal, which in turn was formerly Sunset Scavenger and Golden Gate Disposal), provides the recycling and trash collection service and pays the city for the privilege. This money helps pay for the city’s environmental staff that is used to initiate the zero waste programs.
Neither San Francisco nor Del Norte have reached zero waste or are even close to doing so, but both have significant financial incentives to implement such strategies. Can the same be said for the majority of solid waste systems in our country? Attendees of the zero waste conference heard calls from a diverse group of people, from zero waste advocates to a scrap dealer, for mandated upstream and downstream actions funded by producers of goods. Funding, in other words, that comes from someplace other than the tip fee. Would such mandates mean a change to RCRA as Brandes says? Or can it be performed by individual cities legislating actions directed at producers of goods as is currently being attempted by the city of San Francisco? The funding mechanism for a real zero waste program is outside the normal bureaucratic model of our body politic.
WTE and financial support of zero waste are issues and problems that can be agreed upon or not and still the members of SWANA and zero waste movement can work together on other matters. Lombardi’s view that zero waste is something other than integrated solid waste, however, may be a gulf too far to bridge between these two camps. Robert Gedert, former executive director of the fortress of Zero Waste, CRRA, and now director of the city of Austin’s Solid Waste Services Department, puts the issue clearly: “The integrated waste management model was an attempt to integrate recycling and composting into the pre-existing structure of waste collection, thus making recycling mainstream. Zero waste moves past that, focusing on upstream, midstream and downstream waste generation. To really reach zero waste, it must be a collaborative role. Local government is the keystone to that collaboration. With local government fully involved in zero waste, the task is to bring all the stakeholders together in a unified mission, with each player a full partner. This is a radical shift for local government—solid waste departments must now view all waste haulers, all private recyclers, and all waste generators as partner at the table. This is also a radical shift for waste haulers, who view local government as competition... we all need to drop the shields of territorial warfare and move toward cooperative efforts where each player has a major role toward zero waste.”
Those who have survived through positions in local governments know that our 20th century–styled public bureaucracy is built on nothing but territorial warfare. Hired in December 2009, Gedert has been rearranging the bureaucratic deck chairs and hopefully he will find a new organizational structure to implement his city’s zero waste plan whose first phase is to begin in 2012. How does a local government implement, manage, track, and coordinate among such work tasks as upstream activities of producer responsibility, economic development using recycled material, and downstream services of handling post-consumer material while still knowing what all limbs of the body politic are doing and supposed to be doing?
When supporters of SWANA were asked about the notion that some of the zero wasters believed the integrated waste management model was not as relevant as it used to be, there was a sense that this was something they had seen before. A “new fad, same story” attitude came across in the interviews. But certainly, as the combination of pressures to cut governmental operational expenses because of decreasing government revenue and increasing concern over greenhouse gas emissions continue to build, government management will be looking for new ways to handle more services at less cost. Melding the works of a sustainability officer with an environmental planner and resource waste service provider may be the way of the future, or not. SWANA must be a part of this conversation—a conversation about the shape of public management of resource sustainability.
As the executive director of the CRRA, Gedert implemented an accreditation program for zero waste, and he hopes that CRRA will continue to take this nationwide, working through universities so those outside of California can become accredited. Begun by Rick Anthony and others in 1974, the CRRA, to paraphrase a well-known saying, is “The Greatest Recycling Show on Earth.” The CRRA devotes as much energy addressing new waste issues as the National Recycling Coalition has spent avoiding them. But the CRRA, grown from the grass roots environmental movement of California, may not work in the hollers of Virginia. SWANA started in southern California and still has vitality and energy in bringing professionalism and accountability to the field of solid waste. Many forget that in vast portions of this country there is still a struggle to bring the modern tools of our profession to collection and disposal systems. These places have many steps to go before a discussion of zero waste credibly occurs.
As the zero waste movement continues to take hold politically as it did in Austin, solid waste managers are going to have to respond in practical ways to political officials—in ways that speak to the challenges of zero waste and management of traditional downstream services and upstream realities. SWANA’s February Thinking Outside the Blue Box: the Road to Zero Waste was the first successful attempt by that organization to begin thinking about planning and management in this manner, and, hopefully, it will build upon this success by developing policy guidelines and a definition for zero waste for its members.
Author's Bio: Writer Chace Anderson is also vice president of Gershman, Brickner & Bratton Inc.