- by Ruth Tyson, Energy Justice Network
In 2012, Americans disposed of 251 million tons of trash, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The Story of Stuff Project neatly lays out the way materials move through our economy from extraction to production, distribution, consumption, and disposal. Most consumers don’t think beyond the “consumption” step. Once the undesirable mess is tossed from households, it might be considered “out of sight, out of mind” as long as it’s not seen or smelled. But where does it all go? Where should it all go?
With the finite space for landfills running out, discovering ways to deal with our waste problem is imperative. The trash incineration (a.k.a. “waste-to-energy” or WTE) industry would like to persuade the public that they're the answer. However, incinerators cause more problems than they solve, and are the most expensive way to manage waste or to create energy. Incineration reduces every 100 tons of trash to 30 tons of toxic ash that must be disposed of landfills.
Incinerators also create a demand for waste to feed their stream and compete with sustainable alternatives, which is the opposite of the solution to too much waste.
The true solution is zero waste, “a goal that is ethical, economical, efficient and visionary, to guide people in changing their lifestyles and practices to emulate sustainable natural cycles, where all discarded materials are designed to become resources for others to use.” This means that answering the question of what to do with our waste is a lot deeper than where we should put it. It’s about disposing of circulating materials properly and sustainably while also ensuring that that amount continues to decrease until the ultimate goal of zero waste production is reached. Our zero waste hierarchy consists of reducing, reusing, and source separating.
Managing waste looks different depending on the type of material being disposed. In general, the best way to reduce waste is to use and buy less. Products can be redesigned so that they are more durable and environmentally sustainable. This also means reducing the use of toxics in production and replacing them with non-toxic alternatives. What’s left once a product has reached its potential should then be easily repurposed or recycled.
Recyclables (metals, glass, plastics, paper) should be source-separated by material so that they are not contaminated and can be easily sold to their respective markets. Organics should be collected weekly to be composted, a biological process that decomposes the matter so that it can be returned to the natural cycle. Since the majority of waste in the U.S. comes from food and yard scraps, composting can divert a large percentage of waste typically sent to occupy space in landfills. Anything that remains in the waste stream after recycling and composting should be researched to find the source and how to eliminate it further upstream. Through bans and accountability for manufacturers, residuals can be reduced even further.
What about the rest? There will still be “leftovers” after all of these steps have been taken. As demonstrated by Ecocycle, the best way to handle such waste is through Material Recovery Biological Treatment (MRBT). Everything remaining should be sent to a MRBT facility where any recyclables that weren’t properly separated at the source are mechanically recovered in the “material recovery” stage of MRBT. These recyclables are then sent to the appropriate facility for it to be used.
The leftovers will be things like dirty diapers, toxics and other unusable materials. In the biological treatment stage, this sludge will go through either anaerobic digestion or composting to be further condensed and release any methane that could be produced before landfilling. Anaerobic digestion is a process where the organic matter is broken down by bacteria and chemical processes release the gases from the solid material without the use of oxygen. The finished product is an odorless and less dense, stabilized soil-like substance. However, this substance is highly toxic and should not be treated as fertilizer. The remaining matter should be sent to a properly lined and managed landfill.
Zero waste solutions are not only the best way to manage waste for the environment, but also for people. There are a plethora of jobs involved in every step of the process. With all of these steps taken and a commitment to a more sustainable lifestyle as individuals and society as a whole, we can achieve the goal of zero waste.