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[GreenYes] Re: 6 new messages in 6 topics - digest

This is a very useful discussion because we are zeroing in on the center of the waste dilemma, where convergence of opinion so often turns into divergence -- and unnecessary squabbling over where to focus public policy.

Traditional concern about waste has focused around the "downstream impacts" of our waste policy, pointing to horrific impacts on human health and the natural environment caused by landfilling and incinerating wastes.

More recent analysis has disclosed that the "upstream impacts" are at least as important, pointing to the waste of resources when throw-away products are burned or buried.

In the 1960s and 1970s, public policy tried to address the downstream impacts by beefing up pollution control requirements for landfills and incinerators. But these policies failed to address the upstream impacts, because landfills and incinerators still suck materials with high levels of embodied energy out of the economy, creating a vacuum that drives the production of ever more highly engineered, short-lived products....

Then in the 1980s and 1990s, public policy tried to address the upstream impacts by introducing waste "diversion" programs to cycle short-lived products back into productive use. But, as Peter shows us with those great examples, publicly-sanctioned recycling can produce negative impacts both to human health and the environment, and both upstream and downstream.

We're still looking for public policy that can effectively tackle both the upstream and downstream impacts.

My own hunch is that we need a twin public policy that simultaneously ends the current downstream practice of publicly-sanctioned landfilling/incineration, while at the same time shifts the responsibility for waste back upstream to those who made it happen -- specifically, the brand-owners who develop the product marketing chain for wasteful products.

This raises a really critical public policy question that we are working out in British Columbia: should the legislative requirements on product brand-owners be "prescriptive" (requirements to use refillable bottles, for instance) or should they be "results-oriented," setting performance standards that protect public health and the environment, but leave it to brand-owners to develop creative ways to meet these ends.

(I won't even mention the third alternative, which is a hold-over from the pre-EPR era, of having the state develop programs to clean up after producers and simply send the bill to the producers.)

We have opted for the "results-oriented" approach, in the belief that it is better to focus public attention on what the public knows best and can testify to most authentically: the harm caused by poor environmental and social practices. Thus we quantify the dollars spent on managing wasteful products, the carbon load of energy-intensive products that are designed for short life, the illness caused by polluting production and disposal practices (today's paper reports that birth defects are up 40% in China caused by polluting industries that supply us with cheap goods...).


At 05:47 PM 10/29/2007, Peter Spendelow wrote:

Neil and Helen,

I don't think John would disagree that cheap landfilling is a
disincentive to recycling, and many of us also believe that
incineration of mixed waste, even if for energy recovery, is not the
best use of much of that waste.  However, the analysis we have been
doing in Oregon points to upstream impacts - the environmental damage
caused by the harvesting of raw materials and the manufacturing

to make products - as being much more important than the
downstream impacts of disposal.
  I think you argue that by making
landfilling cheap, we make it easier to dispose of materials and thus
make it less likely that those materials will be recycled.  That is
certainly true.  However, it is the reduction in recycling - not the
damage caused by landfilling - that creates environmental damage when
new materials have to be harvested and processed to make up for
materials that are thrown away.

I know that Neil fully understands the importance of upstream effects,
and he discusses in an earlier post.  However, for those who may not
have thought as much about this, I will give 3 examples of where
materials are recycled, but in such a way that they either cause
environmental damage or else they are recycled in a much less
environmentally-friendly way than they could be.

Case 1: Biodegradable plastic like PLA (polylactic acid) being
composted instead of recycled.  Some people view biodegradable plastic
as a zero waste solution, because you can compost the plastic and have
nothing go to landfill.  I view the decision to compost a
biodegradable plastic as 100% waste, because you take all of the
energy that went into growing the corn, making the fertilizer,
harvesting the corn, fermenting it to make lactic acid, and processing
this into PLA, and you waste all of this energy when you compost the
PLA.  You don't even get any compost out of it - it all degrades to
carbon dioxide and water.  You then have to go out and grown more
corn, etc.  If you recycled the plastic, you would save at least some
of this energy and produce far less greenhouse gases in the process.

Case 2: "No Spark Bark".  An Oregon entrepreneur came up with the
great idea of taking roofing shingles, grinding them, mixing them with
bark dust, and marketing the mixture as "no spark bark" to use on
garden beds and other places where people spread bark dust.
Eventually people figured out that asphalt shingles are full of very
toxic substances, and it does not make sense to use this product any
place where children play or where any of us might be exposed to dust
from it.  A lot of "no spark bark" has had to be cleaned up and
disposed, and that which still remains out on the ground is not really
saving any significant resources.

Case 3: Glass used as aggregate.  Unfortunately, even here in the
greater Portland area where we have a glass plant, more and more
curbside glass is being used for very low-grade uses such as aggregate
rather than used to make glass bottles or fiberglass.  The problem is
poor preparation by homeowners and even more so, poor collection
practices that mix the colors and make the glass pretty much unusable
by the local glass plant.  Recycling glass into aggregate saves the
relatively small amount of energy it takes to crush and size rock into
aggregate.  Recycling the glass back into glass bottles would save
significant energy due to the lower melting point of glass when
compared to sand.  Refilling the bottles would save even more energy.
If you are only looking at keeping things out of the landfill though,
you miss out on the energy and greenhouse gas savings that comes with
refilling or recycling glass as opposed to using it as aggregate.

Again, cheap landfilling may lead to reduced recycling, but it is the
increase thereby caused in energy needs and environmental damage from
harvesting and processing virgin materials which is important, not the
damage caused directly by the material in the landfill.

By the way, I did not see Neils' post that referred to aluminum cans.
Can you point me to it?

Peter Spendelow
Oregon Department of Environmental Quality

On Oct 27, 7:09 am, Neil Seldman <nseld...@no.address> wrote:
> John, I really do not understand what you mean. Subsidized
> incineration and low cost landfill are a major part of the problem.
> Not the entire set of problems we face but a critical one nonetheless.
> In my response I posed the example of aluminum cans and recycling.
> You choose not to address it. So provide us with some examples of
> what you are talking about.
> Here is an example of why focusing on end of stream is as important
> as upstream focus:
> I understand that at a recent WI DNR meeting, a staff recommendation
> was ignored and the DNR voted to dramatically weaken the existing
> landfill rules by permitting extra leachate lines. This decreases the
> cost of landfill in your state by 25%, undercutting market based and
> regulatory efforts to increase recycling, reuse and redesign. With
> landfill disposal so cheap how will the state move forward with
> sustainable discard management? ILSR and many other groups have been
> working on upstream issues for years. But we cannot ignore the easy
> access to material destruction by incineration and landfill. These
> issues are a necessary complement to upstream work. Nor can we ignore
> upstream strategies that do not get to zero waste, e.g, returning all
> computers to OEMs which precludes refurbishing and local economic
> development. The environmental, economic and community benefits of
> reuse over recycling are staggering.
> ILSR has been a primary, sometimes sole, organization calling for
> refillables and reusables and product redesign. At the same time we
> help communities fight incinerators and landfills. Other groups take
> on other key aspects like haz waste, medical waste, mining subsidies,
> etc. Isn't it clear that a multi-pronged strategy is needed?
> Please provide examples of what point you are trying to emphasize.
> Neil

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