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Prior to the Dialog held last August 2004 in San Francisco, I released a
series of papers that addressed what we call "Managing Discards in the New
Millennium." These papers were presented to stimulate the discussion at the dialog.
For the next nine weeks under the title Dialog Paper #, I will release each
document to the four lists (GAIA, ZWIA, CRRA and Greenyes). Each list is not
linked together, but I would request your response be to "all" or to the
author. The ultimate result of this discussion will be a rewritten and edited
version each document. All the papers can be downloaded from
The Fourth and Final Solid Waste Management Paradigm and the End of
Integrated Solid Waste Management
By Neil Seldman, Institute for Local Self-Reliance, Washington, DC and
Minneapolis, MN, USA
After World War II, 1945, recycling and frugality no longer were
characteristic of the US . The population abandoned tradition and became profligate.
Exponential growth of waste and a parallel decline in places to put waste lead to a
crisis by the l960’s. In l965 new federal legislation resulted from massive
pressure from the local level. This crisis has produced four successive phases
of conventional wisdom and practical activity. Virtually all of this activity
occurred at the local and state levels including new rules, new investment and
concentration of the solid waste hauling industry.
The Incineration Paradigm, 1970-1985
Incineration of municipal solid waste rarely was referred to as incineration
or burning. “Waste-to-Energy”, “Trash-to-Steam”, Resource Recovery" were
among the euphemisms interposed on the public dialogue. The National Center for
Resource Recovery was the incineration industry’s trade association. A federal
office for commercialization of “Waste-to-Energy” was established. National
environmental organizations embraced incineration (controlled burning) as a
superior alternative to open burning.
Incineration of municipal solid waste with energy recovery was assumed to be
the solution to the waste crisis by l970. Federal funds for commercializing
the process, new rules on ash disposal, creation of secure markets for
electricity, and above all, tax credits for cities to pay for planning for incineration
and for private firms to invest in the process characterized this phase. Over
300 large-scale mass incinerators were planned for virtually every major
population center in the US .
A spontaneous reaction to the incineration paradigm resulted. Citizens,
environmentalists and small business people formed extraordinary coalitions, which
took over decision-making authority over solid waste management at the local
level. Two hundred and seventy of the 300 planned incinerators were defeated.
The recycling paradigm began. By l985 more incineration capacity was canceled
than introduced. In January l986 the Philadelphia City Council officially
canceled its Trash-to-Steam Plant and made recycling mandatory for households and
businesses and government agencies: The first major city in the US to do so.
The Recycling and Economic Development Movement, l985-l995.
The recycling movement was a small part of the initial anti-incineration
movement. But it soon became the leader as it offered a practical cost-effective
and environmentally sound alternative. Mission driven recycling organizations
defined the new conventional wisdom; although government programs, private
companies (including the waste hauling giants), soon took over most of the 9,000
curbside recycling programs that emerged. These mission driven organizations
continue to define the new paradigm. They include Eco-Cycle, Boulder , Eureka
Recycling, St. Paul, Berkeley Ecology Center and Berkeley Recycling Group, The
Green Institute, Minneapolis, Recycle North, Burlington, Ann Arbor Ecology
Center, Second Chances, Baltimore, Beyond Waste, Santa Rosa, Building Center,
Portland, OR, LASHARES, REDO, Indianapolis, San Francisco Community Recyclers,
Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, San Jose.
It took until l990 before the recycling movement could actually concentrate
on its initial goal: Developing recycling as a major sector in local and
regional economies. The recycling movement is focused on over used natural resources
and under used human resources, stated Harriet Barlow, of the Blue Mountain
Center and the HKH Foundation.
Recovered materials and local labor meant economic growth at each stage of
the process: collection, reuse, processing, end use manufacturing, distribution
and reverse channels of distribution (from consumers back to industry). This
activity and its multiplier effects added billions of dollars to local and
Integrated Resource Recovery, l995-2005
As the recycling and economic development paradigm became the conventional
wisdom among the population, the disposal industry and its allies (virgin
materials industry, bond finance industry), fought off the implications of
increasing levels of recycling by focusing on a policy of Integrated Resource Recovery.
Originally, a World Bank solid waste management team headed by Charles
Gunnerson and including Bernie Meyerson, Jon Huls, Rick Anthony and Neil Seldman
introduced the term. Municipal solid waste management needed to integrate with
the social, environmental and economic needs of the people in the emerging
mega-cities of the world.
Combined with an aggressive multi-media and multidimensional attack on
recycling, the enemies of recycling successfully parried the threat of maximum
recycling by redefining integrated resource recovery as a compromise between
recycling and disposal, including incineration. In this new context, integrated
resource recovery meant a combination of recycling, incineration and landfill. The
state of California and city of Los Angeles established Integrated Solid
Waste Management Agencies. While mass incineration is a dead issue throughout the
US, integrated resource recovery still offers "conversion technology" as its
new panacea for solid waste management. Recycling suffered under this assault,
resulting in the creation of the Grass Roots Recycling Network by the CRRA and
ILSR in l995 to present an empirical view of recycling and its ultimate goal
of clean technology and maximum recovery.
Zero Waste, 2005-2020
The paradigm offered by the ‘new’ recycling movement is that of zero waste.
Zero waste implies that solving solid waste management problems is not enough.
The total industrial system, from design, extraction, production and
distribution needs revision. Contemporary industry needs to be made sustainable, safe
for current and future generations.
Upstream and downstream considerations, beyond the scope of the solid waste
management are required. Indeed a new vision for the future is required.
Discarded materials are not waste to be "safely" disposed of but resources to be
managed properly, as if matter mattered in the real world. Materials must be
managed not "from cradle to grave" but from "cradle to cradle". Packaging and
products are "unfunded mandates" forced upon households, businesses and government
agencies to deal with discards that cost $75 billion to manage. Decisions
affecting the public are made in private boardrooms, but consequences are felt
throughout the land. Profits are internalized, costs are socialized and the
environment and people are made to pay the price of prolificacy.
The new recycling movement has moved beyond recycling and toward Extended
Producer Responsibility, the Precautionary Principle, Healthy Building Materials
and Green Design. Zero waste is the logical conclusion of this movement. Zero
waste is a goal is aspire to and a guidepost for practical economic policy and
The Last Paradigm?
Is Zero Waste (defined as waste reduction, clean production, maximum recovery
and community economic development) the last solid waste management paradigm?
One suggests a "last paradigm" with great temerity. In the mid-1960’s one
set of renowned intellectuals declared the ‘end of ideology’ having supposed
that all major tensions in industrial society have been for the most part
resolved. The year l968 made fools of them all.
Predicting that zero waste will be the last paradigm needed to
environmentally and economically manage society’s discards, in part, assumes that without
zero waste industrial activity cannot go on untempered. There are simply too
many social and environmental necessities that are denied by the current form of
free market industrialization which treats the environment as a free warehouse
of resources and a free sink to dump its waste. Indeed the sky is falling
apart and vast forests are completely denuded. Zero Waste is, in part, based on
the reality of thousands of manufacturing and processing firms, design
engineers and architects who have demonstrated that zero waste is economically viable
even in a system that rewards wastefulness and refuses to incorporate social
welfare, community and environmental integrity into its ‘natural’ market
The zero-waste-as-a-last-paradigm thesis is, in part, based on the strength
and integrity of the recycling movement that has carried the environmental
movement to virtually every household in the national. “It is the conscience of
the environmental movement”, according to Richard Anthony of the CRRA. It is a
movement with a constituency that for 35 years has time and again forced cities
to start, restart and expand recycling no matter what the prevailing economic
climate. It is a movement that combines its ends with its means. Finally, the
recycling movement breeds optimism and the can-do spirit; necessary
ingredients along the path to sustainability.
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