In my posting of September 21, I explained that in response to an invitation to participate in a roundtable comprising waste and recycling editors at the Resource Recycling Conference at the San Antonio Marriott on October 26–27, I’ve decided to present some of the questions we will be addressing, along with my first-flush responses, followed with suggestions (occasionally scoldings) of others from whom I’ve sought help. Round II followed a week later.
After a week’s hiatus while I was in New Orleans at WEFTEC, Round III continued the process, looking into Zero Waste in response to which I received a number of e-mails, a couple of which I would like to share before going on to Round IV.
Round III Comment #1: With others, I've been running a near-zero waste business for thirty years. We get closer to the ideal every year. I know lots of materials recovery businesses that are close to zero waste now.
I'd like to quote about goals from a book I was using to figure out next steps back when our management realized that our business model was working and we had a future. Here's the book's point, in a nutshell: "A crucial aspect of purpose is that it's always worked toward, but never fully achieved...." After I read this book, called Beyond Entrepreneurship, I decided the company's mission should be "to end the age of waste". Now we print that slogan on all of our receipts, so it's part of our branding.
At Urban Ore we use site design as a partial replacement for machinery. Labor fills the void left by lack of machinery: That's my department as a sociologist. At least in this instance, we're proof that materials engineering and social engineering can get along very well for fun and profit.
As for the marketplace, we're in it, on it, every day. I swim in it. We follow commonly accepted rules of trade, such as collecting sales taxes. There is almost no compulsion, no Stalinist bureaucracy. We open up; business happens; we close. Three-hundred and sixty days a year. The few compulsions are things like ordinances requiring builders to show proof that they "recycled" 50%. Or regulations telling us how to handle regulated materials. These bring in some interesting new business for a while, but then they just blend in and become part of the marketplace. This systemic change in material handling is one of the drivers of site redesign.
Not to say we have a free market in the disposal trade as a whole. Far from it. In the big picture, most everything is weighted to favor wasting.
That locked-up waste management marketplace is nowhere more evident than in facility and contract management. The likes of us are largely excluded from design work in California; Gary Liss reports that 80% of the service agreements are written by two companies. That's why we have so many dirty MRFs.
From our perspective, the marketplace of ideas about materials handling is a closed shop. That’s nothing new, by the way. It was that way 30 years ago, too.
Urban Ore stopped trying to compete for design work on that tilted field a decade ago. Internally, we say the standard RFP process is a guarantee of only one thing: Your brain gets picked for free.
We do it, anyway, just not by RFP. I used to be a college professor, a profession I gave up voluntarily. I have to teach.
I think we need new agencies to run discard management. It's not solid waste anymore; it's resources.
(Dan Knapp, Urban Ore, Oakland, CA).
Round III Comment #2: I have to admit when first introduced to the zero waste concept a few years ago, I was completely dismissive—"that will NEVER happen, it's a joke". Like some of the other respondents I was thinking a 75% diversion rate would be pretty good. Now when I look at my own waste diversion, which is around 90%, and my neighbors in Linden Hills (a neighborhood of Minneapolis doing curbside compost collection) who average 75%–80% diversion, I realize how easy it would be to get to 95+% if we had some good plastic recycling markets or required producers to use only acceptable recyclable plastics. I'm inspired by San Francisco—see the [article] showing that a zero waste goal is NOT a joke or impossible, and certainly not 20 years off—they're really doing it, and other cities should be able to as well. And we can do it without sorting into 34 categories like they do in zero waste Kamikatsu, Japan.
I think the reason why many zero waste proponents are anti-WTE is that the whole driver for WTE is that you NEED waste. There's no incentive for reducing waste, otherwise multimillion dollar facilities would sit empty. And for best BTUs it needs to be plastics, not food, which is why if you want to make energy anaerobic digestion makes sense because there will always be pineapple tops or apple cores, but there does not need to be single use plastic.
(Felicity Britton, Minneapolis, MN)
Now it’s on to Round IV.
Question 4: Some communities and several states are looking to ban certain products, with plastics bags and polystyrene packaging being common targets. Do you have a comment?
My Response: Look for market-driven choices that offer positive benefits…societal as well as environmental.
Response #1: Whenever a government bans something, the law of unintended consequences comes into play. Governments have no ability to predict the unintended consequences. Our society has tried all sorts of bans without much success…sex, alcohol, drugs of all sorts, tax avoidance, work avoidance, etc. There are better market-oriented solutions that will cost much less in the long run.
Response #2: Material or product bans without existing recycling markets only solves one problem but creates another.
Response #3: Bans can cause more problems than they solve.
Response #4: There are greater efficiencies available in market dynamics than through regulation. Regulation is not only inefficient, but often ineffective, or worse still, inimical to the purpose toward which it is directed.
Ok, it’s your turn. What are your thoughts on product bans? Have you seen their successful application? What about unintended consequences? Please post a comment below or drop me an e-mail at email@example.com.