At Our Landfills: 'No Vacancy' :
Colossally Wasteful America Gradually Discovers Value in Its Garbage
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and thirty times more than the average citizen of India. Since 1950, Americans have used up more natural resources than any other generation who ever inhabited the planet.
Only a fool would not realize that this is a prescription for disaster.
Even though the problem is more profligate in the United States, it is a worldwide problem, and it is complex.
This article will deal with only the problem in the U.S.; a subsequent article will discuss the broader problem worldwide.
Less than one-quarter of our solid waste is recycled. The remainder is buried in landfills or incinerated. If we were to make recycling a high priority, we could reuse more than 70 percent of what we bury in landfills, including glass, metal, and paper. That would reduce the demands on primary natural sources of these materials and help rid the areas where the waste originated of potentially dire environmental, economic, and public health consequences.
What about burying it?
According to the EPA, a high percentage of the country’s landfills have been closed, for one of two reasons: they were filled to capacity, or they were contaminating groundwater.
(Once groundwater has been contaminated, it is prohibitively expensive, very difficult,
or sometimes impossible to clean up.)
Georges Seurat's "Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte"? Not quite. This is a photo composed entirely of discarded soda cans.
Below is a blow-up of a segment of the "painting".
As for burning it, the plus side is that it generates energy; the minus side is that toxins could be released into the atmosphere to create ash, which would require disposal in hazardous-waste landfills.
Consequently, it takes little common sense to tell us that we’re running out of landfills and landfill space, nor can we move it somewhere else. Former outlying areas around
metropolitan areas have been and are becoming bedroom communities, whose inhabitants have put up stiff opposition to expanding landfills, or to creating new landfills, even in the face of politically-induced perks. State and local officials are increasingly reluctant to accept imported waste from other states or municipalities, because they have become totally embroiled in the waste problems of their own constituencies. In 1988, there were more than 8000 landfills in the U.S. As of today, there are fewer than 1700.
The amount of waste we generate is only part of the problem. So much waste being created means that we are not using resources efficiently. If we did, we wouldn’t need to go back to natural sources for new materials nearly as much as we now do. Moreover, the management and disposal of waste in its present form is neither efficient nor clean. Waste management facilities continue to be significant polluters. Many put methane into the atmosphere, dump illegally, and pollute the air with waste incineration.
Waste as Financial Incentive
The environmental impact is only part of the mess. Waste costs money—a lot of money.
On the positive side, the cost of containing and reducing it offers a strong financial incentive to the business community. Last year, recycling companies earned over $160 billion in the United States. Similar figures apply to the disposal companies. In this economy, the financial incentives can also play a huge social role: providing jobs, often in sheltered workshops, for people trying to get back into the workplace.
At least prior to the recession, wage rates in U.S. were too high to permit manual sorting, but prices of waste material were high enough to warrant sending partially sorted waste abroad for further sorting in low wage environments (filling containers that were otherwise “deadheading” – returning empty across the Pacific). In many U.S. ports, waste product is the highest volume export product, with much of it destined to be turned into the cardboard boxes for the next wave of imports. All of this is, of course, much slowed down today.
In America, of course, the changing value of waste brings out the best and most ingenious in us. Recyclers are coming up with striking new ideas for disposing of America’s waste, from collecting and selling aluminum and tin cans, plastic, cardboard, and mixed paper, in warehouse pallet-sized amounts, to other ventures, such as removing e-waste from trashed computers and televisions and selling the copper, gold, and other materials in them.
Witness the wonder of recycling in a massive entry hangar in a large Casella Waste facility, which bursts at the seams with bottles, newspapers, glass, plastics -- the works. Trucks enter the facility, one of several in the northeastern U.S., laden with recyclables they have picked up from homes and businesses. Men in hard hats, goggles, and vests watch as magnetized sorters, chutes, and sifters sort through the huge piles of stuff.
But the process isn’t a cure-all. It can’t process glass effectively. It spits out huge amounts of mixed-color glass shards. Unfortunately, buyers want crushed glass separated by color, which, up to this point, has been impossible with the existing technology. Because of this, erstwhile big investment money still remains off the table. If an answer to this problem is found, there is big money to be made in delivering high-quality recycled glass to end users. Some companies deliver higher quality glass by getting it from municipalities that solve the problem by getting their residents and businesses to sort in advance. One of the reasons for the high demand in one-color recycled glass is that it uses 40% less energy to process than virgin glass.
Venture capitalists are increasingly getting into the act, some in a big way. Three of them, Khosla Ventures, Advanced Technology Ventures, and GreatPoint Ventures, all have put their bets on cellulosic ethanol startup Coskata in Illinois, which has set itself the goal of producing one dollar-per-gallon ethanol from landfill methane, construction debris, tires, and miscellaneous other municipal waste, using its collection of botulism-related bacteria, which feeds on the gas produced by the trash and excretes the final product, ethanol. Corn-based ethanol yields only 1.3 times the energy needed to produce it, while
trash-generated ethanol yields 7.7 times the energy, a considerable improvement in cost savings.
Coskata still faces some roadblocks, however. The recyclable materials they need and use, though conducive to the process, are hard to find and obtain in the proper form, that is, free of contamination by foods and liquids. Coskata won’t realize its full potential until this problem is solved. “You can drive a couple of cars on trash-to-energy, but it just doesn’t scale against petroleum,” says Tadeusz Patzek, an environmental engineering professor at the University of California at Berkeley in a Business Week article on recycling. “It’s like paying down the interest when society needs to address the massive principal.”
There’s Gold in Them Thar E-Wastes
E-waste, in addition to being the fastest-growing trash category, is also the most dangerous, as it seeps mercury, lead, and other heavy metals into landfill soil.
American creativity and ingenuity has inundated the country and the world with innovative, high-tech consumer and business products.
Tech-Turn, an e-recycler, got $50 million in venture capital from Catterton
Partners, a Greenwich, Connecticut private equity firm, in 2006. The company
refurbishes discarded electronic products and sells them to schools, non-profits, and poor countries, while recycling the copper, gold, and other precious materials from the units it is unable to save. They did $40 million in sales last year, and have projected $200 million in 2010.
Surprisingly, the core money to the company comes from salvaging the working computers. “We don’t look at hardware as e-waste,” Jeff Zeigler, Tech-Turn’s president, told Business Week. “An American student can reuse an executive’s laptop for maybe five years, an emerging-market customer even longer.”
It wasn’t very long ago that people would not think twice about throwing their outdated or non-functioning computers in dumpsters, but as they have learned about the realities of toxic wastes generated by these junked devices in landfills, they have been more prone to
store these assets in closets, attics, and basements. Further, with the worry over having their data stolen, it has made them even more reluctant to junk their old stuff. Over 40 states have enacted special handling laws for electronic trash. So there is a problem of too much trash and too many businesses that can use all they can get of it. Then, there is the problem of some municipalities who have laws and/or policies that don’t really deal with the realities of the problem. For several months in Manhattan, drivers were picking up color-sorted recyclable bottles and paying a premium of 7 cents a bottle for them, many of them sorted and collected by street people. They sold the bottles to a recycler for a small profit, and everyone was in a win-win situation. Then the police and the mayor stepped in, stopped the practice, and put new laws on the books which further penalized anyone picking up curbside recyclables, thus relegating the bottles in question (which Manhattan residents couldn’t be otherwise bothered to redeem) to landfills.
Another group of companies plans to build plants that would use wood chips, garbage, and crop waste to make motor fuel. Some 28 plants are now being planned, are under construction, or completed and running in a test operation.
These companies are largely underfunded, and are counting on substantial government subsidies to get off the ground. Furthermore, no one knows what the true cost of the developing technologies will be, nor are any unintended environmental consequences yet understood.
The government is making every effort to get this industry off the ground. Most of the private investment is coming from Silicon Valley, where the venture capitalists who funded the Internet revolution are optimistic about doing the same for waste-to-fuel. Venture capital in 2008 reached $612 million in this category, almost twice what it was in 2007.
Other companies plan to make ethanol from wood chips, although fuel can be made from
plastics, construction debris, forest and lawn trimmings, wheat straw, and all kinds of agricultural waste: almost any waste material that contains hydrogen, carbon, and oxygen.
The possibilities are endless, but so are the hurdles. The recycling industry is in its infancy, as are our approaches to the problems that waste poses to our future health and lifestyle. It will take a concerted effort on the part of government, the business community, and the people to work together to forge the necessary changes in how America deals with its ever-burgeoning trash and garbage, and the laissez-faire mentality
that led to the problem in the first place.
- John Burr