By Mark Peterson
As we head into what appears to be another tumultuous year for so many aspects of business and our daily lives, the world of solid waste will be no different and won’t be spared the inevitable disruptions we will all face. Lately, I have been reading about the waste trends we may see in 2021 and the prognosticators have widely varying views but sharing the one constant of uncertainty. Few experts are prepared to make firm predictions for what is in store in the near future. My hope is that the uncertainty and at times necessity to rethink how we currently handle solid waste will help us arrive at some creative and positive solutions to the ever growing mounds of trash headed to our landfills.
The global pandemic has required that we reimagine so many things to meet the moment we all face, and we have seen significant changes in health care, senior housing, addressing food insecurity and adapting to a world of virtual meetings, schools and workplaces. Many experts state the massive and immediate shift to the remote workplace is one that would have otherwise taken decades to come to fruition. Few would argue that once we finally see some sense of normalcy post-pandemic that we will not all return to cubicles and offices en masse. Remote work in some capacity is certain to remain a feature of our work lives going forward. The opportunity to assess how and where we work is a positive outgrowth of a very negative circumstance.
Can we do the same and use this as a chance to reimagine the world of solid waste? I think we can, I think we should, and I would venture our need to do so is imperative. The pandemic has laid bare some of most egregious practices related to waste disposal. Who among us hasn’t seen the images of thousands of gallons of milk being dumped down drains and massive amounts of edible food being sent to landfills while a sizable portion of our community goes hungry? We know now that the world markets for recycling plastic are almost non-existent. Yet, the shift to grocery pickups, individual meal boxes, huge increases in takeout food and the explosion in packaging from online orders is only accelerating our use of plastic at a time where our ability to dispose of it responsibly has drastically declined.
However, there are happenings afoot that increase my optimism for a new better way of dealing with our waste. Bridge technologies are something I am keenly following, and we are seeing this in the energy sector as we consider a whole suite of options, waste to energy power, as we march toward carbon neutral fuel sources. Waste to energy plants are one of these such bridge technologies. Waste-to-Energy (WTE) takes non-hazardous waste – otherwise destined for landfill – and combusts it, generating steam for electricity production. Ash is processed to recover metal for recycling while all gases are collected, filtered and cleaned to minimize environmental impact.
On average, the U.S. EPA has determined that Energy from Waste (EfW) facilities reduce the amount of GHGs expressed as CO2equivalents (GHGs or CO2e) in the atmosphere by approximately one ton for every ton of municipal solid waste (MSW) combusted. By avoiding emissions that would have otherwise occurred, EfW is the only major source of electricity that reduces GHG emissions. In this way, EfW facilities play an important role in the climate change solution.
The above being said, the all-important caveat is, we still must continue to all we can to reduce waste upstream, recycle all we can, incorporate WTE plants and reduce the amount we send to landfill. Landfilling waste must continue to be highlighted as the worst and last possible option for dealing with our waste – after all landfills are a known super spreader of methane. There is plenty of work to do to reduce food waste, reduce plastics use, compost more, and increase compostable container use and accompanying infrastructure. Much of this can be done in low tech ways. Pair this with new technology and fresh thinking and I am confident we can utilize the challenges of this pandemic as a catalyst for committing to better waste practices in the future.