I stood up before the plenary session audience at last December's LMOP conference in Washington, DC, and began my remarks with the warning, "In case you don't know it, you're at war … and you're losing."
I was referring to the "zero-waste" campaign–then very successful owing to the almost total lack of opposition by proponents of integrated solid waste management–mounted by such activities as the landfill subcommittee of NRC's Policy Work Group and the Grass Roots Recycling Coalition. The offensive was characterized by what I considered to be largely indefensible "cheap shots" at landfill design and operations, and while I disliked their tactics, what concerned me more was the relish with which politicians seemed to be lapping up their agenda.
The tactic worked brilliantly for several months, facilitated in part by the genuine recognition by all involved that the highest form of waste management lies in avoidance and that, from a societal point of view, we're barely out of the starting blocks in that regard. The trouble is that the gulf dividing the visions of the proponents of the zero-waste agenda and the rest of us is broad and largely irreconcilable since one side believes that removing the means to deal with waste will force society to recycle–i.e., there need be no waste–while the other side can't conceive of such a train of thought.
The greatest strength of the zero-waste vision lies in its seductive appeal to politicians for whom the whole notion of waste is at best a pain in the tail and more likely a political liability waiting in the wings to taint careers. Face it: A hundred successes in the waste arena are no match for one failure, but not so for recycling, where swarms of politicians have launched and carried on successful careers absent any measurable benefit from their stewardship.
Bolts From the Blue
While political sentiment swayed precipitously toward the side of the zero-waste contingent, a couple of unexpected changes in direction took place. First off, recognizing its relative lack of expertise in the areas of landfill design and operations, NRC decided to refocus its efforts on recycling rather than engage in dubious battle with other waste management activities. Then USEPA's Office of Solid Waste (OSW) put forward an agenda favoring collaborative effort over didactic regulation–a dramatic change from its activities over the last decade.
At SWANA's Landfill Symposium, OSW Director Elizabeth Cotsworth announced EPA's Waste Reduction and Energy Recovery Initiative that will roll out over the next few months. It challenges businesses and organizations to take an active role in conserving natural resources. "We are looking for innovative approaches, as well as building on successful programs already in place, to increase the source reduction and recycling of wastes and the recovery of energy from wastes still generated," she explained.
Maintaining that "EPA continues to fully support the hierarchal system of reduce, reuse, and recycle," Cotsworth singled out the bioreactor concept as an area of particular interest, adding that while it does not change the philosophy, it "does look to improve our disposal option."
In coordination with states, associations, and environmental groups, OSW plans to amass information on bioreactor operation to develop direction on their application. Then she launched into the agency's Retail Initiative, requiring a recommitment on the part of the entire nation "to shoulder our responsibilities as environmental caretakers."
The heart of EPA's change, however, comes in its vision of its own role in the process. "Our regulatory work is narrower in scope, and we rely to a much greater extent on voluntary programs and information. However, our regulatory activities are primarily targeted to increase efficiency, simplify, add flexibility, and refine requirements to reflect new technologies and scientific understanding. At the same time, we are expanding our cooperative partnerships to find incentives and voluntary approaches and tools to conserve resources, as well as to facilitate compliance with waste management programs. Our commitment to strong partnerships and effective coalitions will be a key to success," Cotsworth emphasized.
If ever there was a wide-open invitation to take control of our own destiny, this is it. We already have at our disposal EPA's Decision Support Tool, which allows us to assess our options, so the challenge before us is to embrace the innovative spirit implicit in EPA's new departure and prove ourselves worthy of the task. This means all of us–whether our focus is on collection, transfer, diversion, or disposal of the materials that find their way into our hands–have an obligation to subject our activities to deep and perhaps painful scientific scrutiny … and act on the findings rather than our predispositions. If we don't step up and grab the opportunity by the horns, shame on us.
Author's Bio: John Trotti is the Group Editor for Forester Media.