Just to throw something out to jump-start the discussion, I’m going to propose that every dollar carries with it a 20-cent environmental burden as a function of the creation of its assumed value, but I wouldn’t argue with estimates of either half or double the amount. The point I want to establish is that of the baggage itself—we’ll save haggling the amount for later.
What brought this line of thinking to the fore once again was a recent conference on sustainability, hosted by APWA, in which presenter after presenter proved to me that frontline public works people know what the term means and what’s involved in its delivery at the municipal level This is in sharp contrast with what I see at the public policy level, where the creation of a committee is deemed to handle the civic responsibility.
Sustainability where some semblance of a stable environment is concerned is one thing, but in the present context, where the worldwide growth both in population and productivity is proceeding exponentially, it is quite another. While indeed I think we are obliged to do our part in lessening our burden on limited resources as effectively and efficiently as possible, it is important that we weigh carefully what measures are meaningful within this context and which are in fact counterproductive.
Conversion and Recycling: Friends or Foes?
This is a question many have asked, particularly over the past decade as the concern for energy resources again reared its ugly head. Given the opposition to WTE, those favoring the development of alternative practices to accompany recycling efforts have looked at a variety of waste conversion technologies (CTs) to carry them toward the goal of greater diversion rates. The effort has been laborious, painful, and fraught with failure on both the technological and political side, but in the past several years we’ve witnessed forward movement on both fronts.
After decades marked by inadequately funded research and development programs, a number of CTs are reaching the commercialization stage. At the same time, the political climate has changed with the emerging recognition that markets have matured, thanks to the diligence of those involved in the success of recycling programs.
The largest boost, however, has come from the marketplace, where fuel prices have risen to reflect both the realities of international politics and supply-and-demand driven by the emergence of a truly global economy. With the cost of feedstock more than covered by typical tip fees, the appearance of governmental incentives to reduce dependence on foreign resources, an improving price-competitive situation, the ability to preserve landfill airspace at the outset, and the opportunity to drive diversion into the upper third of the wastestream all serve to render opposition to CTs an increasingly untenable political position.
Carbon, Productivity, and Efficiency
There’s an argument against energy from waste that says that, by prohibiting it, there will be less energy for us to use. I don’t buy it, since energy, productivity, and population are inextricably linked and, therefore, we’re going to employ the energy it takes to achieve the productivity necessary to maintain whatever population or population growth rate we’re hoping to sustain.
We in the waste industry are not in business to decide how much population the planet can hold or how much industry should be allowed to provide for it. We’re not in a position to affect the productivity or the efficient use of resources on the front end of the materials equation. What we can and must do, however, is become as efficient and productive in the management of materials on our side of that equation by subjecting all of our diversion practices to critical and honest scrutiny. If we do so, it will lead us to the balance point between recycling and conversion.