State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


Garbage: The Back End of the Renewable Economy

Like many, I believe that the Paris climate agreement will be seen as a turning point, when the world community finally agreed to address the climate crisis. One cannot understate the importance of the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy, and the work of communities, cities, states and nations has now been codified into an international set of norms and expectations. That helps the front end of the economy where goods and services are made and the middle part of the economy where goods and services are used. But what about the back end of the economy where the stuff we use goes to die? Well, don’t expect a fancy conference in Paris to deal with the ugly, smelly and disgusting problem of solid waste management.

Solid waste management is a challenge for large urban areas around the world. Removing garbage from residential, institutional and commercial locations in cities is a major logistical and operational task. Waste management is usually a function of local government, and is often a major item in a city’s budget. Solid waste generation rates are rising fast, particularly in cities experiencing increasing population rates and higher economic activity, putting pressure on municipal governments to deal with rising costs and environmental impacts.

The waste from cities around the world is already enough to fill a line of trash trucks over 3,000 miles long every day. In 1900, the world had 220 million urban residents that produced 300,000 tons of waste per day; by 2000, those numbers grew to 2.9 billion people generating 3 million tons of solid waste per day. Worldwide, waste rates are expected to triple by 2100, exceeding 11 million tons per day. The global cost of dealing with all that trash is rising too, from $205 billion a year in 2010 to $375 billion by 2025, with the sharpest cost increases in developing countries. Due to this volume of waste material, an increasing amount of waste is recycled, burned for energy, or in the case of food waste, reprocessed as fertilizer.

East Asia is now the world’s fastest growing region for waste. Waste generation in Asia’s urban areas is expected to soon reach 1.8 million tons per day. In 2004, China surpassed the U.S. as the world’s largest waste generator. The Chinese government has developed a number of laws and plans related to waste management. China’s 12th Five Year Plan sets ambitious goals managing solid waste, with an emphasis on recycling. However, China is undergoing an unprecedented increase in waste generation. According to the World Bank, the quantity of municipal solid waste generated in China’s cities has increased fivefold between 1980 and 2009, from 85,000 tons to 430,000 tons per day, and is projected to reach 1.6 million tons per day by 2030.

Most waste in China goes to landfills or unregulated waste heaps outside major cities, and as China’s landfills are filling up, cities are turning to burning waste to generate electricity at waste-to-energy plants. Overall in China, the number of waste incinerators is projected by the World Bank to increase from 93 in 2009 to 200 this year, raising the daily disposal capacity from 55,400 tons to 140,000 tons. However, there is increasing public concern about the environmental performance of these waste incinerators and their impact on the local environment and communities. While many waste-to-energy plants can burn garbage with little pollution, cheap incinerators without pollution controls create massive amounts of air emissions.

Many cities around the world are implementing innovative measures to deal with waste, and are increasingly incorporating waste management into sustainability plans. Some cities are setting positive examples through aggressive recycling and zero waste programs. Cities are reducing food waste with better storage and transportation. They are implementing construction strategies that increase reuse of materials. Some local policies such as waste disposal fees and other charges are being used to encourage waste reduction. Some cities have banned the use of plastic shopping bags and some are requiring that stores charge for the use of bags.

In the United States our per capita generation of waste peaked at the turn of the 21st century, but our total amount of waste continues to grow along with our population. In the Midwest and west, where land is relatively plentiful, most garbage is dumped into a hole in the ground called a landfill. But a growing percentage of our garbage is recycled or burned in low-polluting waste-to-energy plants. In New York, our most crowded city, and possibly a taste of the future for the rest of America, waste management has been a growing problem.

New York City’s 8 million residents and millions of businesses, construction projects and non-resident employees generate 14 million tons of waste and recyclables per year. This amount is so vast that waste is handled by two separate systems – one public and one private. The public agency – the New York City Department of Sanitation (DSNY) – serves residential buildings, government agencies and many nonprofit organizations. Private commercial firms do not receive free garbage pick-up by the city government. They must pay private companies to remove their solid waste. Spending on garbage pick-up and disposal is about $2.3 billion of the city’s $75 billion annual budget. In 2000, when we still had our own landfill, the cost was $658 million.

Of the 3.8 million tons of solid waste that the New York City Department of Sanitation now collects annually, 14% is recycled, 76% is sent to landfills and 10% is converted to energy at a waste-to-energy facility. The waste that goes to landfills often travels long distances to states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia and South Carolina. New York funds trash collection with general tax revenue – it doesn’t charge customers directly for waste collection.

As with many other sustainability issues, one element of the problem is people’s values and behavior. People like to use stuff and when they are finished with it they need to throw it out. There are limits to the amount of time and energy most people are willing to devote to managing their own garbage. There are also system limits to what is possible. If you separate your home garbage, but the city has no real recycling program, your effort has been wasted. If you live in the countryside you may be able to compost your food waste, but in a city you must depend on a special collection system and an anaerobic digester (a technology that mimics a compost heap) to convert your food waste to fertilizer.

Unlike climate change, which attracts billionaires like Bill Gates and celebrities too numerous to name, no one wants to do a benefit concert for garbage. No one wants a waste management facility near their home and just about everyone hopes those big green plastic bags can be magically transported to solid waste heaven. The solution to the climate change issue will be new renewable energy technology that drives fossil fuels from the marketplace. Similarly, the solution to waste management will rely on new technology. One of the most promising technologies allows the collection of a single waste stream and then mechanically separates the garbage. Some goes to an anaerobic digester, some is recycled, some is burned for energy, and the residue of the incinerated garbage can be used as a construction material.

Another solution to waste management is non-technological. It involves designing products that can be easily reconditioned and reused, and designing a post-consumption process that brings the product back to the manufacturer. Xerox does this by leasing some copiers and designing them for remanufacturing. Hewlett Packard does it by designing its toner cartridges to be easily collected and then refilled.

Just as economic development creates a demand for more energy and exacerbates the climate crisis, increased consumption results in more waste. With growing wealth we will see growing garbage. We’ve already seen it in China and we will see it everywhere before long. But in the U.S. we have started to put in place local solutions to this very local problem. Europe and Japan have been ahead of us on this issue for more than half a century. Managing our waste, the back end of the economy, is at least as important as managing our consumption.

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