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Banning Styrofoam, Managing Our Waste, and Promoting Sustainability

The public's increased awareness of the environmental impact of material disposal has led to support for measures such as New York's styrofoam ban. It has also led to a certain amount of moralizing and anti-consumption ideology that, in my view, is less useful.
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New York City, following the lead of San Francisco and Portland, has banned styrofoam containers in an effort to change the nature of its waste stream, as the type of styrofoam being banned cannot be recycled. The ban will result in the use of substitute forms of packaging--probably more expensive plastics. New Yorkers are not going to reduce their reliance on takeout food, and the pace of life will continue to intensify. However, the value of this ban is that it reflects increased awareness of the nature of the waste we produce and a growing willingness to do something about it.

The solid waste crisis is not limited to New York. Americans today generate a lot more waste than they did fifty years ago. According to the U.S. EPA:

  • In 1960, the per capita generation of waste was 2.68 pounds per person per day, and total waste generation was 88.1 million tons...
  • In 2000, the per capita generation of waste was 4.74 pounds per person per day, and total waste generation was 243.5 million tons...
  • In 2012, the per capita generation of waste was 4.38 pounds per person per day and total waste generation was 250.9 million tons.

We are finally starting to reduce the amount of waste we generate individually, although as a nation we toss out three times as much garbage today as we did in 1960. Fortunately, we are slowly becoming better at recycling waste and diverting waste from landfills to waste-to-energy plants. According to EPA:

In 1960, the recycling rate was 6.4%, and 5.6 million tons of materials were recycled.... In 2012, the recycling rate was 34.5% and 86.6 million tons of materials were recycled.

In other words, in 1960 we threw out 88.1 million tons of waste and in 2012 we recycled 86.6 tons of waste. Our population and consumption increased during the past fifty years, but so did our ability to recycle: from 6% to 34% of our total waste stream.

The technology of waste disposal has been advancing, along with our increased disposal needs. Removing wet garbage or food wastes from the waste stream has the potential of recovering some of the organic matter that can be used to return nutrients to our soil. In rural areas, composting waste is a long-established tradition. In cities, that solution is not feasible, but anaerobic digesters and other forms of technology have been developed to reprocess food waste into fertilizer.

EPA's data indicates that, as a society, we have selectively been learning how to recycle and in some cases a fairly high percentage of product use ends in recycling. Note these examples of recycling rates:

  • 95.9% of lead-acid batteries.
  • 70.8% of steel cans.
  • 70.0% of newspapers.
  • 54.6% of aluminum beer and soda cans.
  • 44.6% of tires.

We have a long way to go, but the trend line is clear, and the key point is that more and more people have started to think about where their garbage is going. The problem is that some of the solutions to the waste crisis will cost money, and our anti-tax ideology makes it difficult to fund road repair, let alone pay the cost of advanced waste sorting and processing facilities. It is also true that the problem of waste management is more difficult to address in some regions of the country than in others. In states with low population density, landfilling--or dumping garbage into a hole in the ground--is still feasible and relatively inexpensive.

Both Europe and Japan have developed advanced waste management systems, driven by land scarcity and the resultant high cost of landfills. Waste-to-energy plants are common in Japan, and in Spain, Barcelona's Ecoparc is one of the world's most advanced waste management facilities. Ecoparc sorts waste automatically; some waste is recycled, food waste is sent to an anaerobic digester, some waste is burned for energy, and some is rejected during pre-processing and sent for landfilling. As new technology is developed, more economic use has been made of more materials, and pollution control has improved.

In an interesting (and in my view, very incomplete) report on the construction of waste-to-energy plants in the United States, Timothy Williams of the New York Times cited what he termed "lagging recycling efforts" and notes:

The need to burn trash, say supporters, is underlined in the data: Recycling rates have barely budged over the past decade -- the current level for recycling and composting is about 34 percent, according to the E.P.A. Though recycling rose steadily during the 1990s -- the national recycling and composting rate jumped to 31.4 percent in 2005 from 16 percent in 1990 -- curbside recycling has more recently been deemed an expensive luxury by a number of municipalities.

This reporting is slanted; the EPA chart Mr. Williams cites indicates that recycling rates have not "lagged" but that the dramatic increase in rates we saw earlier has been replaced by a slow and steady increase in recycling. This is due, in part, because the low hanging fruit--the stuff that is easiest and most cost-effective to recycle-is now recycled. It is also because of unrealistic expectations set by zero waste advocates who thought it was possible to reduce and recycle everything. The trend lines of the 1990s supported that assertion, but no one who actually manages a municipal waste system ever thought those rates of increase were sustainable. The reporting is correct that waste-to-energy plants, and even waste transfer stations, are bitterly opposed by community groups who think the waste should go somewhere else. My own thinking is that we should look into the feasibility of building smaller and more automated facilities to enable the responsibility for waste management to be more equitably distributed. We all create the waste; aren't we all responsible for its management?

Waste-to-energy is part of a comprehensive waste management system. It is not an alternative to recycling, or anaerobic digestion, but one element of a strategy to find better (not perfect) end uses for the wastes of human consumption. No matter how much we recycle or reduce waste, some remains. As for the air pollution impacts of waste-to-energy plants, even a causal look at Japan, which burns most of its garbage, provides graphic evidence that waste-to-energy incinerators are getting better and better at controlling their emissions. Additionally, those who complain about incinerators need to compare their environmental impact to landfills, the main alternative to incineration. Even the best landfills eventually leak, all release methane, and their remote locations often mean that containerized trucks must travel hundreds, if not thousands, of miles to carry waste to landfills. The environmental impact of those trips alone should be compared to the impact of a modern incinerator. The New York Times piece does not mention New York City's goal of increasing its diversion of waste away from landfills, which includes an effort to increase recycling. In the case of the styrofoam ban, the city is attempting to eliminate a widely used material that cannot be recycled.

All recycling is not created equal. Some materials can't be recycled due to technology and some cannot be recycled due to their lack of economic value. Some communities (including New York City for a while) decide to eliminate recycling due to the expense of multiple collection runs. Other cities increase recycling by purchasing garbage trucks with multiple bins for different waste streams. Finally, the technology of waste sorting is advancing rapidly and soon household waste sorting may be reduced to one or two streams.

A positive factor is that, for some materials, the economics of recycling makes reusing the material cost-effective. Recycling aluminum, paper and rubber can result in less expensive manufacturing. For some materials, and in some places, the economic and environmental costs of recycling can be greater than disposal. Energy must be used to transport the material to a manufacturing plant. Reprocessing the material may also be quite expensive and environmentally destructive. Some materials such as glass are less expensive to make than to recycle. However, many materials in the waste stream are toxic, and landfilling those materials can result in those toxics escaping into ecosystems.

The public's increased awareness of the environmental impact of material disposal has led to support for measures such as New York's styrofoam ban. It has also led to a certain amount of moralizing and anti-consumption ideology that, in my view, is less useful. It seems to me that carrying your own water in a backpack is a good personal behavior that can save money and reduce the wasteful transport and disposal of bottled water. But some people can't always carry water with them and sometimes need to purchase bottled water. While those behaviors may have a negative impact on environmental quality, they are not immoral. Many human behaviors have a negative impact on the environment. The goal of sustainability management is not to eliminate those impacts, but to be aware of them and to try to minimize them.