Recyclers Need to Follow the Money

Recyclers Need to Follow the Money

Last month, if you read this column, you journeyed back in time from the 1987 Mobro garbage barge to the 2002 Carlton trash convoys, which opened up a path, like a crack in the teacup, to zero waste.                          

Not the slogan. No, not the rallying war whoop to the assembled choir. But, the possible reality of zero waste, or damn close, because the new economies of diversion, which were illuminated by that trek, dovetailed with environmental imperatives.

Saying that, however, zero waste will remain just one among several alternative futures that may unfurl, unless recyclers also act strategically and follow the money.

Passion, which informed and has sustained much of zero waste’s formative years, will not be enough to get us to the goal line. Carefully planned, deliberately executed plans will be needed that connect with the cold hard realities of the marketplace. Just like recycling’s competition, landfilling, has long done so successfully—a fact I had thrown in my face back like a bucket of cold ice water in 2003.

Asked to be one of the keynoters at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Bioreactor Conference in Arlington, Va., I wound up hobnobbing with the agency’s officials, along with Waste Management Inc. (WM) executives, in the hallway outside the ballroom as we waited to enter and make our presentations. Ed Skernolis, then a WM vice president, argued that landfilling should be given more prominent attention. I retorted with great conviction that under EPA’s Integrated Waste Hierarchy—source reduction, recycling and composting—were supposed to be first. “Perhaps,” he rejoined pityingly (a look recyclers elicit too often) “but we’re cheaper!”

Indeed, being cheaper—by hook or by crook—was the overarching tactic of WM founder, and industry founder, Dean Buntrock. By the late 1980s, his attempts to monopolize the industry with collusive “property rights” deals enforced with baseball bats had fallen victim to so much bad publicity that investors had threatened to back off financing the roll-up business.

That is when Buntruck had his epiphany that the costly Subtitle D landfill rules slated for 1991 would shut down the thousands of independent dumps. Until then, those ma and pa operations had made it impossible for the waste giants to lock down control over disposal and drive small haulers out of business by charging their overflowing packers more than they charged themselves to tip. But, at the same time, he recognized that price squeezes would be of small solace if regulation also pushed disposal costs so high that customers were driven into the arms of waster’s competition, recyclers or incinerators.

Buntrock’s prescient genius was that he saw, as recyclers did not, that the new liner-based rules coming in 1991 need not increase dumping costs if the sites were made higher and deeper, 100 times larger than before, 30 times larger than the Great Pyramid at Giza (that and if landfills’ long-term liabilities were off-loaded to the taxpayer after 30 years). In that way, more and more garbage at a megafill could be piled in between essentially the same expensive bottom liners and final covers as a smaller facility, driving down the cost per ton and up the scale efficiencies (see table below).

Not only did they build outsized landfills, they went onto twist the entire fabric of EPA’s original “dry tomb” landfill standards into the diametrical opposite, wet landfills, in order to drive their costs even lower.  Instead of being kept dry in order to minimize the immediate risk of mobilizing pollutants, wet landfills dramatically flipped first principles on their head. Wet landfills recirculate leachate and delay installation of a final composite cover, which includes a geomembrane that prevents further infiltration by rainfall. This is done in order to add lots of moisture, accelerate decomposition, goose energy recovery, reduce leachate treatment expense, recover airspace and re-sell 15 percent of the original volume a second time, all the while, its proponents claimed, quickly stabilizing the site.

Another reason that the industry was desperate to dump those composite covers needed to seal the site is that, with the steep side slopes used to maximize the airspace over the same footprint, the dirt/clay liners slid off  the slippery geomembrane, as shown in the accompanying photo from the linked article.          

Had EPA responded by mandating shallower slide slopes, as several progressive states did do, the soil layer laid over the geomembrane could have stabilized in most instances. However, because less-steep slopes on the sides of a landfill necessarily reduced by more than 25 percent the overall height and airspace that the garbage could be piled, the landfill industry was loath to take the prudent course. Instead it began lobbying for a series of poorly defined “alternative” dirt only cover designs, which, fortuitously, were also needed for wet landfills to let in enough moisture.

Put aside the fact that field data demonstrates that added liquids only reach a third of the waste mass because of preferred paths of flow in tightly packed landfills, precluding any chance of early stabilization. Put aside the threat that all those added liquids creates for catastrophic landslides.  New field data ironically compiled by WM itself, has blown open the viability of wet megafills and dirt-only covers in a climate constrained world – if recyclers vigorously force the issue upon a recalcitrant EPA.

What happened was optical scanning, which is a recent technology originally developed to measure surface emissions from confined hog lots, is being adapted to measure emissions from the vaster surface of landfills. For all scanning’s limitations in controlling for confounding variables, it does reveal telling comparisons between conforming landfills on the one hand, and on the other, operators who take these sorts of huge shortcuts. It shows that the very tactics the landfill industry has exploited to drive down costs has sped up the generation of methane gas and crippled our capability to capture it.

Here along side is one of the damning figures buried deep in the WM study. Fluxes over the landfill surface of the aggressive greenhouse gas, methane, at wet landfills was observed to be 280 times greater than at dry landfills.

Even EPA has recently conceded [at p. 41787] that wet landfill operations “has a direct and significant [negative] effect on LFG emissions.” Why then do landfill operators continue to cut corners, foregoing the standard cover and dry tomb principles, which at least in the critical short term for climate tipping points, minimizes escaping landfill gas?

One contributing explanation is that EPA has so far shown an incapacity to act on this conceded fact. For in the next sentence to the last EPA acknowledges that they do not enforce their own rules: “Despite these rules [for final covers], landfill operators often leave intermediate cover in place for years or even decades and intermediate cover frequently is the only cover on the majority of the landfill surface.”

Thus, the answer is that Buntrock’s game plan is to sacrifice everything to drive down costs relative to competition from recycling and incineration, without apparent regard to the consequences on health and to the environment, and they believe that they can rely on EPA to sit back in repose and do nothing about that.

Next on the list, future scanning projects will undoubtedly demonstrate the frightful toll in greenhouse gas emissions of other fateful compromises foisted on a compliant EPA by the landfill industry. Among the other disturbing shortcuts EPA has allowed, but which scanning will out, is the allowance for removable tarps as alternative daily cover (ADC) in lieu of the 6 inches of dirt that was originally contemplated to control flies, vermin and litter. ADC saved about another 10 percent of air space, but at the cost of leaving the active cell entirely open, releasing more gas, most of the day.

Add together these industry short cuts maximizing landfill volume over the same footprint for the same investment—the 25 percent for steep side slopes, the 15 percent for recirculating leachate and the 10 percent for ADC, or 50 percent in total, which optical scanning now shows that the emperor has no clothes.

That fact also reverberates on landfill’s balance sheet. Landfill assets are twice what they really should be, and the reserves set aside for future closure costs are that much more grossly inadequate. That is because they have been amortized over an anticipated lifetime that is twice what it will turn out to be.

Together, discounted cash flow analysis suggests that the net income of a company like Waste Management, as an example, could be slashed by roughly 25 percent, and its stock price by a third, if landfills were required to be operated properly.

In the past, experience suggests that facts by themselves would be dispiritingly inadequate to attract the constructive attention of EPA when the financial interests of the waste industry they ostensibly regulate are threatened. However, the President’s March directive to EPA to dramatically reduce methane emissions, and the agency’s own concessions to these facts, opens up new opportunities for recyclers.

If they but follow the money, and seize the day.

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