The Problems with Waste

"Recycling. Ho hum. Everybody does it, but what difference does it make? That was my original reaction … How wrong I was! …Recycling has morphed into a new concept called "Zero Waste" and suddenly…’recycling’ is posing a fundamental challenge to ‘business as usual.’ Zero Waste has the potential to motivate people to change their lifestyles, demand new products, and insist that corporations and governments behave in new ways. This is a very exciting development.”

- Peter Montague, director of the Environmental Research Foundation

Solid waste is essentially garbage:  waste produced in our homes, businesses and some industrial sources.  Solid waste production in this country is growing in volume and in toxicity. More and more of our everyday products contain toxic chemicals, such as mercury or PBDEs (flame retardant chemicals), and these toxic products are combined with a plethora of other chemicals, which eventually impact public health and the environment.  There are numerous solid waste facilities in New England, including landfills, incinerators, and a growing number of transfer stations.  Many of the older facilities run by municipalities have been closed down because of environmental concerns, paving the way for the waste industry to market their “state-of-the-art” management and facilities.

We Produce Too Much Waste

In 2007, Americans threw out about 570 billion pounds of municipal solid waste.  Compared to other nations, the United States has a record of generating waste at an alarming rate.  Home to only 4% of the global population, we are responsible for more than 30% of the planet’s total waste generation.  Each American discards an average of more than 1,650 pounds of garbage every year, or approximately 4.6 pounds per person each day, nearly double the 1960 average of 2.7 pounds per day.

Municipal Solid Waste Generation Rates, 1960 - 2007

 

(U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Municipal Solid Waste Generation, Recycling and Disposal in the United States: Facts and Figures 2007. Table 3: Materials Discarded in the Municipal Waste Stream 1960 to 2007.)

We live in a time of throw-away consumerism- a time when companies are producing one time use DVDs so that consumers don’t have to deal with the “hassle” of renting and returning. The waste stream grows in volume and toxicity because corporations continue to profit by producing seemingly useless products, and they are not pressured to prioritize recycling, reuse, or substitute less toxic alternatives in their ingredients.

Our Waste Is Toxic
Due to largely to lax governmental regulation on an ever-growing chemical industry, everyday products that are used and thrown away contain more dangerous and health-affecting chemicals than ever before. More than 60,000 untested chemicals pervade the consumer products on our shelves and in our homes. Even those chemicals whose health implications are at this point clear, such as Biphenyl-A (BPA), commonly found in plastics like toys, are poorly regulated. The unprecedented toxicity of garbage exacerbates the problem that nationally we have no clear solution for dealing with waste.

Total Muncipal Solid Waste Generation, 2007: 254 Million Tons (before recycling)

(U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Municipal Solid Waste Generation, Recycling and Disposal in the United States: Facts and Figures 2007. Figure 6.)

Packaging is the largest and most rapidly growing category of solid waste. More than 30% of municipal solid waste is packaging, and 40% of that waste is plastic. Plastics never biodegrade; instead, plastic goes through a process called photodegradation, in which sunlight breaks it down into smaller and smaller pieces until only plastic dust remains. Plastic does not disappear – even as dust it persists for centuries, wreaking havoc in ecosystems. Given its lifespan, the quantity of plastic waste we throw away is deeply concerning. Plastic waste has accumulated to the point where degraded plastic pieces of the central North Pacific outweigh surface zooplankton by a factor of six to one.

Regulations Favor Special Interests
Because the waste business has become a commercial, money making venture, citizens are outmatched at the state house by industry lobbyists. Regulations, therefore, currently make it difficult for communities or states to effectively regulate waste management facilities, and difficult to devote resources to recycling or waste reduction programs.

The waste industry itself is a commercial business. Large corporations like Casella Waste Industries and Waste Management dominate all aspects of the market and benefit from operating landfills and incinerators, along with recycling facilities. Since the waste management facilities have become big businesses, the corporate need to make a profit outweighs the community’s need reduce waste and to protect health and the environment from potentially destructive waste management practices. In fact, even if a community designed and implemented a zero waste program in their own town, they would not be able to prevent waste from other municipalities or states from coming into a commercial facility in their borders.

In spite of local objections, government officials continue to work hand in hand with waste industry officials to permit massive expansions to landfills, increase waste tonnage in incineration, and develop new facilities-like trash transfer stations-to increase their profits. Governments are so pressured to find places to dispose waste that they devote very few resources to developing functional programs for recycling, and instead rely on short-sighted, quick-fix solutions. As a result, we have become reliant upon dying technologies to deal with waste. We are less creative and committed to developing new technologies to reduce waste and devoting resources to these programs. Problems with solid waste regulation include a lack of enforcement of environmental regulations at solid waste facilities by federal and state officials and a tendency of approving expansions once an initial permit has been granted. Furthermore, state and federal officials devote few resources to new solid waste programs that would reduce volume and toxicity of waste or increase recycling.

Landfills
The EPA says that all landfills eventually leak, so claims that “state of the art technology,” will protect our groundwater and our communities by waste industry representatives are never true. In addition to threats to groundwater, landfills give off potentially harmful gases, and odors will often permeate the neighborhoods. Some studies show that birth defects increase in communities surrounding landfills. Landfills are often classified by the type of waste they can accept: Municipal waste, medical waste, special waste, or hazardous waste landfills are four common types. Because even our household waste contains toxic chemicals, it is not significantly safer to live near a municipal or special waste landfill than one that accepts more toxic waste. The types of waste accepted at any particular facility are not regulated or monitored adequately by state agencies, therefore the companies often have broad discretion regarding what waste is deposited in the landfill even if the law specifies otherwise. One particular concern with landfills is the post-closure period, in which many facilities are used as base for athletic fields, playground, parking lots or other facilities after their active period is over. Post-closure uses such as this can lead to cracks in the cover, and subsequent leakage. In addition, waste industry companies are responsible for the liability for such problems for often no more than 30 years. People living near landfills suffer loss of quality of life during operation: the facilities cause horrific odor, decreased property value, and high traffic in their neighborhoods.

For more information on landfills, see our report Casella: Coming To A Community Near You?

Waste incineration is a technology that is virtually impossible to regulate. Incinerating our waste releases toxic chemicals, such as lead and mercury, from the smoke stacks, and even produces additional byproducts in the stacks at certain temperatures (dioxins and furans). Because of a constantly changing waste stream and the need to maintain very high temperatures, incinerators can rarely maintain a specific consistent combustion rate over time. They may pass a stack test one day, and be out of compliance the next day. In addition, incinerators produce toxic ash when the toxic chemicals and heavy metals in the waste concentrate in the left over waste at the bottom of the stack. This waste then has to be disposed of in a landfill. Incineration does not eliminate waste; it simply redistributes toxic chemicals into the air and produces another form of waste (ash) to be landfilled. Another problem with incineration is that fugitive emissions are often released by “tipping floors,” or the areas where the waste collects before it goes into the stack. The waste begins to decompose and releases toxic chemicals into the open air, threatening worker health and safety and impacting nearby neighborhoods. Quality of life is also impacted by incinerators, which are plagued by odors, increased truck traffic and reduced property values.

Trash Transfer Stations: Temporary holding centers and sorting centers have been developed, called transfer stations, because many states are no longer opening new landfill facilities. These centers are designed to facilitate better sorting and transport of waste. However, they often are built when they’re not needed, under poor siting conditions, construction of new stations is driven by profit, and waste is mismanaged on site.

“Tons of imported trash required to feed the Claremont incinerator have directly competed for and destroyed resources that could be reclaimed through effective reduction, diversion and reuse efforts. Incineration has consumed millions of dollars of public funds that could have supported development of safer, more effective and sustainable waste management policies."  -Jackie Elliot, activist opposing Wheelabrator incinerator in Claremont, New Hampshire         

Gasification, Pyrolysis, Plasma Arc Technologies

Gasification, pyrolysis, and plasma arc technologies are marketed by industry as a “green” method of waste management, but this is not true.  These facilities burn waste with little or no oxygen, making them very similar to traditional incinerators.  Also like incinerators, gasification facilities release ash into the air that contaminates our health and environment with toxins.  Gasification and pyrolysis are considered to be “green” because they allow energy to be produced from burning waste, instead of fossil fuels.  Burning waste, however, is not environmentally sound since toxics are still released into the air.  There are safer energy alternatives that produce energy at lower prices, such as wind and water energy.  Gasification diverts energy and resources away from cleaner energy sources and recycling efforts. 

For more information on incineration, gasification, pyrolysis, and plasma arc technologies, see An Industry Blowing Smoke: 10 Reasons Why Gasification, Pyrolysis & Plasma Incineration Are Not "Green Solutions".

The Solution to our Waste Problems: Move Towards Zero Waste

The solution to waste rests in reducing the volume and the toxicity of our garbage.  Zero Waste aims for the elimination of, rather than simply the “management” of, waste.   "Waste" is something cast off with little to no value - but many items individuals throw away have value to other people, businesses, and communities. For instance, organic "waste" is the feedstock of a commercial composting operation, which turns food, leaves, brush, and manure into compost to feed the soil at farms and residential and business landscaping projects. 

Zero Waste is not any single technology, program, or policy.  Zero Waste is a goal, a process, and a vision that shifts how we think about and use resources: it is a whole-system approach that targets a major change in the way materials flow through our economy.  It is the opposite of an end-of-pipe solution.   Instead, Zero Waste is a bold approach to waste management that looks at both the both the front end (production and design) and the back end (reuse and reprocessing) of material flow, and solutions to connect the two.  Zero Waste centers around reducing needless consumption, minimizing waste, maximizing recycling, and incentivizing the manufacturing of products that can be intentionally reused, repaired, or recycled back into the marketplace. 

Practically, common Zero Waste models include many of the following initiatives:

  • Devote resources on the state level to recycling & reuse programs, and increasing recycling incentives for companies and consumers alike. 
  • Ensure that recycling facilities are widely available and mandate recycling programs where possible (especially for institutions, businesses, etc.)
  • Create a market for recycled materials. Jobs are created for sorting materials and creating goods to re-enter the economy.
  • Require companies to produce products with minimum packaging, and phase out toxic ingredients in favor of safer alternatives.
  • Mandate manufacturer take-back provisions, to reuse components in new products.  Companies should be responsible for their waste.
  • Reduce the number of landfills and incinerators, restrict expansions, and strengthen the environmental review, compliance and ongoing monitoring at these facilities.  Strict, well- funded enforcement is absolutely necessary.
  • Provide increased citizen participation in solid waste management permitting and policy.
  • Dissolve corporate waste industry, eliminating the economic incentives for disposing of waste in an environmentally destructive way. 
  • Make the waste regulations more citizen friendly and shift the burden of proof to companies. 
  • Put in place safety provisions for workers at solid waste management facilities.

For more information on recycling, reuse, and Zero Waste see our reports Moving Towards Zero: From Waste Management to Resource Recovery, Trash or TreasurePutting Waste to Work: Jobs in Vermont's Resource Recovery Sector, An Industry Blowing Smoke: 10 Reasons Why Gasification, Pyrolysis & Plasma Incineration Are Not "Green Solutions", and Garbage and Recycling in Massachusetts Fact Sheet.