The change in the millennium tends to provoke would-be sages to ponder far-reaching questions. Will we produce more or less waste? Have we reached the limits of recycling? Will new technologies bring improvements? Is there hope on the horizon for solid waste management? The foolhardy who try to predict the future deserve to be proven wrong. However, at the risk of appearing imprudent, let me reflect on some of the forces and factors that will influence future trends in solid waste management, and perhaps I’ll even take a crack at some answers.
Will We Produce More or Less Waste in the Future?
EPA’s most recent data show that solid waste–generation rates continued to grow from 209 to 217 million tpy from 1996 to 1997. In fact, the per-capita generation rate also inched up from 4.3 lb. per person per day in 1996 to 4.4 lb. per person per day in 1997. What is the reason for this trend? As political analyst James Carville might put it, “It’s the economy, stupid!” Unemployment is low, people have more money to spend, and they buy more stuff. More stuff means more solid waste.
What will happen to waste-generation rates on an international basis as developing countries improve their economies and their citizens have more discretionary income to spend on goods and products? Are there forces on the horizon to slow or even reverse our materialistic, consumer goods–oriented consumption patterns? I don’t see many.
Some product substitutions and changes in product designs might attenuate increases in waste-generation rates. More widespread use of electronic communication, through e-mail and the Internet, could curb paper use and waste-paper generation. E-commerce that eliminates the middleman could match supply and demand more closely and lead to reduced inventories and fewer wasted products. New material composites that allow smaller, stronger, more durable, and lighter-weight products could affect discard rates. However, these types of changes will be driven by a quest for better, more convenient, less expensive, and easier-to-use products, not necessarily by a conservation ethic.
While we may want to strive for zero waste as a laudable goal, I think professional solid waste managers will still have plenty of raw material to work with long into the next century. Don’t give up your day jobs.
Have We Reached the Limits of Recycling?
Recycling has become a mainstream phenomenon. It is a common everyday experience for nearly 185 million Americans. There are over 12,000 recycling programs in the United States, and the national recycling rate has grown from 16% to 28% during the 1990s. This is a trend that will not stop. Even the White House is talking about recycling.
Part of recycling’s growth will be driven by states that are setting ever-higher targets for diversion of material from landfills. Communities in those states are learning how to meet those targets, and other states and communities will follow suit.
Another factor that will increase recycling rates will be the product take-back systems that will eventually make their way across the ocean from Europe and Asia. This will not occur through passage of product take-back laws in North America but, instead, through the forces of the international marketplace. Products that are designed for recycling will be marketed throughout the world, and compliance with ISO 14000 requirements will become the norm. This is most likely to affect the recycling of durable goods, such as automobiles and consumer electronic products. As a result, it will be easier to recycle these products in all countries.
To achieve higher recycling levels, we will need to make inroads on the more difficult materials to recycle: mixed paper, plastics, and commercial wastes. Most of the low-hanging fruit (newspaper, corrugated, and mixed containers) have already been picked. Increased recycling of organics through composting and anaerobic digestion also will be important. Recycling of commercial wastes presents a special problem because many local governments do not engage in or control commercial waste collection. Unless the economics improve significantly, commercial wastes will be recycled in significant quantities only if generators and haulers are required to do so.
Even though higher recycling rates will be more difficult and more costly to achieve, I expect to see more recycling, not less.
What Improvements Will New Technologies Bring?
It’s not necessary to wait for new technologies to improve our waste management practices; plenty of good technologies are already at hand. The Subtitle D requirements have produced the most environmentally sound sanitary landfills in the world. Today’s landfills are modern engineered facilities that are assets to their communities and are good neighbors. Closed landfills have been turned into parks, gardens, and golf courses.
More than 1,600 communities convert waste-to-energy (WTE) in state-of-the-art power plants equipped with the most modern advances in air-pollution control. WTE facilities provide a clean source of electricity to meet the energy needs of 1.2 million American homes and businesses.
Waste collection is increasingly becoming more professional. Well-trained drivers and certified managers and operators, with excellent safety and performance records and customer-service skills, are mainstays of the workforce. In many parts of the country, solid waste and recycling trucks are clean, attractive vehicles with ergonomic designs. New container and automated truck designs are reducing the backbreaking labor of hauling trash.
With respect to technology trends, I see two in the near future: (1) improved landfill design and operation to reduce the need for long-term care and (2) increased utilization of all forms of energy derived from solid waste.
A new, unconventional landfill management strategy is being tested in several innovative demonstration projects. It involves designing and operating a landfill as a bioreactor to achieve a more rapid degradation of wastes. This could result in a number of very significant environmental and economic benefits for landfilling, including increasing landfill life and reducing the period and costs of postclosure care. Bioreactor landfills might be the next great advancement in landfill technology. The results of this research could permanently change the way landfills are designed and operated.
An important factor that will stimulate increased interest in energy derived from solid waste is the search for new energy sources based on renewable fuels. Substantial parts of municipal wastes are renewable biofuels that, if substituted for fossil fuels, can reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. As urban areas switch to compressed natural gas–powered vehicles to reduce ozone levels, landfill gas (LFG) could be an important fuel feedstock. Programs that are put in place to deal with global warming will improve the economic feasibility of both LFG recovery and the utilization of heat and electricity from WTE plants. Many countries around the world are in the process of ratifying the Kyoto Protocol, which calls for a significant reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions by 2010. The use of solid waste–derived energy is already on a spiraling growth path in Europe; it is only a matter of time before it happens here.
Is There Hope on the Horizon?
We can face the future confidant that the integrated solid waste management systems in North America are among the best in the world. During the past decade, communities in the US and Canada have made a notable investment in upgrading their solid waste management infrastructure. No matter which aspect of integrated solid waste management you look at– reduction, recycling, landfill, WTE, composting, or collection—you will see technological innovations and management enhancements. We are not running out of disposal options, and the three R’s—reduction, recycling, and recovery—are going strong all around us. Whether measured in terms of economic efficiency or environmental protection, we are second to none.
The future is also bright with opportunities for other improvements. Full-cost accounting, pay-as-you-throw, and enterprise funds are being introduced across the country to improve the productivity and economic efficiency of solid waste services. Federal, state, and local procurement practices are being changed to give preference to products containing recycled materials. Landfills are being designed and operated as bioreactors to enhance biodegradation and reduce the requirements for long-term care. Managed competition is being used to drive both municipal and private operations to ever-increasing levels of efficiency. WTE facilities and LFG-utilization projects are positioning themselves to provide renewable-energy supplies that will be demanded by efforts to reduce global warming and deregulate the electric utility industry.
As we enter the new millennium, it is time to shed the yoke of garbage guilt, debunk the myth of the garbage crisis, and to take pride in the world-class solid waste management systems that have been put in place all over North America.