Back-to-Back We Face the Past

It started a couple of weeks ago when I detected a slight sagging in one of the boards on my back deck putting me face-to-face with a bunch of insatiable termites. This epiphany led to a visit to my local exterminator service, setting in motion the remedial activity involving tenting and a civilized version of gas warfare.temites

As the retaliatory strike is scheduled for this week, my duty last weekend was to excavate from their various nooks and crannies my archive of foodstuffs, and then double-bag them in protective sheaves. As an extension of this exercise, I culled from my larder anything whose “consume by” date came prior to Pleistocene Epoch.

One thing led to another—new shelf paper for example—followed by an assault on the cartons of stuff threatening to overwhelm my back bedroom. Two layers down, in what I judged to be the early Holocene, I came upon a copy of the November/December 2000 issue of MSW Management.

July 17th Chinese waste officials announced that in response to increasing quality concerns, by the end of the year a very large part of America’s MSW exports would no longer be accepted. Considering that waste materials account for a third of America's exports and lie at the heart of the country's recycling efforts, the effects of the Chinese initiative are bound to be far-reaching. So what are our options? Join us for a free webinar panel discussion with experts from ISRI, SWANA, CalRecycle and Waste Management at 10:00a.m. PST, 1:00 p.m. EST, September 19 as they talk about the impacts and our options for dealing with them.

Intrigued to see what was on my mind 15 years ago, I flipped it open to my Editor’s Comments, which as fate would have it provided a summary of where things stood at the beginning of the new millennium. As a pre-9/11, pre-economic melt-down, pre-zero-waste vision, I found it both amusing and thought-provoking…worthy of another airing:

21st Century Off to a Good Start

It took me only six months to get the date right on most of my checks and correspondence and though I’m not above a backslide now and then, I’m hopeful that the next transition—year, if not century—will be as smooth. So-far so-good on other fronts, as well where we’ve seen the achievement of major milestones. I’d like to share some of my favorites.

LCA Ready to Rumble

Climaxing several years of battle against a seemingly endless array of challenges, USEPA’s Research Triangle Park (NC) crew under the baton of the indefatigable Susan Thorneloe has guided its Application of Life-Cycle Management to Evaluate Integrated Municipal Solid Waste Management Strategies through its final hurdle—the peer review process—on its way to public release. Developed in collaboration with the Research Triangle Institute, a detailed presentation of the program can be found at www.rti.org/units/ese/p2/lca.cfm. Why is this a big deal? Because for the first time managers and municipal decisionmakers will have a tool with which to compare various solid waste management options. Rather than a magic bullet, the LCA should be viewed as an iterative device that gets better as user feedback and real data are used refine the program’s assumptions. [Sadly the study and its link have since been discarded.]

Shifts in Landfill Focus

Once breached, EPA’s outer defenses of the prescriptive “dry tomb” landfill have begun to crumble under the determined assault of those concerned by cost and long-term liability issues. Many questions have yet to be answered but a number of demonstration projects employing both anaerobic and aerobic degradation strategies are in progress, joining an even greater number of leachate recirculation activities aimed at reducing the cost of landfill operation and longevity of post-closure care. Clearly this is a subject area that won’t suffer from neglect. [Nothing new to report, but we will be presenting an article on the subject in our March/April issue.]

New Initiatives in the Private Sector

Equally exciting in the disposition of waste is the increased attention being paid to energy and materials recovery by the private sector. While there are some who feel that this renewed interest in recycling is a marketing ploy, there are others who view the shift in strategy as a sound approach both to future profits and a reduction in the long-term liability associated with landfilling. [Some progress in the area, but genuine attention to post-closure care is still uncertain.]

Transformation by Whatever Name You Choose

While hard-liners of the old-line “environmental community” continue to fight at the political level to preserve parochial definitions of what constitutes recycling, a growing number of their younger peers recognize that solutions based on these have reached a point of mature stagnation. Thus one senses a real chance for change in institutions that have become increasingly moribund in recent years. Figures developed over the past decade show that while paper (for instance) may be recycled a second and perhaps even a third time, its residues eventually join the organic fraction that makes up 67% of what still goes to landfills. The issue is not so much a matter of recycling (or who gets to make the profit from recycling) per se, but the economics of waste as a viable alternative to the use of non-renewable resources in the production of fuels, and energy in addition to traditional products. [Despite strong words and the emergence of regulatory interest, the battle lines remain pretty much the same today as then.]

Help From the Ag Folks

While projects for transforming MSW to energy or fuels have not moved into the commercial arena in the past year, 2000 saw the emergence of two related initiatives on the part of the Federal Government:

(1) Congress approved adoption of a new $300 million program to encourage expanded production of environmentally-friendly fuels made from corn, soybeans and other crops. The program is designed to expand markets for agricultural commodities and promote use of biofuels, and

(2) In response to growing wildfire concerns, the Clinton administration asked Congress to increase the wildland fire management budget by almost $1.6 billion, to a total of $2.8 billion.

What have these to do with MSW? Nothing directly, but the spinoff possibilities from either or both are enormous. The largest challenge facing commercialization of waste bioconversion activities lies in attracting investment in technologies lacking established markets. USDA’s investment in these programs—albeit for purposes unrelated to waste—should provide a clear signal to investors that markets for biofuels are in the process of opening up. [Anaerobic Digestion has the green light, but other technologies still find it tough sledding in their march to commercialization.]

An Applied Research Initiative

Among US utilities, only MSW management—a $50 billion enterprise nationally with implications and opportunities far beyond our borders—had no organized research and development program to encourage innovation is solid waste management. But with some luck, and your support, that’s about to change. SWANA, at WASTECON 2000 in Cincinnati, unveiled its proposed plan for an Applied Research Foundation.

SWANA has directed its in-house applied research staff to investigate the feasibility of putting together an industry-wide program “To advance the practice of economically and environmentally sound municipal solid waste management through the conduct of research and development activities.” SWANA will carry the overhead burden of the program for 2001 and several solid waste organizations have agreed to help fund a limited number of research projects to demonstrate value of collective applied research. But for the proposed foundation to go forward after that it must be assured of funding support from a broad range of waste management activities and organizations.

We think that not only is this an idea whose time has come, but that SWANA is the proper venue for its establishment. For further information on the Applied Research Foundation, please contact Jeremy O’Brien at jobrien@swana.org.

Basking in the clarity of hindsight, we see that very few of these initiatives have matured to any great extent. The one shining exception is SWANA’s Applied Research Foundation (ARF), whose studies have contributed important understandings of our industry and its practices.

In the vanguard of waste management’s venerable institutions, ARF’s Jeremy O’Brien is still at the helm, guiding its efforts in topics important to us all. Better still, his mission and e-mail remain the same, so why not drop him a note to see how to become involved in ARF?

P.S. Termites have been making trash a lot longer than we have, so I expect that by 2030 I’ll have to deal with them again and that we’ll be facing pretty much the same issues we did at the beginning of the century.  MSW_bug_web

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