Rachel's Democracy & Health News #989  [Printer-friendly version]
December 11, 2008


[Rachel's introduction: The phrase "zero waste" includes two
different activities -- municipalities aiming to recycle, reuse or
compost up to 90% of municipal discards ("trash"), and "zero waste
manufacturing" also know as "designing for re-use," which aims to
create products that can be endlessly remanufactured and reused. Both
activities are important to the future of the planet.]

By Tim Montague

The the Big Three automakers are licking their chops over the $14 to
$34 billion in tax-payer bailouts they hope to find in their
Christmas stocking. Meanwhile, community based environment, health,
jobs and justice activists are planning an important Zero Waste
Communities conference in the Motor City February 6-9, 2009.

The conference will bring together community-based activists from the
U.S. and Canada aiming to create jobs by phasing out dumps and
incinerators. Unlike the auto executives who have resisted innovation
and the manufacture of cleaner cars, these activists will be
organizing, sharing ideas, and swapping business plans to create real
economic opportunity for communities of color and/or low income.

The Zero Waste Communities conference is part of a broad trend that
is changing the environmental movement in the U.S. Grassroots
activists are increasingly committed to solving serious environmental
and health problems by creating sustainable green jobs, and using
global warming as a multi-issue rallying cry for justice and
sustainable prosperity.

The "Zero Waste" conference, hosted by the Coalition for a New
Business Model for Detroit Solid Waste, is part of the global fight
to stop landfills and incinerators from wreaking havoc on low-income
people, indigenous communities, people of color, and the fabric of
life on the entire planet.

The conference comes on the heels of a new report, Stop Trashing the
Climate.[1] The 70-page report by Eco-Cycle, the Institute for
Local Self-Reliance (ILSR), and the Global Alliance for Incinerator
Alternatives (GAIA) (who have also produced a 7 page companion
statement Zero Waste for Zero Warming and a video) -- convincingly
argues that governments can adopt zero waste strategies to greatly
reduce their need for landfills and incinerators and combat
climate change.

Dave Ciplet, an organizer with GAIA and one of the report's authors,
says that the aim of Zero Waste is investing, "in the workforce,
infrastructure and local strategies needed to reduce what we trash in
incinerators and landfills to zero by a given year. It means stopping
even another dime of taxpayer money from subsidizing waste disposal
projects that contaminate environments and the people who live there."

As Rachel's readers know, there are many good reasons to find safer
alternatives to burying and burning trash. Landfills and incinerators
are major sources of toxic pollution that harm the environment and
human health.[2] The report makes it alarmingly clear that dumps and
incinerators are also major sources of greenhouse gases (GHG),
speeding us towards a world too hot for human habitation.

According to the new report, we bury or burn nearly 170 million tons
of stuff every year in the U.S. This is two-thirds of everything we
make.(p.14) Only one-third gets recycled, re-used or composted.

Typical household trash is comprised of 59% organic matter -- an
amount that equals 100 million tons (200 billion pounds) of wood,
paper, food, and yard trimmings thrown away annually, according to the
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). After you bury trash,
bacteria convert the organic matter into methane and CO2. Methane is a
potent greenhouse gas that is up to 72 times more powerful at trapping
heat than CO2.[3] Landfills are the largest producers of methane and
consequently their gasses pose a threat to climate stability.(p. 14)

Burning garbage is a messy but profitable business. It takes useful
material (wood, paper, metal, plastic, food scraps and lawn clippings)
and converts it to heat and C02 (plus creating a brand new set of
nasty chemicals like dioxins and furans). Then someone has to create
all that stuff again. For every piece of paper that is burned or
buried, a new piece of paper has to be manufactured -- starting with
cutting down a tree somewhere, transporting it, chemically processing
it, and so on.

The waste industry ignores the replacement cost of items that are
burned or buried. They "greenwash" so-called "waste-to-energy"
projects (aka, incinerators), proposing them as a 'solution' to the
climate crisis, because they make something 'good' (electricity) from
otherwise 'bad' stuff, like methane from landfills; or garbage that
would otherwise take up precious landfill space.

Altogether, the report authors estimate that landfills and
incinerators are directly responsible for 7% of our greenhouse gas
emissions -- 5% from landfills and 2% from incinerators. What is
important here, is that the 7% of greenhouse gas emissions produced by
our garbage actually accounts for 37% of emissions if you take into
account all the mining, logging, milling, oil drilling, transporting
and manufacturing required to produce new stuff.(p.24)

The report advocates serious recycling of the raw materials present in
discarded items, rather than burning or burying them. We could divert
all the reusables, recyclables and compostables from the waste stream,
capturing 90% of the material and reducing the nation's total
greenhouse gas emissions in the process by at least 7%; today, in
contrast, we capture only about 30% for reuse. This 7% reduction in
greenhouse has emissions would be equal to shutting down 83 (one
fifth) of the nation's 417 coal-burning power plants forever.(p. 15)

But this could be considered an interim goal -- on our way to a zero-
waste manufacturing society. Among the 12 principles of green
engineering, principle #6 is to retain complexity when reusing or
recycling materials. In other words, a bottle has been manufactured
for a particular purpose. Its shape, its size, the varying thickness
of its base and neck -- are all essential to its purpose. Those design
features should be retained, rather than just crushing the bottle back
to glass shards and remelting them into a new bottle. As Paul Palmer
of the Zero Waste Institute points out, bottles should be marked
with a special machine-readable code so that a sorting machine can
process garbage and extract bottles into proper categories. Then the
bottles could be re-filled, re-sealed and re-used many times -- just
as bottles used to be re-used in this country before about 1960.

Electronic circuit boards -- the guts of our computers and cell phones
-- should be manufactured in modules with the circuit diagrams
published online so that they could be re-used in new products rather
than being simply crushed and discarded. Their inherent complexity
should be viewed as an investment that we should not throw away.

For every ton of trash that we landfill or incinerate in the U.S.,
another 71 tons of waste are produced during the mining, drilling,
logging, processing, transporting, and manufacturing of those
products.(p. 19) Burning or burying our municipal discards entails
great replacement costs.

Since 1970, we have consumed one-third of the world's available
natural resources -- forests, minable metals, fossil fuels, and so
on.[4] This enormous waste is the main reason why, if everyone in the
world tried to live as we live in the U.S., we would need six planet
Earths to provide the raw materials and places to throw stuff away.
Our U.S. throw-away lifestyle is threatening the planet with
ecological overshoot and collapse, while producing massive profits
for certain industries.

Reusing, recycling and composting are threats to those major
industries that profit from our single-use society. If we were reusing
the 170 million tons of municipal discards that are currently going
into landfills and incinerators, then we would effectively be reducing
12 billion tons (71 tons of waste times 170 million tons of stuff) of
industrial waste. This is the kind of savings that could put us on the
path towards real sustainability. We might actually be able to
envision a no-growth, steady-state economy (gasp). (More on a
steady-state economy here.)

Although zero-waste manufacturing is not on the national agenda (yet)
for many municipal governments, diverting usable stuff from landfills
and incinerators is an idea whose time has come, and dozens of cities
around the world are taking it seriously. As part of the Urban
Environmental Accords, cities like Oakland, Portland and Seattle have
agreed to meet the goal of zero waste by 2040.(p.49) San Francisco
(which already recycles close to 70% of its trash) has committed to
increasing that proportion to 90% by 2020 -- and they are
demonstrating that this can be done using today's technology with
curbside recycling and composting programs.

Zero-waste manufacturing -- designing for reuse -- is going to get us
beyond 90% recycling -- which slows our rate of raw material
consumption but doesn't stop it -- to 99%. Some of the incentives for
society to make that transition will include extended producer
responsibility (EPR), which makes it industry's responsibility to
design non-toxic, reusable, recyclable or compostable products. With
EPR, the manufacturers of an item (such as a TV) retains legal
liability for the item at the end of its useful life -- creating an
incentive to manufacture with something in mind besides a landfill or
incinerator, both of which endanger the environment and public health.
(In the U.S., California is leading the way with a Product
Stewardship Council with a very broad membership. The Product Policy
Institute in Athens, Ga. has been instrumental in this important
development; see their video, Cradle to Cradle.)

The good news here is that we can now see unequivocally that we must
change and that zero waste -- meaning both recycling and zero-
waste manufacturing -- must be part of the solution if we are to get
on the path towards sustainability. On our present course, the garbage
stream will grow steadily from 250 million tons per year in 2006 to
over 300 million tons by 2030 (an increase of 20%). With zero waste
firmly in our decision-making toolkit, we can envision a world without
a waste stream that poisons both future generations and ourselves.

Imagine if Congress had the creative insight and the guts to say no to
the Big Three auto makers and yes to millions of green jobs and
thousands of community-based economic engines (public works projects)
based on the principles of resource conservation, clean production
and zero waste manufacturing. That would be a bailout worth fighting
for, and one that would certainly help us step back from the brink of
climate chaos.

[1] Brenda Platt, David Ciplet, Kate Bailey and Eric Lombardi, Stop
Trashing the Climate (June 2008). www.stoptrashingtheclimate.org

[2] See for example, Michelle Allsopp, Pat Costner, and Paul Johnson,
Incineration & Public Health: State of Knowledge of the Impacts of
Waste Incineration on Human Health (Greenpeace, Exeter, UK: March
2001). And, also: Cormier, S. A., Lomnicki, S., Backes, W., and
Dellinger, B. (June 2006). "Origin and Health Impacts of Emissions of
Toxic By-Products and Fine Particles from Combustion and Thermal
Treatment of Hazardous Wastes and Materials." Environmental Health
Perspectives, 114(6): 810-817.

[3] Over a twenty year period, methane is 72 times as potent a
greenhouse gas as CO2; over a 100-year period, methane's potency drops
to 25 times that of CO2 because some of the methane decomposes over
time (it has a half-life of seven years in the atmosphere). The report
authors use the twenty-year time period -- potency of 72 -- because of
the urgency of the climate catastrophe and because of the potential
benefits of reducing methane emissions in the short term. Dr. Ed J.
Dlugokencky, Global Methane Expert at NOAA says, "Scientifically
speaking, using the 20-year time horizon to assess methane emissions
is as equally valid as using the 100-year time horizon."(p. 7)

[4] Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins and L. Hunter Lovins, Natural
Capitalism, Little Brown and Company, (1999), p. 4.