by Tilly Pick and Aaron Hersum
Close to 100 people crowded into the Venture Café for BASG in May to talk about waste, landfills, waste-to-energy, recycling and zero waste.
We knew from the theme and how many people had signed up that the event would be a big one. And it was. Presentations and passionate discussion ran well beyond the end of our scheduled time. The many angles of the issues, the knowledge of our speakers and audience, and also how entrenched we can become based on our own experiences, was striking.
As anyone might suspect, there are many different ways to manage waste and mitigate its consequences. Much of the evening was dedicated to cover a lot of ground, with updates and discussion about what works, what doesn’t, and ideas for making things better.
One of the takeaways is both dramatically profound and refreshingly simple: As a sustainability community, we MUST do a better job of educating. That is especially true if we want to make “zero waste” happen, the ultimate goal for how to deal with what we produce, consume and put into the waste stream.
Time to unleash our passions onto others, right? Or, we could borrow a page from the playbook of the Environment Voter Project(EVP) and create a context that actually changes attitudes and behaviors. (For EVP, getting environmental voters out to vote is about social belonging.)
Here are insights and reminders that stood out from this BASG night out, and thoughts on what YOU can do. Hopefully they inspire new ways of teaching and learning for all of us.
- 60-80% of waste is commercial/industrial. WHAT YOU CAN DO: Be an education catalyst inside your company and with organizations (e.g. vendors, partners etc.) with whom you do businesses.
- Over 85,000 hazardous chemicals are buried in landfills or burned in incinerators. And, they don’t stay there. WHAT YOU CAN DO: Put some time in to collaborate with others at your organization to make it easy to understand the lifespan of chemicals associated with the things you make and do.
- All landfills eventually leak.The way they are designed and constructed requires them to be dry to be effective, which they never are. So, at some point they become problems, including a wonderful liquid called leachatethat ends up in our water and our air. Contaminants in the wastewater that comes from our landfills currently have no treatment. WHAT YOU CAN DO: Fixing this problem will require that we raise our voices to legislators. But, we first need to gather them. Start YOUR own list of who in your community or organization cares about this stuff. It will come in handy when working through waste and recycling issues.
- Single-stream recycling, as a technical innovation for converting the masses to recycling, may actually not be such a good idea.It relies on stable (or growing) valuation of recycled commodities, an assumption that China disruptedwhen they restricted import of recycled materials based on contamination. Yes, that means the pizza box with crusty cheese is changing recycling economics as the convenience of dumping everything together is lowering the quality of recycled materials to a point where major buyers aren’t buying. WHAT YOU CAN DO: You can help by sharing big storieslike this to familiarize people with the scale of the issue and by pointing to this “Recycling IQ” kitas a tangible and fun way for bringing people back around to sorting the way they did before single-stream recycling.
- The range of “zero waste” definitions are creating opportunities for what amounts to greenwashing as organizations claim to have achieved zero waste when in fact they have not. The Underwriter Laboratories (UL) definition, as one example, includes putting waste into an incinerator and does NOT account for the ash that ends up in a landfill, only measures material flows that are NOT part of an organization’s final product”, and is ONLY about landfill waste diversion. WHAT YOU CAN DO: We need clear and comprehensive zero waste standards that correctly measure progress and ensure we actually reach that goal. Key to that, thinking back to the presentation by Brian Balukonis, former Waste Process Owner for Raytheon’s Integrated Defense Systems (IDS) business segment, is recognizing that zero is a perfect score, and that we have to create room for the many steps that precede it.
- Recycled materials that used to generate revenue now can cost up to $100/ton to be hauled away. There still is value in these commodities, but not enough to be the driving economic factor for suppliers, haulers, and buyers. The new economic framework is instead shaped by big, future costs (e.g. system-wide health, infrastructure and resource costs) we avoid when we spend money now to clean up our act. WHAT YOU CAN DO: The math already exists in different parts of the sustainability landscape. Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) investment criteria do it in that industry. Your starting point could be finding an industry analogous to yours and creating illustrations that highlight the parallels.
- Trash/recycling contracts are one of the largest costs a town has according to Ed McGrath, Recycling Coordinator for the Town of Bedford, MA, and one of BASG’s presenters on this evening.Ah, taxpayer costs — THERE is the political will we need for these issues. The new and very real financial challenges associated with waste management and recycling, and the economic viability of the associated business models, turn these waste-related services into risk and management issues. WHAT YOU CAN DO: Talk trash. Seriously.
- In Massachusetts, 6 of 7 incinerators are in Environmental Justice communities. That means continued education about waste, recycling etc. will have far-reaching, downstream social benefits. WHAT YOU CAN DO:When you’re educating people about incinerators, make sure you frame it as more than traditional environmentalism. You are helping impact massive social issues.
- We learned from Kirstie Pecci, Director of the Zero Waste Projectand a Senior Fellow at Conservation Law Foundation, that, while continuous monitoring of Dioxin emissions from incinerators is technically possible, it is currently not being done in the U.S. In Europe, it is. WHAT YOU CAN DO:This is an easy question for any legislator: Why are we not making these technical upgrades in our own communities? The conversation will flow quite naturally when you remind them the communities that most immediately suffer from and are impacted by this are environmental justice communities.
- We have to pay more and better attention to data and logic in our policy-making and decision-making, as organizations, institution, cities, states and countries. How can we better mine gaps like these? For instance, Kirstie commented that there are 5x as many jobs in composting and recycling than in landfills and incinerators. The economic upside of that is easy to understand. Or, as Brian pointed out, it is hard to understand the cost of shipping trash around the world in the name of sustainability. There is a clear need to develop recycling and reuse capabilities here at home. And, when considering data related to waste, recycling, diversion etc., we need to make sure the dots are being connected. A downtick in paper recycling is actually a win if people are printing less or using double-sided printing, both of which are diversion tactics. WHAT YOU CAN DO: It seems we are all continuously learning this one. OUR ASK: How can we come together as a community to accelerate this learning?