Waste Not

Waste has a bad reputation - and deservedly so. Just think of the ways we use the word "waste" in normal conversation. We describe unproductive time as a waste of time. We call a lost but well-played game a wasted effort. Unproductive land is called wasteland, and no one that I know is ever proud of being wasted.

In the waste management profession, we collect and dispose of solid waste in a manner that protects human health and the environment. Sometimes we Americans forget that garbage is a relatively benign form of pollution - far less dangerous than hazardous, radioactive or nuclear waste. Nonetheless, we know that uncontrolled disposal or burning of our trash leads to health and environmental problems. We do a dirty job, but somebody has to do it and we do it well.

At the end of this century, we can be proud that we have pretty much won the public health battle against garbage. Because of our success, we now have the luxury of challenging the concept of waste itself.

Anti-waste advocates tell us that waste is inorganic and unnatural, and that waste production is a sign of an inefficient manufacturing system. They urge a war on waste until it disappears from the face of the earth.

Think about this concept of no waste for a moment. Waste is perfectly natural and organic. In fact, making waste is a sign of life. Any human who stops producing waste is either starving to death or dead.

Certainly, waste production is a sign of a manufacturing process that is not 100 percent efficient. However, what's more important to a manufacturer is the cost of eliminating waste altogether. Under the law of diminishing returns (which not even Congress can repeal), the cost of eliminating the last 3 or 5 percent of a fac- tory's waste may be far greater than any financial or environmental benefits achieved by zero waste.

This last form of waste, wasted money, is overlooked too often in our debates over how to manage trash. I don't know of any state or federal solid waste management law that says it's OK to waste financial resources while managing trash. Yet all too often, garbage collection, recycling and disposal programs are advocated with no thought given to their cost or to competing priorities.

We should never forget that taxes and consumer dollars also need to be spent on schools, health protection, police, and other useful goods and services.

State and local governments that fund aggressive recycling programs without taking into account existing markets and realistic diversion rates, or that build landfills or incinerators without regard for the size of the available waste stream or the prices charged by competing disposal facilities are wasting money.

They are not protecting public health or the environment. We should have zero tolerance for that type of waste.