Editorial: Going Backwards

Nora Goldstein

BioCycle April 2012, Vol. 53, No. 4, p. 4

The Michigan state Senate holds the fate of repealing the state’s ban on landfilling yard trimmings in its hands. The House of Representatives voted in mid-March to overturn the ban, and now the measure is before the Senate. The repeal would only apply to Michigan landfills equipped with methane gas capture, and separation would still be required at the curb. As would be expected, several large solid waste companies are pushing hard for the repeal, while many municipalities and composting facilities are pushing hard to prevent it.

If the legislature carries through with the repeal, Michigan will join the ranks of Florida and Georgia, which overturned their states’ yard trimmings disposal bans in 2011. In terms of public policy in the 21st century, any initiative that overtly directs clean organic streams back to landfills or incinerators is a step in the wrong direction. It is a classic case of going backwards in an era when those same materials have a much higher and better value above the ground or out of the fire.

While thinking about all this, the phrase “resource disposal” kept popping into my head. In a way, landfilling masks what is actually taking place. We may not be there yet, but in the decades to come, more and more parts of the world will experience resource scarcity, be it water, productive agricultural soils, clean energy or clean air. The majority of the waste streams from the municipal, industrial and agricultural sectors are rich in resources such as paper, metals, plastics and, of course, organics. In an age of resource scarcity, industry and agriculture will need these materials to make new products and grow food. They will rapidly shift from “wastes” to “commodities.”

Organics recycling is unique from other commodity recycling in that the end products directly conserve resources. Compost is the simplest example. Amending soils with compost reduces water consumption — and helps capture storm water for groundwater recharge. The nutrients and organic matter grow healthier plants in healthier soils. Anaerobic digestion, another organics recycling technology, generates energy and by-products — solids and liquids — that have fertilizer and soil amendment value (aka, resources).

In Neil Seldman’s commentary, “Déjà Vu On Garbage Incineration” (page 58), he describes a resurgence of the waste-to-energy (WTE) industry. “They’ve dusted off their technologies and are riding on the tide of desires for energy independence and ‘clean’ energy sources — despite the fact that WTE is neither clean nor renewable,” he writes. WTE economics demand a guaranteed waste flow. Many are sized for 1,000 tons/day or larger. Commodities such as paper and plastic are desired feedstocks for their BTU value; all wastes are desired to achieve the necessary volume. The WTE industry makes the energy generated its “raison d’etre” for being green. The commodities (aka resources) go up in smoke.

Resource disposal. Resource combustion. But in the dawn of resource scarcity, I’m putting my money on resource utilization. There is no going backwards.

 

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