Differing Measures Of Success

The issues of flow control and disposal methods can be compared to throwing a rock into a pond and creating concentric ripples. The rock changes the level of the water, the flow of currents and the topography. In the end, the pond looks different.

The highest goal of almost all companies is to provide the best possible service at the least possible cost. Along the way, budgets are cut, disposal sites close, flow control laws are enacted, political directions change and priorities are shifted. A decision made in one set of circumstances later can become a disaster.

When setting goals, sensible people prioritize them. When we achieve a lower priority goal, we diminish the possibility of achieving a more important goal.

Imagine, for example, a town faced with dwindling landfill space. It chooses a trash-to-energy plant - a more expensive option, but it recycles the trash into energy, handles the entire waste flow and solves the town's disposal needs.

Other cities have dwindling landfills; some blame it on the fact that they receive solid waste from other states where there are not enough disposal facilities. To try to control the distribution of garbage, legislation is enacted at various government levels. In addition, a statewide policy requires the recycling of 50 percent of the waste stream.

A recycling policy reduces the amount of disposed waste. To many people that reduction means success, but to a town with a trash-to-energy plant under contract to provide a guaranteed amount of trash, it is a disaster. Suddenly the agreed amount of waste needed for burning has been removed.

For lawyers, this is nirvana.

Less waste also means fewer recyclables, cheaper landfill fees, decreased need for trucks, containers, collectors and all the subsidiary jobs that support the waste industry. This is not to imply that any of these results are good or bad, just that they change things beyond what might have been intended.

Which brings us to disposal methods. Every so often we "rediscover" the effectiveness of one method over others, but only the technology changes - not the methods. When the pile gets too high, the smell too strong or the vectors too numerous, we either bury it or burn it, which annoys the folks who have been making a living scavenging and salvaging it. (In wealthy countries, the gentry refer to scavenging and salvaging as recycling.)

The politically correct term for recycling and burning for energy production is "resource recovery." Burying is referred to as "landfilling" and if it doesn't drain into your swimming pool, it is called "sanitary landfilling."

As conditions shift, the emphasis on the effectiveness of one method over another shifts. It would seem sensible to use a variety of disposal methods, since they all have unique advantages and disadvantages.

This is called operation-oriented thinking. When your job is to dispose of solid waste on a daily basis, you are driven by the all-too-realistic concern that unforeseen, uncontrollable situations - political decisions, natural disasters, contractual or equipment failures, public protests, - can leave you with nowhere to take that mountain of trash headed in your direction.

Regardless of the cause, the result of not collecting or disposing of the trash for even one day places the blame on you for not having a contingency plan in place.

Most operations prefer having as many places to go with trash as possible, which usually means having multiple contracts with as many disposal facilities as possible. Local residents have different perspectives and priorities.

Those living in the shadow of landfills and resource recovery facilities feel they are being singled out to bear the brunt of the disposal problems. They want disposal and recycling to take place in someone else's backyard - a feeling that goes double for their elected officials. Here the pressure is to restrict disposal options.

Proponents of different disposal methods, including advocacy groups, protest groups and bureaucrats, often have tunnel vision. As if any admission that another point of view might have as much validity as yours is blasphemy. The object becomes winning, not finding the best path.

My point is not to advocate a particular disposal method; nor am I against change, advocacy groups, protest or changing circumstances. It is simply to remind us that putting something in or taking something out of the pond not only creates ripples, but also permanently alters the pond.

Therefore we should reflect on our overall goals and the ramifications of tossing that stone.