From Trash to Treasure

Recapturing and Repurposing Our Garbage

by Jeane Bruce Bigham / May 30, 2014

NOTE: This is the third feature of the June 2014 issue of FutureStructure. We'll be posting the other features over the coming weeks but if you'd like to get a PDF of the entire issue you can DOWNLOAD IT NOW.

As a society, we’re becoming more conscious of what goes into the products we choose to consume before they get to us. Take our food, for instance. Media coverage, scientific research and a generally increased awareness have brought needed attention to food additives and chemical pesticides. The organic food movement is still booming. The farm-to-table movement has highlighted the virtues of local, healthful and sustainable food production. We aren’t only concerned with what goes into our bodies, but about the constitution of all of the products that come our way.

But what happens after we finish with these things?

We certainly don’t think about waste in a way that is interconnected with the other systems like water management, energy and beyond. Maybe we should.

Closing the loop on waste – and integrating it with other systems – may be more than a noble policy goal. In fact, it may make smart economic sense as well. Waste streams often still contain things of remarkable value - if they are extracted and used in the right way. Landfill mining advocates note that landfills have a higher concentration of aluminum than the metallic ore that is normally used as a raw material. The East Bay Municipal Utility District in California is using food and bio waste to save $3 million per year and generate more than enough electricity to meet its own needs. “Waste to energy” projects are cropping up in Mexico, Canada, Scotland and Norway. And as water rights become an increasingly difficult issue – especially in the American West and South – reusing water from the waste stream is a particularly encouraging prospect.

To make this happen, we need to start thinking of waste as a system.

Talking Trash: Why the Status Quo Isn’t Pretty

Trash talk is ugly and garbage isn’t glamorous. The expansion of cities and urbanization, coupled with increasing wealth worldwide and the fact that humans in general produce growing amounts of garbage, are creating rising global waste management problems. Worldwide, the volume of annual municipal solid waste is projected to double – from today’s 1.3 billion tons per year to 2.6 billion tons – by 2025. Add to that the fact that e-waste is astronomical, with 1.7 million tons in the U.S. sent to landfills or incinerated in 2010 alone.

There are some bright spots. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gave solid waste a grade of a B- in its 2013 Report Card on America’s Infrastructure. For comparison’s sake, our energy infrastructure received a D+ and our drinking water a D. For one, the ASCE report cited large gains in recycling rates. Between 1980 and 2010 the percentage of municipal solid waste (MSW) disposed in landfills decreased by 35 percent and recycling diverted 85 million tons of MSW from landfills in 2010, compared with only 15 tons in 1980.

But despite these gains, the U.S. remains a top trash producer – so much so that our No. 1 export is garbage – and our go-to disposal method is the landfill. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that while the number of landfills has declined over the years, the average size has increased. Fifty-five percent of America’s waste is dumped in these landfills and left to slowly decay. In comparison, Germany sends less than 1 percent of its trash to landfills, converting 38 percent of the rest to energy and recycling 62 percent.

In the U.S., local leaders aren’t convinced their waste infrastructures can get the job done. According to the survey by the Governing Institute, only 6 percent of respondents agreed that their community’s waste management infrastructure completely met their needs.

Invisible Waste

One of the largest challenges with waste and other utilities are that they are part of a “hidden infrastructure,” a complicated process that takes time and money, but that we don’t fully see and are unlikely to appreciate.

Perhaps one of the most beautifully written passages about waste in society was penned by Italo Calvino in his novel Invisible Cities. His description of the city of Leonia captures human nature’s attitude toward refuse.

“That fact is that street cleaners are welcomed like angels, and their task of removing the residue of yesterday’s existence is surrounded by a respectful silence, like a ritual that inspires devotion, perhaps only because once things have been cast off nobody wants to have to think about them further. Nobody wonders where, each day, they carry their load of refuse. Outside the city, surely; but each year the city expands, and the street cleaners have to fall farther back. The bulk of the outflow increases and the piles rise higher, become stratified, extend over a wider perimeter. Besides, the more Leonia’s talent for making new materials excels, the more the rubbish improves in quality, resists time, the elements, fermentations, combustions. A fortress of indestructible leftovers surrounds Leonia, dominating it on every side, like a chain of mountains.”

Like the residents of Leonia, most of us don’t wonder where the trucks carry our garbage. We prefer our waste to be invisible – buried in a landfill or shipped someplace else as long as it’s not in our backyard. But we also have an expectation that our waste will be taken care of. In the same way we expect the light to turn on when we flip the switch and the water to run as we turn the knob, trash retrieval seems as certain as death and taxes.

Myopic Focus

A second problem with waste management is an issue inherent in government agencies: siloed departments that can make laser-focused decisions. In 2013, Houston’s “One Bin for All” proposal was awarded $1 million by Bloomberg Philanthropies. The idea – to have residents discard all materials into a single bin and centrally process and sort them – was proposed largely because of Houston’s dismal recycling rates (14 percent). The city, like many others across America, was putting significant resources into recycling – each day, multiple trucks would go out to pick up waste from multiple bins on multiple routes.

It’s hard to argue that recycling isn’t a good policy, but what happens when we look at the carbon emissions increase from having multiple trucks on the road? Is the effort worth the effects? Perhaps not. A study at Washington State University found that test subjects asked to cut paper into strips to evaluate scissors used three times as much paper when they were told a recycling bin was in the room as opposed to when they were told a waste basket was in the room.

In looking at cities as systems, we can begin to see the possible consequences – positive or negative – of our policies, infrastructure investments and technological implementations. According to the Governing Institute survey, 67 percent of respondents thought it was important to integrate energy into waste management systems, 51 percent thought it was important to integrate water and 33 percent though it was important to integrate transportation.

Integrating and Innovating: Policies, Programs and People

If we look at waste management through a FutureStructure lens, we need to first consider our current policies, programs and people and what ideas could make a difference. One policy gaining prominence – despite being around for decades – are so called “pay as you throw” (PAYT) programs, which provide financial incentives to decrease waste, treating trash as we do other utilities like electricity and water. PAYT has been shown to change consumer behaviors, such as choosing products with less packaging or composting yard waste.

Zero waste policies – in which no discards are sent to landfills or designated for high-temperature destruction – are also increasing in popularity. San Francisco’s pledge to attain zero waste by 2020 advocates for citizens to reduce waste first, then reuse, and finally to recycle and compost. Seattle has been moving toward zero waste for over a decade, with a goal to divert 60 percent of trash from the landfill by 2015 (the city was at 55.7 percent in 2012) and 70 percent by 2022.

Sacramento’s “farm-to-fork-to-fuel” initiative is one of the best examples of how policies and programs can turn a supply chain mentality to that of a supply cycle. Nonprofit organizations and corporate entities are collaborating to divert organic waste from landfills and turn it into anaerobically digested renewable waste, use compressed natural gas to power public and private vehicles and create zero waste zones.

Dubuque, Iowa, Mayor Roy Buol said getting everyone involved – government leaders from different parts of the city as well as constituents – is the key to success with all sustainability measures. Buol launched “Sustainable Dubuque,” a bottom-up initiative that brings a coalition of local interests together and gives everyone in the city a chance to contribute ideas to move the city forward. Dubuque became an IBM Smarter City in 2010 and has since reduced water usage, electricity usage and optimized transportation resources.

“Citizen involvement – making them part of the process, no matter what project you are trying to develop – is the underlying key to success,” said Buol. “My mantra has always been ‘engaging citizens as partners.’”

In Edmonton, Alberta, a city that has a 60 percent landfill diversion rate and is aiming for 90 percent, leaders also advocate for citizen involvement. In working on its plan to hit 90 percent landfill diversion rates, Roy Neehall, general manager of Waste RE-Solutions Edmonton, said, "We did not dictate to residents. We listened, educated, listened." What the city found, was that its residents were "way ahead of politicians and administrators" on this issue.

Respondents to the Governing Institute’s research survey agree with Buol and Neehall. Sixty-seven percent said that public awareness was an important part of a successful waste management system.

Coupling Traditional Infrastructure with Technology

Boston provides a great example of how combining hard infrastructure and technology can turn around even the worst environmental conditions. Once known as the “dirtiest harbor in America,” Boston’s waterfront was plagued by sewage and other waste seeping into the Charles River since America’s founding. Sewage and other waste received very limited treatment before being dumped in the harbor, and the water was filthy, poisoned by the waste of the city and its surrounding areas. A federal court order mandated the city clean up this blight and the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority was born. Today, after a $4 billion investment in a state-of-the-art sewage treatment plant, the harbor is clean enough for children to swim in and the city to enjoy.

The Deer Island Wastewater Treatment Plant is the key to the harbor’s cleanliness. Each day, 350 million gallons of water travel underground through Boston’s pipes, arriving at the plant for processing. Through a multi-part process, the plant removes all raw sewage – including “floatables” and other large debris. What is left is “sludge,” a mixture of liquefied waste that once would have mixed with the water in the harbor. Now, large egg-shaped digesters that act like churning stomachs use bacteria to eat the sludge (the process known as anaerobic digestion), reducing it by one-third and producing methane gas as a byproduct. This methane is used to create steam and hot water for the facility. Remaining pathogens are killed by chlorine, the chlorine is killed by another chemical and what is released into the harbor is purified and pristine H20.

Gasification and Pyrolysis

Like anaerobic digestion, gasification can also create energy through a waste treatment and recovery process. It works like this: The waste is heated in a low-oxygen environment, which causes some of the waste to combust and the rest to decompose – that then turns into hydrogen, carbon monoxide and methane. These gases go to a boiler, which burns them cleanly and makes steam to run a turbine that produces electricity. Ash, the biggest byproduct of the process, is run through a magnet to capture iron for recycling.

The technique is used in Alexandria, Va., which is powering more than 20,000 homes with the electricity produced from 100 tons of municipal waste each day, as well as Indianapolis, where the steam helps power Lucas Oil Stadium and other buildings downtown.

The waste-to-energy concept has gained steam over the past several years, but proponents still say the United States is missing opportunities compared to Europe, where waste to energy has become the preferred method of disposal. The EU runs 420 waste-to-energy plants (compared to the 87 in the United States), which provide power to 20 million people. The practice is becoming so popular that Norway, which has the largest share of waste-to-energy production, is importing trash to feed its incinerators.

One of the reasons the U.S. has been slow to adopt waste to energy is the harmful gases produced by combustion emissions. But technology has provided a helping hand, say proponents, and emissions are 80 to 90 percent under limits set by the EPA in facilities like the one in Alexandria.

As with any other policy or process, waste to energy should be viewed as a component of a community, city or country’s system and considerations should be made to ensure the process is optimized within the greater whole.

Similar to gasification, pyrolysis decomposes waste in the absence of oxygen. Products of pyrolysis include oil, gas and char, or steam that can be used to generate electricity. In Ireland, discarded plastic is turned into fuel through the pyrolysis process – 20 tons of plastic is converted into 19,000 liters of synthetic fuel.

A recent study from the Illinois Sustainable Technology center, a division of the University of Illinois, found that fuel derived from non-recycled plastics from waste (such as shopping bags) through pyrolysis was easily compatible with fuels from bio-based and traditional fuel sources, had equally high energy content and was better performing in several other criteria.

Integrating Waste Management for the Future

There is no one-size-fits-all to waste management, but there is a movement toward trying different techniques, sometimes with smaller scale and more flexible technologies that can transform trash. Looking at waste management from all angles and thinking about how reducing, recycling and recovering can work together to promote environment and economic sustainability is a good place to start. In FutureStructure fashion, involving all stakeholders and hearing the point of view of the transportation department, utilities, environmentalists, finance and the collective voice of citizens is absolutely crucial to avoiding a siloed policy that lacks common sense. By doing this we can move firmly from a supply chain to a supply cycle.

Jeana Bruce Bigham is the Custom Content Specialist for e.Republic’s Custom Media department. She is passionate about simple, innovative technologies that improve the lives of citizens and help transform communities. She has held various positions within the Center for Digital Government and the Center for Digital Education, including Editor of Converge magazine, Director of Publications and Director of Custom Media. Bigham earned a degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, Columbia. She resides in St. Louis.