Meeting the Challenge of Change
Before I mount my soapbox, I want to make clear that I think the nation today is better on balance than the one in which I became an adult a half-century ago. While it’s easy to point out some glaring warts in our actions over that period, they are, in my humble opinion, minuscule compared with what we have accomplished with our incredible wealth in material and philosophical resources. In fact, I shudder to think what others in the world might have done had they been in our position in the wake of World War II, having essentially the unopposed power to do anything we chose.
Yet for all of this, we now find ourselves in many respects on the outside looking in to a world seething with changes of which we are neither the agent nor all too often even a participant. Just why this is so is a subject for another day. What we can and must do about it can’t wait that long.
Before we can begin to deal with the manifold impacts of change, we need to challenge the very bases on which they stand. I think this is particularly important in our chosen field of endeavor, where (for instance) the prevailing vision of recycling—one that has ruled the roost for two decades—may in fact be an impediment to progress in sustainability to which we give so much lip service, and is at last coming into focus.
From High Atop a Crate of Irish Spring
For starters—and despite the belief of many who develop public policy—MSW management is not about recycling. First and foremost it is about public health and safety, after which, and only insofar as it doesn’t interfere with this primary responsibility, it has the opportunity to deal with the materials under its stewardship in ways that benefit society…one of which is the protection of the environment. Another, and one that is receiving increased attention, is sustainability, which seeks to inculcate a more complete vision of stewardship into our societal conscience.
The EPA began to adopt this vision into its outreach two years ago in recognition of waste’s position within the materials management continuum. Now, despite the continuing efforts to blunt its progress by certain elements within the environmental community, new initiatives led by energy-from-waste programs are springing to life, in some cases bypassing pilot programs to full-blown commercial operations.
So let’s look at some numbers to get a sense of some opportunities. According to the USEPA’s 2009 statistics, http://www.epa.gov/osw/nonhaz/municipal/pubs/msw2009-fs.pdf, Americans produce nearly a quarter billion tons of MSW per year, equating to 4.34 pounds per person per day. Of this, we are told, roughly a third—82 million tons—was diverted from the wastestream, leaving perhaps 160 million tons to be managed in other ways. Of this, WTE accounts for some 29 million tons, while the bulk of the remainder—something in the neighborhood of 130 million tons—is entombed in the nation’s 1,750 Subtitle D landfills.
EPA estimates on these materials show that roughly four-fifths is organic and therefore combustible, offering what amounts to a trillion Btus (at 6,000 Btus per pound) that if converted to use equates to the energy potential of nearly 10 billion gallons of diesel or jet fuel.
Granted, it’s ridiculous to suggest that any such amount of energy can be converted from materials bound for our landfills, but even if the recapture were only 1% (or 0.1% for that matter) of their Btu potential, the notion that it makes sense to bury them rather than to strip from them what value they contain is equally specious…indeed a direct refutation of our need to derive the maximum benefit from all the materials we consume.
So despite the numerous and in some cases severe impediments to progress, energy-from-waste projects are emerging throughout the nation…even in California, where opposition has been the stiffest. How successful will these pioneering programs be? No doubt, some will succeed while others fail, but to the extent that we see ourselves replacing an increasing portion of today’s wastestream with tomorrow’s value stream, we will have removed a critical impediment to progress in the materials management equation...a genuine step in the direction of sustainability.
Author's Bio: John Trotti is the Group Editor for Forester Media.