Waste Wise

Waste Wise: Speaking Bluntly

"A plan to be in the landfill business in 30 years is a plan to be out of business."

That somewhat blunt assessment was offered by the University of Wisconsin’s Craig Benson, Ph.D., the keynote speaker at the well-attended 2012 Global Waste Management Symposium. A top researcher in the solid waste field, Benson arrived to the symposium on the heels of his induction into the National Academy of Engineering, one of the field’s top honors. The quote above was Benson’s opening comment and stirred some discussion at the symposium, especially given Benson’s long track record as a landfill researcher.

Benson noted that a rapidly growing global economy combined with a population set to nearly double worldwide (from 7 billion to 12 billion) by 2100 will create significant constraints on energy and resource availability while also increasing demands on the environment. Although he noted the United States is predicted to grow, it will be significantly outpaced by China and India over the next 20 years. He noted the rest of the world wants what the average U.S. citizen has: a house, a car and a cellular phone, but that level of worldwide consumption means there are not enough resources to go around if waste continues to be handled in the same old way.

It was noted that exponentially increasing demand for raw materials from outside the United States along with U.S. command of such markets diminishing over time suggests that we as a nation must learn to manage our waste, not as a material disposal operation, but rather moving toward a paradigm of energy and resource management. Benson noted such a paradigm shift was absolutely critical if the United States hoped to ensure the same quality of life for its citizens, sharing five strategies that would make the U.S. waste management infrastructure more sustainable:

  1. Make creating maximum value from resources in the waste stream a priority.
  2. Extract energy (or reduce energy waste) to the maximum extent practical.
  3. Recover materials that can be recycled or repurposed as much as possible.
  4. Convert materials that cannot be recycled or repurposed.
  5. Minimize waste, maximize value.

However, Benson noted that the current way in which alternatives are assessed to determine whether or not they contribute to sustainability is flawed because a lot of the current thinking is driven by marketing or insufficient evaluation. He called for more quantitative assessments to compare different options so that clear decisions could be made and noted that in many cases what appears “green” may in fact be “brown” and what is brown may be green. This point was illustrated by noting how the university was fully supportive of composting food wastes on campus despite the fact that a quantitative assessment showed composting to have a worse carbon footprint, higher NOx/SOx emissions and greater energy consumption compared to anaerobic digestion and landfill gas-to-energy systems.

Benson acknowledged that embracing this way of thinking requires the economic model be strongly coupled to solid waste management options and that, in some cases, state and federal policies could help overcome economic or operational barriers that keep behaviors focused on non-sustainable options. Still, he noted that historically policy in this area has been counterproductive.

Ultimately, Benson surmised that if the United States was to remain competitive and viable in a world where it was no longer the largest player then such paradigm shifts need to be embraced and we, as a country, need to come to the realization that while our country has been the most prominent economic superpower for the last 50 years, we likely won’t be for the next 50 and this will require us as nation and as an industry to make adjustments to preserve our quality of life.

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