Waste Not, Want Not

As landfills fill up, a new breed of waste experts is finding ways to reduce the flow of trash

  • Thomas A. Lewis
  • Jun 01, 1993
The nightmare came true for Richard Weber on May 29, 1992. As director of the Department of Environmental Resources in Loudoun County, Virginia, Weber had been put in charge of the county landfill early in the year. The landfill, serving an extended, 60,000-population suburb of Washington, D.C., was due to be full in about 14 months. "Trash," Weber says ruefully, "is a pretty unforgiving deal. You never have as much time as you think.

"I can live on the edge as well as the next guy," says Weber, "but I like to know exactly where I am. I'm a soil scientist by trade, and I live by maps. So I had a complete survey done of where we were." On May 29, the survey results reached his desk. The landfill would be full not in 14 months, but in 28 days.

By wangling some dispensations from the state and money from the county board of supervisors, Weber was able to extend the landfill by one acre. But he could not negotiate more time. At one point, he recalls, he and some fellow office workers found themselves "exhuming part of the landfill with shovels," in order to splice a new liner-plastic that prevents groundwater contamination-to the one in use. Their labor completed, the landfill extension opened for business with just two days to spare. And Weber has now arranged to keep his county's trash buried until, perhaps, 1996.

When asked to predict just when the next crisis will occur, Weber uses words new to the vocabulary of waste managers. "That depends," he says, "on how well we do with waste avoidance." Waste avoidance. Otherwise known as source reduction. Neither term has much of a ring for the rest of us. But they have become music to the ears of a new breed of waste experts. And more and more government officials who are either imagining or experiencing Rick Weber's nightmare are paying attention. Even the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has made source reduction its top priority for solid-waste management.

The oldest source-reduction program in the country, Seattle's, is less than 12 years old. Minnesota's program, one of the best, is just over 3 years old. When Ken Brown, a former U.S. Forest Service geologist, applied for the job of source-reduction specialist with the Minnesota Office of Waste Management, he recalls, "I didn't have much experience. But neither did anybody else." The field he is helping invent is critical, says Brown, "because source reduction can actually move us forward, to a better standard of living, toward sustainable economic development."

All over the country, landfill managers like Weber are finding that space is running out for the endless tidal wave of trash they endure. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Americans discard 4.3 pounds of trash per day for every man, woman and child alive. That's without taking into account debris from construction sites or sludge from sewage treatment plants. When BioCycle magazine, respected industry-wide for its exhaustive annual survey of state solid-waste officials, added in both of those additional waste sources, the figure jumped to a whopping 6 pounds per person-200 tons per day in Loudoun County alone.

The average person is likely more familiar with the idea of waste reduction than source reduction. In the semantics of the world of trash, waste reduction has for years meant burning, recycling or composting. Source reduction, on the other hand, means drying up the stream. In the words of Diane Wes-man, director of Minnesota's Office of Waste Management, "The best way to manage waste is to not create it in the first place."

She ought to know. With aggressive policies, Minnesota has achieved one of the lowest landfill rates in the country. The state's strategy includes grants to local governments and businesses for finding ways to generate less trash. Elsewhere, less successful experiments have run the gamut from vague pamphlets urging consumers to buy less packaging to specific laws such as the Suffolk County, New York, ban on polystyrene food containers, quickly invalidated by a challenge from the plastics industry.

Yet a consensus is emerging, and one elegantly simple tactic-charging for bags of garbage, called "pay as you throw"-is yielding early dramatic results. But first, to fully appreciate the new discipline, one might consider the sobering lessons of the American dump (rechristened the sanitary landfill after managers learned how to get rid of the most noxious odors and obnoxious rodents). The most basic lesson is that landfills, of course, eventually fill. According to the National Solid Wastes Management Association, more than half of U.S. landfills will run out of room in fewer than ten years-and the deadline in eight states (including Virginia) is in no more than five years.

Establishing new landfills, with today's strict safety regulations and high land prices, costs an average of $500,000 per acre. And these days, proposals to locate a new landfill just about anywhere draw fervent opposition. Between 1986 and 1991, 2,200 landfills closed, while only 364 opened.

The EPA recommends that local governments practice both waste reduction (by incinerating 20 per cent and recycling 25 per cent of the materials already discarded) and source reduction (decreasing by 25 per cent the amount of trash being discarded). The goal: sending only about 30 percent of the waste stream to. landfills. By BioCycle's count, 32 states currently bury 80 percent or more. One of the major tools for waste reduction is the incincerator, able to quickly reduce trash to one-tenth its volume. Incineration is much reviled by the public and distrusted by environmentalists-but admired by waste managers.

America currently sends 10 percent of its waste to 171 incinerators, most of which generate electricity or steam. But combustion emits pollutants into the air, including such persistent toxins as dioxin and furans, and the remaining ash can be highly toxic. Small wonder that, despite EPA recommendations that the country double the amount of waste "managed by combustion," proposed incinerators tend to stall in the early planning stages after they inflame opposition.

In stark contrast with burning and burying, recycling is increasingly popular with the general public. A 1992 poll conducted for the Grocery Manufacturers of America estimated that 64 percent of Americans are regularly recycling aluminum, 56 percent are recycling newspapers and more than 40 percent are recycling plastic and glass.

While environmentalists are enthused, waste managers are ambivalent about the steady increase in recycling. In 1991, according to Biocycle, though recycling reclaimed 14 percent of the waste stream, the surge in the supply of recovered resources overwhelmed the ability of industries to process and reuse them. Boston, for example, instead of profiting from its newsprint recycling, paid $26 per ton or more to have the stuff hauled away.

Still, recycling is here to stay. It is reducing the waste flow, saving energy and resources and creating jobs. According to ALCOA (Aluminum Company of America), in 1991 aluminum recycling employed 30,000 people-twice the number working in aluminum manufacturing. Though this particular model may not widely apply to other forms of waste, it gives hope to managers. "The supply revolution is well under way," Phil Bailey of the Buy Recycled Business Alliance has said, "but the demand revolution is just beginning."

Recycling can work for organic as well as manufactured materials. Increasingly, municipalities are banning yard waste from landfills, and 2,000 composting facilities in 46 states now turn leaves and grass clippings into soil conditioner. The city of Houston, Texas, hopes to compost as much as 30 percent of its 600,000 tons of trash per year at a location not far from the Astrodome.

But even if every community met EPA guidelines for alternatives to landfills, fully one-quarter of today's trash stream would remain. And the only way to staunch it is to alter a ubiquitous and mundane feature of American life: packaging, which makes up one-third of our waste. In the United States, according to State of the World 1992 by the nonprofit Worldwatch Institute, "as much as half of all paper production and nearly a quarter of all plastics sold go into packaging." Reducing packaging will involve changing habits and challenging assumptions at every step. The stuff protects products during shipping, presents merchandise attractively in the retail store and provides a uniform shape for stacking.

The EPA is quick to point out that not all the news about corporate America's waste habits is grim. EPA source-reduction coordinator Carol Wiesner is collecting such success stories as the Michigan furniture manufacturer (Herman Miller, Inc.) that is saving $1.4 million a year using reusable and recycled shipping containers; and the switch by the McDonald's fast-food restaurant chain from its polystyrene clamshell hamburger container to paper wrap, with a consequent 70 percent reduction in its waste stream.

As for the EPA's ability to measure the success of its initiatives, ironically Wies ner blames the Paperwork Reduction Act for thwarting EPA's ability to survey local governments. That's one reason the BioCycle magazine survey is widely used for assessing trends in waste disposal.

The survey reveals great disparity among the states. Many have recently taken a more active role in waste management, motivated perhaps by the knowledge that if the localities are overwhelmed, the states cannot escape responsibility. Some have set mandatory targets for waste reduction, primarily by recycling, and nine have passed "bottle bills" that impose a refundable surcharge on beverage containers. Individual states have banned specific forms of packaging, such as nonrecyclable juice boxes and plastic six-pack carriers.

Minnesota, as a counterpart to its low landfill rate (39 percent), has one of the highest recycling rates (31 percent). At the other end of the qualitative scale, Wyoming landfills 97 percent of its trash and recycles a mere 3 percent. The other 48 states are somewhere between these two.

Measuring source reduction is another matter. You can weigh, sort and analyze trash, but how do you measure the absence of trash? Perhaps the school curricula on source reduction in California, Ohio and several other states and the pamphlets and demonstration projects in Minnesota, Vermont, Pennsylvania and elsewhere, are working. How would we know? "All we can do," says Gene L. Mossing, solid-waste manager in Olmstead County, Minnesota, "is put it out there and hope."

So far, the "pay as you throw" strategy is producing perhaps the most dramatic, immediate, measurable results. It replaces the usual flat rate for garbage disposal with a charge for each bag or can of refuse. Seattle pioneered the idea in 1981, replacing its $18-per-month fee with a charge for each can of garbage. Now, the average Seattle household puts out one can per week, down from three and a half cans in 1981. When authorities in Perkasie, Pennsylvania, began charging residents about 4 cents a pound to dispose of trash, the town saw its waste stream drop by 60 percent. Overall in the past seven years, the number of localities using the technique has grown from 20 to more than 200.

Despite the isolated success stories, however, most Americans continue to discard a dismaying amount of waste. "We've been making decisions as if our resources were unlimited," says Minnesota's Ken Brown. "It's time to come to terms with the consequences of waste."

Roving editor Thomas A. Lewis composts and recycles his waste in Clark County, Virginia, which uses an adjacent county's landfill site.

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