2001: A Waste Odyssey

Screenplay. Opening. On the soundtrack, two lower-pitched tones are followed quickly by a higher one and then by two, sustained, fanfare-like notes on the same pitch.

The scene is the building of three pyramids in Ancient Egypt. We see workers hoisting huge blocks into place with ropes. Some blocks fall and crumble. Workers throw empty oil flasks and broken brooms on the ground. Soon, this waste is so high and widespread that the workers have no room to hoist the blocks up, and carts with supplies cannot get through.

The master builder scratches his head, unable to figure out what to do. Suddenly, he hears the music again, turns, and sees a giant monolith, obviously from another planet, with the sun peering over its top. Suddenly, the earth begins to shake, workers run in panic and a huge hole forms. The master builder looks at the monolith and then at the hole and is immediately inspired, as if it is telling him what to do.

We then see the workers pushing the broken rocks and other waste into the hole. Everyone cheers in jubilation at this discovery of the first landfill. The workers go back to pulling on ropes to hoist more pyramid blocks up, and our view follows the ropes, going up and up, ascending to the sky and the stars

The opening is affectionately and obviously inspired by the movie "2001: A Space Odyssey," as is the article's title. In the style of the film, the article is a look at the future of the solid waste industry by way of a fanciful past and the present. But the future we will explore is not just the "tomorrow" future but the future of five, 10, 20 years away. This waste space odyssey will not be mired in current political machinations but instead will turn to what is possible and likely in the years to come.

And so, in the tradition of Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and Arthur Clarke, the author of "2001: A Space Odyssey," Waste Age has interviewed industry insiders to get their views on waste management's future. In the year 2060, we'll see how many we got right.

Changes not Transformative Those who have been close to the industry hesitate to suggest any great advances in technology and service. Bruce Parker, president and CEO of the Environmental Industry Associations (EIA), Washington, D.C., looks at it from a broad perspective.

"The solid waste industry is not a high-tech industry and never has been," he says. "There's something very fundamental about the industry, just like they haven't improved on the zipper for design and functionality. Historically, the most technological advances never have been very transformative [or] never truly altered the fundamental nature of the industry.

"Most changes have been the result of sophisticated, technological enhancements - electronic engines, onboard scales, sophisticated balers, routing software," he continues. "On-board scales, in particular, have been a breakthrough in that they have resulted in haulers being able to go to customers and tell them, `We're going to raise your rates, and I'm going to show you exactly why.' But these have been improvements, add-ons, rather than technological changes."

"For real change, you need some time of crisis, or legislative mandate," Parker adds, "or some big technological advance."

Paul Jenks, COO of Superior Services, West Allis, Wis., says, "The only thing that provokes change is crisis. And I don't see that happening in the solid waste industry in the next 10 to 15 years. We have abundant landfill space in the United States, and landfills still are the most economical method of waste disposal while the alternatives are more costly. I can't see North Americans paying more for waste disposal unless regulated to do this."

"As for technological breakthroughs," Parker says, "The industry has been notoriously short on R&D (research and development). In its heyday, Waste Management Inc. (WMI), Houston and the former Houston-based Browning-Ferris Industries (BFI) had the money to create water labs and experiment with truck fleets, but that all vanished when BFI was acquired and WMI went through management changes."

The Waste Management Inc. Technology Center in Geneva, Ill., had tested groundwater for WMI's 131 landfills, but when the company merged with Houston's USA Waste in 1998, the lab was put up for sale on the belief that it would be more cost-effective to contract the services.

Nevertheless, Jenks says he sees enhancements in the years ahead. "Bioreactor landfills will be very important, but that is simply an improvement on existing technology to improve landfill capacity," he says.

The effectiveness of bioreactor landfills is under study now. WMI is working with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Washington, D.C., to research and develop landfill bioreactor and biocover projects. The studies aim to determine landfill bioreactor technology efficiency and the air emissions reduction potential using biological landfill covers.

Bioreactor technology accelerates the biological decomposition of food, paper and other organic waste in a landfill by increasing its moisture content. By using these techniques, airspace in a typical landfill can be increased by at least 10 percent to 15 percent, decreasing the need for new landfills, and allowing the waste body to achieve environmental stability in less time.

"Bioreactors are very important in that they can eliminate pre- and post-closure costs, extend the life of the landfill and generate methane, which can be captured and used," Parker says.

John Skinner, executive director and CEO of the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA), Silver Spring, Md., told Waste Age, "By increasing landfill life and reducing the time and cost of post-closure care, bioreactor landfills may be the next great advance in landfill technology, which could permanently change the way landfills are designed and operated."

"They'll be larger regional landfills," Jenks says, "and so we could see technological changes in transport. Overall, though, I don't see a lot of changes in trucking. A garbage truck in 10 to 15 years will look a lot like a garbage truck today, but with some technological changes. Again, enhancements, such as devices that control hydraulics, may become more computerized. Charges may change. Consumers could get charged based on volume or weight, with a service-based system of fees. But the vehicles will remain the same."

Bruce Yakley, executive vice president and COO of Leach Co., Oshkosh, Wis., agrees that "the refuse vehicle's history is one of evolution. Rather than sudden, dramatic changes, there have been `bumps' that represent technological improvements, such as the transistor," he says. "The passenger vehicle is very different from the way it was 20 years ago - under the hood and in comfort. The refuse truck will continue to evolve, with hydraulics and global position weighing systems, so that if haulers charge by weight, they can leave an invoice in the customer's mailbox. It's hard to imagine haulers being able to `nuke' waste in 20 years - a hundred, who knows? But I do see suppliers and their customers working together on the life cycle quality cost of the product. We're just staring to get involved in this, working with our customers on the total cost of ownership to improve the durability and safety of the product."

Higher energy costs also could lead to revisiting waste incineration. "You can build and operate a landfill much more cost-effectively than a waste-to-energy operation," Superior's Jenks says. "I don't see the technology changing significantly, but it's possible the gap in costs could close. The revenue for a waste-to-energy plant is fees for energy and tip fees. If the cost of energy goes up, then revenue for energy will go up, and waste-to-energy plants would become more competitive with landfills."

EIA's Parker also says that there is new blood coming into the industry through new startups. And when the managers of startups are experienced haulers, that's not a bad thing, he says. Parker points to a Denver Post article on a one-year-old startup named Pro Disposal, which was founded by former WMI and BFI managers and based on the principles of better service at lower prices. The article begins with the story of a woman who answered a knock at her door to find it was her hauler telling her she had forgotten to put out her trash.

"Sometimes the old thing - good service - becomes re-energized and forms an important part of our future," Parker says.

Landfill Alternatives? There is little agreement on what type of crisis would be necessary for the solid waste industry to change dramatically. Legislative restrictions on moving waste across state lines certainly would be a jolt to the industry. "Short-term, that could have a big effect on costs since it changes the economic model," Jenks says.

"New Jersey, for example, is a big waste exporter and it's hard to site landfills there, so it probably would drive costs up," he continues. "Anytime there is artificial interference to a free-market, economic model, you don't gain anything long-term. It will just drive up costs short-term in states where boundaries are closed. It will force more landfills to be built in states where they can be built."

Parker is skeptical whether such a crisis would change the industry. "If there are ever restrictions on the interstate waste movements, something the EIA opposes, then new facilities will have to be built in the state or existing ones expanded. Who owns most of the facilities? The private solid waste companies. So the waste volume would be the same. There could be some serious short-term effects, especially in higher prices, and there would have to be emergency provisions while the facilities are being built or expanded. But I think it would ultimately work out to [return us] back [to] where we are."

However, Kay Martin, deputy director of public works for the county of Ventura, Calif., does not think that a crisis is necessary for change. "There was no real crisis that led to recycling. It was a false crisis, a scare about scarce landfill space, which was only true locally," she says.

Nor does Martin believe that the future will be the present with only some technological enhancements. "What's driving the potential for change is not what the drivers were 10 or 15 years ago - concern about landfill space - but the concept of sustainability and energy renewal, as well as pollution prevention. That's not pollution prevention as we tend to think of it in solid waste management, but looking at the broader spectrum of air, waste, waste and energy, a multidisciplinary regulatory environment."

This movement for change will lead to more alternatives to landfills, Martin continues. "Of the materials going to landfills, 65 percent is biomass, or various types of organics. Landfills are seen as the cornerstone of solid waste management. In August, SANDIST [Sanitation Districts of Los Angeles] bought 100 years of future disposal capacity - 1 billion tons - in the Los Angeles area [the Mesquite Landfill project in Imperial County, Calif. and the Eagle Mountain Landfill project in Riverside County] on the assumption that nothing is going to change. They plan to support megafills with rail."

Martin sees potential for new industries handling residual waste materials situated in industrial parks. "Companies can take biomass and duplicate products currently produced by oil; they can take organics and convert them to energy," she says. "Oil companies are all investing in alternative fuels."

"Now, waste managers have a huge supply of feedstock for these new industries," Martin continues. "It's just looking for the right partners and the right bottom-line."

Martin says that biofuels already are being produced from crop and crop residues, "but there's no infrastructure to make it work."

"But the waste keeps coming," she says. "It's basically a public utility. Biorefiners can collect tip fees rather than pay for feedstock. It will change the balance. I see new industries springing up in industrial parks, run by waste companies and waste processors, competing with landfills."

Martin sees the larger companies moving away from landfills and says that multinational companies currently are looking for alternatives to landfills. "It depends on the region of the country and where the investment is," she says.

Producer Responsibility Superior Services' Jenks points out that in Europe, there is more governmental regulation of solid waste management. For example, the German Packaging Ordinance places the ultimate responsibility for packaging waste on manufacturers and retailers who were required to take-back product packaging from consumers [See Waste Age January 1992; October 1992.]

However, the need for producer responsibility for waste in the United States now is greater than ever, says "Extended Producer Responsibility: A Materials Policy for the 21st Century," a September 2000 Report by New York's INFORM. The report states that the United States has nearly 5 percent of the world's population and uses more than 25 percent of the world's resources. However, the United States does not have a policy regarding producer responsibility, although eight states have passed nickel cadmium battery take-back legislation.

Individual manufacturers such as Xerox Corp. and Sony Electronics have implemented take-back and recycling programs for their products. According to a survey released as part of Raymond Communications' State Recycling Laws Update (Year-End Edition 2000), College Park, Md., the majority of state recycling managers support some form of system that would require electronics manufacturers to take back their products for recycling or disposal.

Jenks already sees the potential for some effect of European producer responsibility laws on the United States. "An interesting dynamic could happen, with a lessening volume of packaging. As we become a world economy, manufacturers will not want to create different packaging for the United States and for Europe, where there are laws governing packaging. We will see an effect from this - and are seeing one - on some waste goods, thinner packages and the like."

In perhaps the first move toward some form of take-back program, Sony Electronics launched a producer-subsidized electronic scrap recycling program in coordination with Waste Management Inc. and the Minnesota Office of Environmental Assistance in October 2000.

Jenks says, "Americans will resent regulations for regulations sake. But we will adapt to change driven by the transfer of new technology from offshore. I question, however, with the Sony program, how much of it is goodwill and how much cost benefit. If the former, it just won't last. If there is a cost-benefit, it will survive."

Jenks also sees more influence on U.S. technology and services from overseas. "Having been purchased by [Paris-based] Vivendi, we have the advantage of seeing what's happening throughout the world and evaluate technology and processes that could work in the United States. There are already some things we've seen that we feel can be brought over here."

Recycling and the Internet Jesse H. Ausubel, director for the human environment at Rockefeller University, says, "The Internet has created new markets for recycling waste materials. For example ... a stone broke the windshield of my '68 Chevy Nova, and after fruitless weeks of trying to find a replacement the old-fashioned way, I found one on the Internet in about 20 minutes ... in an Arizona junkyard. The barriers to matching buyers and sellers shrink with the Internet, and this ability to match them will grow in importance. It will drive down transaction costs - money and time."

The most detailed online exchange experience involving the solid waste industry was not a success. The Global Recycling Network, Brookhaven, N.Y., designed and operated the Chicago Board of Trade Recyclables Exchange. The project began as a bulletin board system in 1994, matching buyers and sellers, but did not facilitate online transactions.

CBOT and GRN, which started managing the site in September 1996, ended the exchange at the end of 1999 because no one was using it to complete trades. Prior to CBOT, Sefex, an electronic trading network for scrap paper brokers, was launched in the early 1990s and used subscription and transaction fees as income sources. It continues to operate at a modest level but has not secured mill participation.

When told of these slow starts, Ausubel says, "Of course, I'm thinking in terms of decades. I hate to say this for the entrepreneurs in the industry, but most things fail the first few times. In 1910, there were 1,500 auto manufacturers, and only a handful survived."

New online exchanges currently are up or are in the offing. At press time, Weyerhaeuser, Georgia-Pacific Corp. and International Paper Co. were set to launch ForestExpress.com. PaperExchange.com uses the classic catalog-exchange-auction model and seeks to provide an all-in-one market place for the pulp and paper industry. Fibermarket.com is largely dedicated to the recovered paper business.

"The Internet will change the way people [buy]," Jenks says. "We're already getting bids on the Internet, and it opens [the market] up to more people than before."

"E-Commerce will make it easier to create buyers and sellers," Parker says. "But recycled material still is a commodity that is traded worldwide, which means having to deal with foreign rates of exchange, which have a tremendous effect."

Pneumatics and Ocean Entombment Two of the more futuristic waste management concepts first broached in the 1990s are pneumatic waste collection and deep ocean entombment.

Disney World in Orlando, Fla., has a system of 15-foot-high tunnels called utilidors (for utility corridors) extending beneath the park, connecting most of its seven themed lands and providing access to cast members, delivery people, and maintenance crews.

Built into the ceiling of the utilidors is the Swedish-made automated vacuum-assisted collection (AVAC) garbage disposal system, which consists of huge pneumatic tubes that connect most areas of the park [See Waste Age, August 1993]. Waste from the areas above ground is dropped down these chutes where compressed air whisks it at speeds of up to 60 miles per hour (mph) to a central processing station behind Splash Mountain. If the system gets plugged up, cast members simply drop a rock down the chute and, at 60 mph, it clears out the clog.

A trial project using this technology, which has been in use in more than 25 countries, was launched two years ago by the Singapore Housing Board. However, in May 2000, that the trial ended because it proved to be too expensive for residential use. Per flat, its installation costs were $2,000 and monthly operating costs were $13, compared to $146 and $3 for the conventional system, according to the housing board.

"This could find an application in high-density, small geographic areas," Superior's Jenks says. "But for a broadbased application, the answer probably is `no' for the United States. Because of the land mass and distances, the infrastructure will not be available throughout the United States compared to some parts of Europe or Asia. These kinds of ideas have greater application in countries that do not have sufficient landfill space."

Ausubel warns against writing things off too quickly. "Things usually fail the first few times `round."

The idea of entombing waste, not in a landfill, but at the bottom of the ocean floor, was floated in various settings throughout much of the 1990s. In 1991, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, the main movers in the discovery of the wreck of the Titanic, proposed that capsules filled with waste be dropped in the middle of the ocean where they would then plummet with such force that when they hit the ocean's bottom, the holes made would be closed over [See Waste Age July 1991].

In answer to a question after his speech at the National Press Club late last year as to whether solid waste could be buried properly at sea, Admiral James D. Watkins (Ret.), president of the Joint Oceanographic Institute and the Ocean Drilling Program, said, "We know how, through the Ocean Drilling Program, to put a bore hole down thousands and thousands of feet below the bottom ... put in situ monitoring of that, reporting out to satellites ... to retrieve and go back into those holes and pull up whatever elements we've put down. We can do all those things. [O]ne day, maybe 10 years from now, somebody's going to say we ought to revisit the Dumping at Sea Act of 1973."

Such an application, Parker says, would be feasible only in a future where landfill capacity is low.

Closed Systems As a futurist, Ausubel believes in industrial ecology - a fusion of economics and ecology - which "asks whether Nature can teach industry ways to minimize harmful waste and maximize use of waste and ... products at the end of their lives as inputs to other processes and industry."

Looking ahead 200 years, he sees cities that are essentially closed systems, recycling most materials, including water through the use of hydrogen in place of fossil fuels.

"For example, you would first look at the functions needed and go back to materials that are abundant to serve these functions, such as clay," Ausubel says. You would upgrade traditional materials to enhance their usefulness - stones, foamed glass (glass bricks), which are easily recycled. You would literally grind up buildings and reuse them."

"We have a long way to go," he continues, "but again, this is a really old idea. The agricultural economy until the early 1800s was smart about using everything. The industrial economy, which comparatively is a juvenile, does not have a good record so far for achieving efficiency. Some industries, such as the chemical industry, are very efficient. Others have invented products with little thought about what happens to them. You want to design products to produce less waste."

For the shorter-term, Ausubel sees a reconceptualization of a number of traditional waste disposal methods. "Just take the whole question of the recycling of batteries," he says. "No good solution has been found to sort them so we can concentrate on them and deal with them. If your goal is to bury the waste, then the current concept is fine. If you want to reuse the materials, then you have to do something else. What if we re-envisioned landfills, treating them as a materials filing cabinet? If we had compartmentalized landfills, we could get back at these materials and find ways to create new products from them," he says.

"The big technological change that everyone is searching for may be the switch from coal and oil to hydrogen," Ausubel adds. "Carbon cyclorization will become a huge business."

Looking for the Future And so, the space ship continues on its journey, seeking waste solutions at warp speed, searching, perhaps, for another monolith to give it answers.

We end our trip to the future by way of the past and present with two possible scenarios (or a mixture of the two).

The first is of a waste management future in which waste vehicles look much like they do today, in which landfills are the primary waste disposal approach and there are technological "enhancements," possibly including bioreactor landfills and more computerized hydraulic controls for refuse vehicles. Waste-to-energy may appear more competitive as a waste disposal solution if energy costs continue to soar. But what could change the situation significantly is a form of crisis or a breakthrough, in which case maybe even such techniques as ocean entombment or pneumatic waste disposal could be reinvestigated.

The second future sees waste management moving steadily toward evolutionary change, with new industries developing to handle residual waste as an alternative to landfills. There would be more emphasis on producer responsibility and greater use of the Internet to facilitate recyclable and waste exchanges. Longer term, under the mantle of industrial ecology, cities will become closed systems with most materials recycled.

We began with a classy science fiction film - "2001: A Space Odyssey." We end with one that is so bad it's become cultish - "The Story of Mankind" (1957), with Ronald Colman as the spirit of humanity arguing against Vincent Price as the devil in a heavenly courtroom in which humanity is on trial. This is an appropriate ending for this article only because of the film's ending. The film concludes with the celestial judge, played by the deep-voiced Sir Cedric Hardwicke, turning to the audience and intoning, "Ladies and gentlemen, our verdict - your future - is up to you."