After more than 30 years in the solid waste industry working for both waste management firms and environmental consultants, it is frustrating to me that our industry still has to defend the technical and operational aspects of landfill disposal of solid waste to the many critics who wish the byproducts of our society would just magically disappear. At the same time, our industry needs to take a more proactive role in turning the mantra of reduction, diversion, recycling and conversion to renewable energy into reality.
First thing’s first. Political considerations aside, landfills will always be an integral component of any comprehensive waste management strategy. Regardless of how much we recycle, compost, incinerate or otherwise process our waste, there will always be a residue that requires landfill disposal. In the 20 plus years since the implementation of RCRA Subtitle D requirements, it has been demonstrated that the modern landfill is an environmentally sound method in which to manage waste.
Local and regional economics dictate how any business operates. In New England, for instance, where landfill capacity is limited and tipping fees are high, we have seen waste to energy facilities as an economically viable alternative to landfills for decades. Regions with these same economic conditions have also seen the introduction of alternative processing and disposal technologies. Where the market dynamics don’t support the desire to be green and sustainable, this has not been the case.
Presently, market forces do not support many alternatives to landfill disposal in most areas of the United States. However, regulatory and legislative requirements to implement diversion, recycling and other alternative processing are impacting the economics in areas such as the West Coast. There are technologies, proven in Europe and other parts of the world with limited landfill capacity and high disposal costs, which can achieve these objectives but at a higher cost than landfill disposal here.
As the political and social desire to develop a green and sustainable environment increases and as increasing numbers of state and local governments and residential communities develop waste minimization and zero waste goals and strategies, the solid waste industry needs to take on the mantle of leadership. The various waste industry newsmagazines and email journals contain stories about new companies developing projects employing a variety of technologies to separate, sort and process various portions of the waste stream. The solid waste industry needs to address this challenge in the same manner it has successfully addressed the challenge of managing industrial wastes.
Driven by the need to reduce production costs in order to maintain market competitiveness, waste generators worked with solid waste management companies and consultants to minimize the quantity of waste generated, divert a large portion of the remaining waste and safely treat and dispose of the remainder. This approach meant the generator only had to deal with a single entity to manage its waste and enabled the waste management companies to operate profitably while driving a solution that ultimately reduced the overall volume of waste and the portion requiring treatment and disposal.
In the same manner, our industry – both private and public – needs to take a proactive source reduction approach with municipal and commercial waste. In order to change the public’s perception of the “garbage” industry, we need to lead the efforts to achieve a green and sustainable society. It will transform the industry from being disposal-focused to viewing the waste stream as a resource.
In the future, the entity with long-term control of the waste stream will have the technical and financial motivation to apply capital to innovative approaches. For example, single-stream MRFs have demonstrated higher recovery rates than curbside separation programs. Fewer collection trucks on the roads conserves fuel and minimizes carbon emissions. Using waste to generate clean, renewable energy reduces our reliance on fossil fuels. Diverting, recycling or processing waste extends landfill capacity.
Achieving the political and regulatory waste minimization, diversion, recovery and processing goals in an environmentally sound and cost-effective manner is a big challenge. The solid waste management industry needs to demonstrate its leadership in this effort.
Steve Menoff has more than 30 years of experience in the solid waste management industry. He is currently a vice president with Civil & Environmental Consultants Inc.
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