The road to WASTE ZERO

What did you get for Christmas, Kwanza, or Hanukkah? Despite the economic downturn, this holiday season is no different from any other. We buy and sell stuff. This year I browsed the shelves at Toys R Us and found more board games, toy cars, miniature kitchen sets, video game consoles, stuffed toys and remote controlled planes that I remember as a kid. Part of me wanted to take it all home–the plastic ponies and updated Scattegories games, the Star Wars action figures, and limited edition Transformers, everything–just for the fun it promised. Ah, stuff

In a May 2009 article, “Waste Not“, one of The Atlantic magazine’s authors writes that “… while American companies have ruthlessly wrung out other forms of inefficiency”, a fraction of the energy our companies waste is enough to “power all of Japan.” Although it is true that we waste vast amounts of energy in making stuff, it is big fallacy to claim that American companies have reached the pinnacle of efficiency in resource management. Just take a look through a garbage can at your local mom and pop’s, at the largest of conglomerates, or after your family’s get together. 

Recology is focused on “waste zero” because there’s a long way to go before Americans can say we use our resources effectively.  For example, for every 1 ton of trash that is not recycled, an additional 71 tons of waste was created upstream through extracting raw materials, manufacturing, and distributing them (see Stop Trashing the Climate.)

San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom recently wrote that “[i]ncreasingly, local and state governments are adopting ‘zero waste’ goals to counter the real dangers of climate change and worldwide resource depletion. But what does ‘zero waste’ mean? Simply put, it means nothing goes to landfill.” Mayor Newsom is right–instead of relying solely on new technology to solve everything, “reuse, recycling and composting make the most of our resources and create good, green jobs a long the way“.  Recycling reduces our need for extracting raw materials, reduces the energy we need to manufacture new products, and avoids generating greenhouse gases from transportation and manufacturing. Composting on a large scale replenishes the agricultural land we depend on for our food supply. According to the Institute for Local Self Reliance, each additional 10,000 tons of materials recycled equals 35 new jobs.

So why don’t we just burn the Barbie doll boxes, the plastic baggies for our iPhone components, and all of that wrapping paper? Incineration is often touted as a “green alternative energy solution” by burning landfill-bound material and using the heat to generate energy. Clearly though, incineration technologies don’t solve our resource or energy problems. Generating energy from trash does not provide the growing world population with the manufacturing materials needed to meet the growing demand for more products.

It also does not provide a sustainable source of energy, because the trash needed for an incinerator to generate energy will eventually run out, just like the natural resources that make up the products we buy and sell. As Newsome writes, “…when we burn recyclables, we capture only a small amount of energy compared to all the upstream energy used to make those products… It also leaves behind toxic ash, slag and air emissions, including putting a lot of carbon into the atmosphere.”

But “waste zero” is not “zero waste”. We know that we can’t prevent everything from being buried at the landfill or burned–at least not yet. Why is that? Because:

  • Today’s products are not all recyclable. Manufacturers have to take responsibility for making things that we can fully recycle again and again.
  • We don’t recycle enough. People need to demand recycling programs in cities where there are none. 
  • Changing our behavior is hard. Our habits as consumers have to expand beyond the low-cost, convenience training we’ve gotten through years of advertising. We should be buying more products made with recycled content.

So, what do we do on this road to waste zero? We make the most of what we have. One simple example can be found at the Recology Ostrom Road Landfill. The landfill has been collecting the methane gas to generate power. Methane gas is produced as organic material in the landfill decomposes. The landfill gas-to-energy plant generates 1.6 megawatts per hour, enough energy for 1,500 homes. Recology’s solar-powered leachate system also collects the liquid and gas that gather at the bottom of the landfill to capture additional methane.

Recology is already the leader in recycling and composting, but as one Recology General Manager said, the Ostrom Road Landfill project is “just another way we are taking technology and benefiting the environment.”

One Response to “The road to WASTE ZERO

  • First of all, great looking site you have here and great post too. I would like to keep up with your posts but having problem subscribing to your rss.

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