Common Ground, December 12, 2005


Paul Palmer Wants to Eliminate Garbage as We Know It

[Rachel's introduction: At its core, the foresight/precautionary principle says, "Take action to prevent harm." If you apply foresight to the problem of municipal trash, you get "zero waste" -- preventing many of the problems of municipal trash by viewing it as a resource, not something to be wasted.]

By Jordan E. Rosenfeld

If Earth had its own superhero to protect it from the waste- accumulating tendencies of humans, Paul Palmer, a 'zero waste' activist and PhD chemist from Yale, could be a contender. Graced with visions of solutions to our culture's excesses, Palmer has spent more than 30 years proving that 'un-recyclable' chemicals can be recycled, and in his new book, Getting to Zero Waste [ISBN 0976057107], he busts the myth that garbage is as inevitable as death and taxes.

Like any superhero worth his cape, Palmer is a self-professed "maverick" who claims not to listen to proscribed wisdom or to have much respect for authority, which makes it hard to imagine how he held board-level positions on the Sonoma County Local Waste Management Task Force and the Sonoma County Hazardous Materials Management Commission. His life's work is about nothing less than rescuing humanity from its own refuse. And he's tried every avenue to get people to listen.

Though Palmer has the blueprints to obliterate garbage as we know it, he's up against the powerful propaganda generator of the existing U.S. garbage industry, which produces more than $44 billion in annual revenue -- 76% of that in the private, mostly-corporate sector according to a 2002 study by the Environmental Research and Education Foundation.

"People will tell you that garbage has always been and always will be," said Palmer by phone from his Sebastopol home. "How do they know that? There's no scientific analysis that says this. The reason for their beliefs is that the garbage industry is extremely powerful. And it's so secretive that people don't realize there is such thing as a garbage industry. It's very subtle and clever; they run under the radar."

Because garbage is split into private and public sectors, corporate garbage companies like Waste Management Inc. (which runs Novato's Redwood Landfill), can hide behind the public service facade of the nonprofit, government-run services.

"The public treats garbage like, 'Hey, there's my friendly garbage man taking away my trash'," Palmer says. "We're brainwashed."

Palmer refuses to use the term "landfill," which he says was crafted from the "PR ether of corporations."

"Landfill makes it sound like land that is just waiting to be filled up with garbage. It's a dump! It's a pit dug in the ground where we throw stuff we don't use."

Goodbye To Garbage Trucks

Palmer's recipe for a zero-waste future might seem radical to those who take garbage for granted. In his vision, there are no friendly garbage men riding the green truck every week because there are no pits in the ground in which to bury trash. People visit "filling stations" that sport spigots and bins, and they carry their own sturdy containers to be filled with all the products used on a daily basis in homes and businesses -- from food to cleaning supplies. Manufacturers design products to be easy to repair and reuse, and are held financially responsible for any waste produced. And most importantly, there is little money to be made from dumps, garbage service or recycling centers because consumers have broken free from the need to dispose, having cleaved to reuse instead.

Palmer admits it's a vision not likely to be realized in his lifetime, but that doesn't stop him from preaching the zero-waste gospel and living it, too. He creates as little waste as possible through burning, composting and reusing.

"People are in love with the idea of their garbage," he said. "When they decide to do spring cleaning, there is no infrastructure to help them -- except to bring out a dumpster or possibly take a few things to Goodwill.

"Here we have a society that lovingly crafts resources into all kinds of specialized usage, devices, applications and then, when one little thing goes wrong, we put it in a dump. Think of all the energy lost there."

As defined by the EPA, garbage is "something that has no owner or is unwanted by someone who owns it," Palmer says. "So If I throw away a perfectly good drum of chemical solvent, it becomes waste."

Palmer's former recycling business, Zero Waste Systems, founded in 1973 in Oakland, was one of the first in the state to find creative reuse solutions to chemicals that were considered un-recyclable -- from Freon coolant found in old refrigerators to abandoned industrial solvents.

"We reused things directly by the application of intelligence and designed ways to reclaim a lot of the chemicals used in the Bay Area. For example, I looked up the ingredients to something the electronics industry calls 'resist developer' and discovered these were the same two ingredients in lacquer thinner. So I canned it and sold it as lacquer thinner."

He'd like to see the EPA create a database that tells how chemicals can be used so that a plant or company with an excess of a chemical can sell it to other users, rather than dump it. The result of dumping, he says, leads to "unknown chemicals undergoing unknown reactions at unknown times deep in huge pits dug in the ground."

Palmer says all this and more in Getting to Zero Waste, which he hoped would act as a kind of "sparkplug" to generate people to organize local zero-waste movements.

No Time Left to Waste

For those who feel just a little bit better about their trash habits because they recycle, Palmer is sorry to say, "What we know as recycling is the lowest possible form of reuse. When you break a bottle, you lose 98 percent of its value and you've wasted all the labor and material resources that went into making it.

"Recycling has been a wonderful phase we've gone through; it's been responsible for an advance in awareness, but now it's time to move on and work on the design principles of products."

The State of California's Integrated Waste Management Board, which oversees the regulation of garbage, has joined the cause, adopting a long-term zero-waste goal, which will eventually effect new garbage regulations.

Recent activist movements can be cause for inspiration, too, Palmer suggests. If people can mobilize by the thousands to protest the war in Iraq, they can also push for zero-waste agendas.

"Representative Lynn Woolsey told me that politicians need to see this is an issue that voters care about. I've been working on a petition to get 1,000 signatures. Maybe she can slip it into a budget bill," he chuckles.

Meanwhile, reuse remains the number one method to prevent waste, and it's a strategy that can be adopted at any time by any one. Diverting waste from dumps is important, especially since composting organic matter in dumps adds to the production of unhealthy and global-warming methane gasses.

"There are hundreds of small success stories," Palmer says, citing a friend of his in Sebastopol who found a creative solution to his yard waste. "Michael had all these trimmings from his apple trees that he decided were going for naught. He shredded up this apple wood for use in grills and sells it. He's having success with it as a barbecue enhancer.

"Zero waste is an uphill struggle," Palmer admits, "but we've got to start taking responsibility for our waste now."

Jordan E. Rosenfeld is a Petaluma-based writer and editor. Her bi- monthly show, "Word by Word: Conversations with Writers," can be heard on KRCB (91 FM) in Rohnert Park. She can be reached via email:

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