Uncovering the Challenges of Global Waste Management
“Waste is not waste,” spouts Dr. Mike Biddle, Founder of MBA Polymers, “and the first problem is to stop calling it waste; these are resources.”
As I watched this panel on the solutions of global waste, I found myself very intrigued by this quote. Thinking about this, I was brought back to the days of my childhood. This concept seemed all the more reasonable then. Indeed, discarded waste was regarded as a resource! Old Capri-Sun pouches transformed into imaginary cell phones, and wrapping paper tubes became swords—this is the kind of spirit that needs to continue in us all when we view waste. Because no longer are the uses for discarded items imaginary; today waste can be recycled, used as compost, or generated into energy. Today, waste truly is a resource.
Of course, these resources still constitute a problem across the globe as nations try to find an effective global waste management plan to directly use these resources as efficiently as possible. Obviously, there cannot be one single solution or waste plan that can be applied to every area, because the waste in every area is unique to that society’s culture. However, a scientific approach can be used to identify the best solution for a particular area. This is outlined by Jill Boughton, moderator of this panel and CEO of Waste2Worth Innovations. She proclaims that one must understand the area’s resources and the market outputs, and then configure the technology necessary to optimize these variables. This isn’t necessarily the hard part– that would be overcoming the substantial barriers that seem to lay in the way, both in the U.S. and abroad.
1. I’m Right, You’re Wrong
One barrier that is evident throughout the nation is the friction that is often present between groups of differently-minded people. Of course one would think that all global waste management experts would have the same goal, and they do, to some extent, but the fact is different people believe in different solutions– you have those who back composting, recycling, landfilling, waste-to-energy, zero-waste models– and the list goes on. Another issue with that is that some people are focused on their own personal and financial objectives and therefore tend to remain tunnel-visioned. The best work comes when experts can open up their minds to other technologies and truly mesh to find a solution that truly works for a distinct area.
2. We’re Not Going Anywhere
In the U.S. in particular, a major hindrance to incorporating new technologies into an area’s waste management plan is the fact that municipalities tend to have long term contracts with a service provider. These 10 to 20 year contracts mean that the service provider can decide how they want to handle an area’s resources, and a lot of the time (as Dave McCarthy, COO of JUM Global describes it) an “Old Guard” feel is present. There has been one way of doing things for a while, and a new project seems daunting and threatening. Of course, it does make sense why there are long-term contracts in place. The infrastructure necessary to process an area’s resources (say, a recycling plant, proper landfills, etc) is a multimillion dollar affair. The service providers want to be positive that there will be a steady feedstock into these plants to generate an economic return on such a large investment; this therefore comes with a long term contract, and unfortunately one that tends to leave little incentive for further innovation.
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3. Can’t Deal With it? Let’s Send it to China
Something else U.S. citizens should also be significantly concerned with is what Dr. Biddle deems as environmental arbitrage. The U.S. tends to recycle the materials that are easy to do such, like plastics, paper, etc., but materials that pose more of a threat (such as e-waste) we tend to trade to developing countries, like China, with less stringent environmental restrictions. Biddle equated this to the recent Apple scandal, or the case of the Nike sweatshops some years back. We as citizens became very concerned with how our products were being made, and we demanded to have them made in a safe, humane fashion. In the same sense, the “unmaking” of materials can be even more dangerous, for those working in the plants and the surrounding local ecosystems can be severely harmed if proper practices are not used. As Biddle righteously resounded, “If we care about the making of our stuff, we should care even more about unmaking of it.”
4. A Developing Problem
In developing countries, Dave McCarthy sheds some light on the main problems that come into play here. He cites that the two main issues seem to be resistance to new technology and the arduous politics involved. Many developing countries have been played by “paper technologies,” waste management tech that sounds great but didn’t even have a working demo to offer. Now, many of these same countries are weary of inviting new technology in and getting burned again. This resistance makes it difficult for new, sustainable technologies to make inroads in developing countries. The politics as well make it difficult for waste companies to work with these countries or cities, as mayors will ask for requests that would just seem unreasonable in the U.S. Then there is also the issue that in most of these countries, any resources of value will have been sorted through and picked up in the landfill already, so that what’s left may not be too viable for these technologies after all.
The Solution—Finding the Right Balance
Of course, just because there are barriers does not mean there are not solutions. Earlier I mentioned that the best waste management plans tend to come out of finding a specific solution integrating a couple of technologies that are necessary to process a certain area’s waste. The trick is finding the right balance of technologies.
One of these technologies, waste-to-energy, has much controversy surrounding it these days, mostly due to the fact that the burning of resources can lead to possible greenhouse gas emissions, as well as other harmful pollutants like mercury and lead. While countries like the U.S. have strict guidelines regulating these emissions, this unfortunately may not be the case across the globe. Still, many countries have found a way to use this technology in a helpful, healthy way. There has been much forward movement with it in Europe, for example. Nordic countries tend to use waste-to-energy solutions from post-recycled waste to generate heat for their buildings (which is a lot easier to do than generating electricity). However, the hype of waste-to-energy should not overshadow material recovery. Mr. Potocnik, European Commissioner for the Environment, took a very interesting stance when he announced that waste-to-energy plants were “stealing resources” that should have been recycled. “I know that we can and we should do better, because underneath those European figures there are six Member States that have virtually eliminated landfilling, recovering 90% of plastic waste, while others still bury 80% to 90%,” he noted. Therefore, such disparities even across a small continent like Europe show that local solutions are necessary. Countries like Sweden hopped on the waste-to-energy bandwagon, but now see this as a problem as they must import waste for their waste-to-energy plants because their recycling rates are so high. In the end, waste-to-energy may indeed be a useful technique but it should not be used as the primary or only solution.
A Conversion to Diversion—in San Francisco
This brings us to a case study of San Francisco, a city that seems to have gotten it right. With a diversion rate of 80% since 2012, and with a zero-waste plan to have it up to 100% by 2020, it seems that every city should be following in its lead. Even with such a success, there are some skeletons beneath the surface. It is also important to note that the diversion rate San Fran reports is different than most cities in that construction and demolition waste (which is relatively easy to recycle) is accounted for in the recycling rate as well. Most cities just report the recycling rate of municipal solid waste, so of course their diversion rates would be lower. Still, there is a lesson to be learned. San Francisco employs a three-bin system that is available to every home or business owner. The three bins are for recycling, composting, and landfilling, thereby integrating the necessary technologies needed to divert waste from the landfill in this area. The city has even enforced a mandatory Recycling and Composting Ordinance requiring residents and businesses to properly engage in these actions to keep these resources from reaching the landfill. Education is a major factor of this zero-waste plan too, in which citizens are mindfully reminded and encouraged to place the correct items in the right bins, although there are fines for more serious actions or repeat offenses. One of the main waves that pushed along this success story is the fact that the citizens are very involved and interested in the conservation and sustainable management of their end-of-life resources. Indeed, this community involvement is a necessary element in any town to push service providers to find new, responsible solutions for your resources.
However, the interesting thing about San Francisco that Dr. Luis Diaz (President of CalRecovery, Inc.) enlightened us about is that the service provider of the Bay Area, Recology, has a monopoly there–by law. Interestingly enough, in a country so proud of opportunity and initiatives, San Fran has closed out all competition by legislation in this area. And while this seems to be working out fine for now, the question comes, how are new, better technologies supposed to integrate in the future? Will they even be able to?
So Do Something About It
And this brings me to my final point– what needs to change to help this process along. How will we ever generate flexible waste management solutions under the constraints and barriers outlined before us? The first step is to take a stand. Once you leave your resources on the curb, service providers haul them away and decide what to do with them. But you need to push them to be constantly thinking about new innovations, new ways to efficiently have your resources recovered. It’s time for you to take responsibility too.
Just because the trash is gone from your curb doesn’t mean it goes away forever.
There’s that word, too, “trash.” Like I said earlier in the piece, it’s about time to stop thinking about waste as trash, because as we can see now, it’s not. A bottle can become a pair of jeans, old food can be tossed and turned into the soil to generate new life. We shouldn’t call it waste any longer—we are now talking about resources.
Finally, as Dr. Diaz so fervently exclaimed (and Biddle echoed) we need to educate the population across the board about responsible waste management: about the options and the solutions. This is everyone’s battle, and everyone’s responsibility. In a similar way, then, waste management should have some sort of professional association. What happens with these resources after they are discarded is extremely important to the region as a whole, and officials in this area should have some regulations to abide by. Just as Dr. Diaz said, “We wouldn’t allow a doctor to practice without becoming a member of the AMA…Anyone can show up and say they are an expert in waste management—it should not happen.”
In the same way, wee need guidelines and criteria for what happens to these resources after they leave our homes. And we have a right to know what happens, at that. Will they actually be recycled? Will they just end up in the oceans? It’s time to start asking questions. It’s time to take responsibility. And it’s time to start finding our own solutions to the global waste challenge.