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[GreenYes] Recycling on the Block Again
- Subject: [GreenYes] Recycling on the Block Again
- From: "Peter Anderson" <email@example.com>
- Date: Thu, 23 May 2002 17:41:31 -0500
With reference to both Lou Dobbs Moneyline feature on recycling on CNN
asking whether recycling is a waste as the lead in line, and the Dallas
Observer's expose on the local recycling program run by the city's
franchise, Community Waste Disposal:
First, as to the Moneyline feature, as Chris noted, I don't think that
the show was structured to trash recycling. The reason I was on the show is
that the producer had seen the articles that I had written about how
landfills threaten the environment and make recycling appear incorrectly to
look less economic than it in fact is. Although none of that side of the
story got on the air, that presumably was because the terrorist warnings of
threats to NYC came at the same time and squeezed the time left for
recycling, and not because of a hostile political slant.
Second, as to the Dallas article, I have no direct knowledge of the
facts in Dallas, but certainly, apart from the undocumented and
irresponsible quote from the Competitive Enterprise Institute claiming 60%
residual rates at MRFs, we can't ignore the seriousness of how bad apples
can ruin the entire barrel for all us and that there have been bad apples in
the past. Automatically circling the wagons around the fire is not the best
way to respond to this sort of challenge, unless we know the facts about the
program to be substantively wrong.
What I would like to call everyone's attention to, though -- if and to
the extent that the major facts alleged are correct -- is the two critical
claims to recycling's future that are dealt with in the piece. First,
Charles Siderius who wrote the piece correctly dispenses with the early
motivation for recycling, fed by the images of the Mobro Garbage Barge, the
fear that we were running out places to throw our trash. With the
subsequent development of megafills, that concern has pretty much receded in
most of the country. The other source of environmental motivation to
recycle, on the other hand, was incorrectly dealt with, and that has
enormous implications for our future well being. The article stated that:
"The idea that municipal landfills are dangerous is another myth, both
McManus [EPA] and Logamasini [CEI] say. Most material deposited into a
municipal landfill is not hazardous. Landfills are not only strictly
regulated and monitored, they end up being so dry that the material is
practically 'mumufied' Logomasini says." Without the landfill-saving
argument, what then is the justification for paying companies such as
Community Waste Disposal millions to recycle?"
In fact, however, modern engineered landfills are fatally flawed, an
issue that flies in the face of popular perception, and that is of the
utmost importance to recycling's future.
I gave a speech on this subject last week at the 2002 Summit on
Recycling to the Colorado Association for Recycling. Here is the press
release that summarizes it. If anyone would like a copy of the full speech,
including some great photos for effect, just send me a note directly, and
I'll send you as a PDF file.
COLORADO RECYCLER'S SUMMIT TOLD RECYCLING IS AT CROSSROADS
For Immediate Release
(DENVER) "At the dawn of the 21st century, the issue of recycling or
landfilling our discards is at a cross roads," Colorado recyclers were
counseled during the keynote speech at their 2002 Summit for Recycling by
Peter Anderson, president of RecycleWorlds Consulting.
"What we do or fail to do during this year and next will determine whether
we consign ourselves to remain on life support for the next twenty years, or
instead whether we will, for the first time, establish a solid economic
foundation for ourselves and dramatically expand diversion to 75% of the
waste stream - most of the way to zero waste," according to Anderson.
Anderson said that the modern recycling movement, launched at the beginning
of the 1990's, was motivated by the public's perception that there was a
shortage of places to throw our garbage after watching the 'flying Dutchman'
like journey of the Mobro Garbage Barge in 1987.
"Unlike so many of the other crises of our modern age about which the
ordinary person could do so little, recycling was something physical and
tangible that people could do to address the perceived shortage of places to
throw our trash. Energized by people's commitment to help make a better
world, the number of cities providing curbside recycling increased five
times and the proportion of our waste that the country diverted tripled
between 1988 and 1996," Anderson continued.
Ironically, he noted, the public's original motivation was upended by the
very rules issued by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1991setting
minimum federal standards for landfills that specified designs intended to
isolate our trash in "dry tombs" forever.
While thousands of small open dumps were shuttered by the new rules, and the
task of licensing new landfills near cities became nearly impossible, in the
final analysis those rules made it easier to build landfills, not harder.
Anderson explained that very large engineered 'mega-fills' had economies of
scale making it relatively easy to site them far from habitation where few
"Almost overnight," he added, "the landfill shortage disappeared in a wave
of overbuilding, as the major waste companies built so many of these large
mega-fills that a glut replaced the feared shortage."
Without the motivation that animated the early days of recycling's success,
by 1996 recycling reached a plateau where it remains today. Apart from high
grade papers and non-ferrous metals, neither of which play a major role in
municipal curbside recycling programs, the material we commonly recycle has
little market value. "As such, if the benchmark is simply economics -
without something more inspiring to impel people to separate - recycling can
't compete against dirt cheap landfills," he pointed out.
Today, the brutal reality is that, after a decade of market development
programs, procurement and content requirements, education initiatives and
start up grants, as a general proposition, recycling remains on life
support, maintained largely by a patchwork of aging state mandates and the
fading afterglow from recycling's Big Bang that had been provided by the
"With landfill capacity no longer in short supply, the key question today
for all us is whether dirt cheap landfills are safe," Anderson said.
Although the public perception is that modern landfills have resolved all of
the environmental problems associated with trash, the reality is that today'
s so-called 'dry tomb' landfills are fatally flawed, a fact that he asserted
is all but incontrovertible.
Anderson pointed to the fact that EPA's own technical staff has repeatedly
conceded that the elaborate system of barriers in even the most highly
engineered landfill 'will ultimately fail' in decades while the waste load
remains a threat for centuries. Also, last year EPA's Inspector General
reported that, after talking with staff, the agency's landfill rules were
'not based on specific scientific criteria or research studies' but rather
"on a compromise of competing [political] interests.'
At best, he said, engineered landfills only postpone, but do not prevent
pollution, moreover to the very worst time. Pollution occurs after no one is
any longer required to be responsible for managing the inevitable leakages
into our drinking water supplies. Also, major uncontrolled releases of the
greenhouse gas methane as well as carcinogenic compounds continue much of
the time into the atmosphere.
"The reality is," he said, "that we are unable to safely manage in the
ground the decomposable part of our garbage which rots - the unrecycled
paper, the food scraps and the green waste. This inescapable fact is
precisely why the European Commission in 1999 ordered that the landfilling
of these organics be phased out on the Continent."
As a constructive alternative to landfilling those things it cannot safely
manage, Anderson proposed that we could separate these organic materials for
composting to help restore fertility to our land, just as we already
separate our bottles, cans and newspapers for recycling. With the organic
fraction constituting about 60% of what we currently landfill, adding that
to the amounts we recycle would bring us to more than 75% diversion away
from landfills, which is very close to the goal of zero waste, he
In the U.S., even though dry tomb designs have been discredited for organic
materials, an effort is being made to rehabilitate landfills with a new
technical fix, while ignoring the obvious compost alternative, Anderson
observed. Some landfill adherents, recognizing the need to respond to the
flaws found in the discredited dry tomb designs, propose that massive
amounts of water be deliberately added to the landfill in order to
accelerate decomposition, with the wholly false implication that the site
would be stabilized by the time it is closed.
These so-called 'bioreactors' would be as much as two-thirds water,
essentially liquefying the waste and its toxic loadings, he noted. Since
landfills are built mostly above ground, this hazardous slurry would be
contained by only a two foot compacted dirt berm and a plastic tarp. Were
cost no object, there might be ways of minimizing some of the worst
challenges such an active loading poses, but in fact these bioreactors are
being designed "on the cheap," he contended.
With the terribly disappointing track record of the EPA in these matters,
absent an aroused public, the compost will be ignored and the landfill
industry will succeed in winning new rules that will permit bioreactors to
be approved on the cheap without even the most essential safeguards,
Anderson claimed. That will perpetuate artificially low disposal costs for
another generation. By leaving the toxic legacy for the next, the
constructive alternative offered by recycling and composting will be priced
out of the market.
"The choice of what will happen is yours," he told Colorado's leading
recyclers in conclusion. "At the dawn of the second millennium, as the waste
and recycling industries stand at this great crossroads that will define and
dominate the decades to come, our generation of recyclers has within its
grasp - if we but choose to reach out and grab for it - the opportunity to
seize the day, to realize through our efforts a brighter future for our
RECYCLEWORLDS CONSULTING Corp
4513 Vernon Blvd. Suite 15
Madison, WI 53705
Ph: (608) 231-1100
Fax: (608) 233-0011
Cell: (608) 345-0381
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