November 24, 2008 | General


BioCycle November 2008, Vol. 49, No. 11, p. 20
Climate Change Connections

I WENT to yoga this morning as I try to do twice a week. This is all with the goal of being able to touch my toes before I retire. Yoga is pretty predictable, particularly after a couple of years. I know what the instructor is going to say, how to lengthen, relax and breathe and bend from the hip crease. The last several months we’ve done our set up in the room a certain way. So today I walk in and the instructor has just about pulled the mat out from under me. She has switched the room so that we all had to rotate 90 degrees. I survived (although I still can’t touch my toes) but I will admit it did take me a minute to adjust. Change is not my forte, even minor innocuous change. And I am not alone.
Now shift the venue from yoga class to the global climate. How do we change as a society when inertia is so much more comfortable? Plus, we have the associated inertia infrastructure … the lovely exurbs and gas stations and landfills. What happens to all of those? There is a lot of resistance to getting rid of them, not to mention a whole lot of long-term investment tied into each. And here we are, saying that they have to go or at least that they are not sustainable. What is our better offer? Generally we don’t yet know what to replace them with, nor what to do with them once they’ve been replaced. This makes getting rid of them a hard sell.
To me, landfills are the easiest piece (perhaps this is because I know something about them). Landfills can turn into recycling centers and composting facilities with a smaller and smaller space required each year for actual waste disposal. Small-scale anaerobic digesters can be built at landfills so that energy can be collected quickly and efficiently. After digestion, the organics can be composted on site with no headaches about permitting! Landfill operators have the potential to remain waste handlers – they’ve got the corner on the market. Instead of piling and compacting the waste, they can turn it into products. Just take that infrastructure and turn it into something beneficial.
And everybody would be happy. You see, the general public is not really tied to landfills. Many people wouldn’t miss the landfill. As long as there was a place for the stuff to go that would be just fine with Joe Sixpack, or Joe Plumber or whoever the Joe of the moment is.
However landfills, the easy one, is also the one where I’ve had the most interactions with landfill operators and they don’t see this option as easy at all. Some of these landfill operators see any talk of changing how residuals are managed as yet another insult and affront to them professionally. They point out that they provide a critical public service and do it well. Then I say I’m not arguing with that. I am well aware that the stuff has to go someplace and they’ve done a very good job of finding a home for a waste. But we have to start looking at that waste as a resource, so putting it in a pit is no longer the appropriate model.
When I say that methane enters the atmosphere from landfills, the discussion gets even more heated. It is untrue, absolutely untrue I’ve been told. Well, I say, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency requires gas collection systems be put in place several years after waste goes into the landfill cell. But the waste doesn’t stop decaying in the interim, and it seems pretty clear – at least for the wet stuff – that without a gas collection system, methane will be released.
I add that while this may not be true of their particular landfill if they have gas collection systems in place from day 20, it is likely to be true for most landfills. Gas collection is expensive and if you aren’t required to put it in you probably haven’t. And the big point is why are we spending money to make landfills 100 percent efficient when we could be spending the same money to get something productive from these materials. The landfill guys could do it – but that is not what they do and to do something different requires change. And just like me in yoga class, they are not embracing change. Instead, they are digging their heels in.
I’ve been on this composting committee for the Chicago Climate Exchange. Methane avoidance is the primary component of all greenhouse gas credits for this protocol. One guy on the committee from a waste management company has had as his primary purpose to delay getting any protocol approved. Oh, you can’t say that or wait, we have data and that just isn’t reasonable. You just want to say “Enough!” Think differently and you can use this with your infrastructure to make lots of money a different way. This can be viewed as an opportunity and not a threat.
All of this and landfills are the easy one. There is still stuff for landfill operators to make money with, and green technologies to manage the stuff, but exurbs and gas stations have me stumped. There is a lot of capital sunk into these things. With that capital, there is an even greater resistance to change.
I worry about exurbs much more than gas stations, trying to come up with a creative alternative to people living in 4,000 sq ft houses and driving 60 miles each way to work. But then I think about growing up in New York City and taking the elevated train to high school through large parts of Brooklyn that looked to me like what Dresden must have looked like after WWII. Those are now well maintained houses. In some urban wastelands you see farms coming back. Those changes would have been incomprehensible to me when I was in high school. So maybe there are answers for the exurbs, maybe even for the gas stations. However, if the landfills are any indication, it’ll be a long hard battle.
Sally Brown – Research Associate Professor at the University of Washington in Seattle – is a member of BioCycle’s Editorial Board, and authors this regular column on the connections of composting, organics recycling and renewable energy to climate change. E-mail Dr. Brown at

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