No Can Is An Island

Back in the mid-80s, I had a discussion with Bill Wolpin, World Wastes publisher and editor, about refuse as a system.

We postulated that waste began in the product design stage, continued its life until discarded for collection and then was processed (incinerated, composted or recycled) and disposed in landfills.

We saw this system as an interrelated whole, not a disjointed collection of individual processes. Then, many considered each component separate and worse, al-terable without impacting the others.

While that view is becoming the minority, even those who know better sometimes seem to forget it in the heat of advocacy for one factor or the other.

If a product manufacturer is in-duced to reduce the amount of packaging, that is viewed as a benefit because it reduces the amount of solid waste produced.

Less packaging, however, requires less wood pulp, fewer trees and mills and less transportation. The number of refuse containers would be reduced along with the people who produce, sell and transport them. Furthermore, we wouldn't need the raw materials suppliers and the machinery required to manufacturer the containers.

But does this mean that packaging reduction is a bad idea? Not at all. This example is simply a remin-der that there are unexpected and unwanted side effects to packaging reduction.

Set clear goals to be the endpoints of all your endeavors. Check all subsequent ideas against whether or not they will further the achievement of those goals. Deter-mine if those effects will create unwanted deviations, or an unpalatable situation. If the plan doesn't bring you closer to where you want to be, or if the side effects are too unpleasant, formulate a different plan.

For example, let's say you want to automate the residential collection in your community in order to reach its goals of being clean, environmentally sensitive, socially compassionate and fiscally prudent.

Beyond the positive effects of lower injury, equipment and personnel requirements, how would these goals be affected? It may put people out of work and require costly equipment and containers.

First, all waste will have to be inside the container and larger and overflow wastes will have to be collected in another manner. This requires citizens to plan their purchasing, since packaging fills the limited disposal space. This might lead to another option such as the one in Germany where retailers are re-sponsible for their products' packaging disposal.

Public education may be required to offer suggestions in waste reduction techniques, composting plant wastes, purchasing decisions that avoid excess packaging and reusing product containers. A separate collection of bulky items may be instituted on a fee basis to discourage its use as well as defray costs.

Automation would add impetus to re-cycling because, as more garbage is recycled, more space will be left in the containers. Recycling also reduces littering, as the item may be too valuable to throw away. Even though displaced workers and equipment can collect large items or operate education programs, the ramifications of auto-mating collection are enormous.

Examining how changes in a collection system will impact the other steps in solid waste generation and management presents a clear picture of how the change will meet or fail the community's goals.

While collection costs may be re-duced, businesses might have to pay more to provide packaging disposal, unemployment payments or additional collection services.

Also consider the cost of containers, the possibility of illegal dumping and whether increased recycling will affect an agreed-upon BTU level of the waste delivered to a waste-to- energy plant under contract.

Examine the effect the plan may have on all aspects of solid waste management so you can anticipate future surprises. Your credibility may also be jeopardized for not knowing who, what and why other areas of waste management will be affected.

It is always more exciting to hear about the bells and whistles of a piece of equipment than to investigate the need for that type of equipment. It is easier to understand why a particular type of operation is more attractive than a competing operation, although it is time consuming and less exciting to gain familiarity with the way your solid waste system functions in all aspects.

It takes effort to research the changes new equipment or operations will have on your system. But in the long run, seeing the bigger picture allows you to observe the elements in their proper perspective.

Ideally, this extra effort will put you in better control of your entire solid waste system.