October 1, 2011

3 Min Read
Circular File: Magic Bullets

Something about garbage seems to attract “magic bullets” — the belief that if we just adopt one technology or idea, our trash problems will go away. Sometimes this manifests itself as a miraculous machine that can convert all garbage into energy or recyclables or both at the same time. Sometimes it is a policy that promises the same wonderful (if improbable) results.

Back in 1976, I had my introduction to magic bullets. I was attending my first staff meeting at EPA’s Resource Recovery Division. We were being briefed on the status of the Baltimore pyrolysis project, an EPA-funded demonstration project of a new technology to convert garbage into energy. We were given a list of “go, no-go” issues with the then operating facility. If the answer to any of these was “no,” the project was over. I didn’t know much about garbage back then, but by the time we got to the sixth issue, I knew EPA had a turkey on its hands.

To be fair to pyrolysis advocates, the Baltimore facility used a mixture of technologies. Who knows, maybe pyrolysis really can turn garbage into gold, or at least into energy. But the challenge for these technologies lies in their ability to manage the transition from lab experiments or a ten-ton-per-day pilot project to a real world facility that can handle 1,000 to 2,000 tons of America’s trash on a daily basis. When I read press releases about the latest wonder technology, I notice they never refer to successfully operating, commercial scale facilities.

On the policy side, flow control is touted as the surefire way to guarantee a disposal facility will get enough trash to cover its costs. Yet the economic downturn, increased recycling and the decline of paper in the waste stream have shown that a government dictate can’t guarantee that people will make enough trash.

Moreover, as EPA has pointed out, flow control is not necessary for environmental protection or increased recycling. The current attempts by several flow control authorities to guarantee tonnage by stopping recycling or somehow controlling it show the failure of their policy.

Product stewardship or extended producer responsibility is the latest magic bullet. Under this theory, if manufacturers are responsible for the end-of-life management of their products, they will design greener products, which will result in lower solid waste management costs for the public sector. Thirty-two states have product stewardship laws. The most successful cover mercury-containing products such as thermostat switches and automobile switches. Manufacturers have established national programs to collect and recycle these products.

Electronic products are subject to these laws in 25 states. Their requirements vary widely and many programs are too new to assess their effectiveness. However, California’s advanced recycling fee for electronic products has been highly successful. That state’s approach requires a visible recycling fee that is used to cover the cost of collecting and processing electronic products. Because it does not require manufacturer responsibility, product stewardship advocates do not support it.

We need to stop looking for a magic bullet to solve our garbage and recycling problems. Instead we need to embrace a diversity of options. Technologies need to work before their promoters declare success. Failed policies should be quietly abandoned. And what works for thermostats may not work for food waste. We will be successful with a wide array of approaches, patience and the understanding that Rome was not recycled in a day.

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