BioCycle Magazine

Stop trashing the climate

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In June, the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) joined with Eco-Cycle and the Global Anti-Incinerator Alliance (GAIA) to release Stop Trashing the Climate, a report documenting the link between climate change and unsustainable patterns of consumption and wasting. Authored by Brenda Platt of ILSR, with coauthors Eric Lombardi of Eco-Cycle (Boulder, Colorado) and Dave Ciplet of GAIA, the report concludes that preventing waste and expanding reuse, recycling and composting programs - that is, aiming for zero waste - is one of the fastest, cheapest and most effective strategies available for combating climate change.

Stop Trashing the Climate also dispels myths about the climate benefits of landfill gas recovery and waste incineration, outlines policies needed to effect change, and offers a roadmap for how to significantly reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions within a short period.

An awful lot is wasted in the U.S. - 170 million tons each year of paper, plastics, metals, textiles, glass and other materials. Almost 4 million tons alone are junk mail. One-third is packaging. There are direct connections between the fact that Americans use one-third of the Earth's timber and paper and that deforestation accounts for as much as 30 percent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and that Americans generate 22 percent of the world's GHG emissions and produce 30 percent of the world's waste.

Trash is the tip of a very big iceberg. For every ton of municipal trash, about 71 tons of waste are produced during manufacturing, mining, oil and gas exploration, agriculture and coal combustion. This requires a constant flow of resources to be pulled out of the Earth, processed in factories, shipped around the world, and burned or buried in our communities. Needless to say, at each step, energy is consumed and greenhouse gases are released into the atmosphere. Wasting equals climate change.

If this one-way flow of materials from extraction to disposal continues, by the year 2030, Americans could generate 301 million tons/year of municipal solid waste, up from 251 million tons in 2006. Figure 1 visually represents the future projection of this trend based on our current wasting patterns. And because wasting is linked to core contributors of greenhouse gases such as industrial energy use, transportation and deforestation, GHG emissions will rise with the increase in wasting.

Unfortunately, government assessments of GHG emissions from waste take an overly narrow view of the potential for the “waste sector” to mitigate climate change. This is largely a result of inventory methodologies used to account for greenhouse gases from waste. Conventional GHG inventory data indicate that the waste sector is solely responsible for about 3 percent of U.S. and global GHG emissions.

This assessment, however, does not include the most significant climate change impact of waste disposal: We must continually extract new resources to replace those buried or burned. Figure 2 presents a contrasting view. It shows GHG emissions from the wasting sector, as well as emissions from other sectors that are integrally linked to wasting: truck transportation, industrial consumption of fossil fuels and electricity, nonenergy industrial processes, wastewater treatment, livestock manure management and the production and application of synthetic fertilizers. All in all, these sectors linked to wasting represent 36.7 percent of all U.S. GHG emissions. These are the sectors that would be impacted if more postconsumer materials were reused, recycled and composted.

Resource conservation, reduced consumption, product redesign, careful materials selection, new rules and incentives, and materials reuse, recycling, and composting have never been such a necessity as they are today. Rapid action to reduce GHG emissions, with immediate attention to those gases that pose a more potent risk over the short term, is nothing short of essential. Methane is one of only a few gases with a powerful short-term impact, and methane and carbon dioxide emissions from landfills and incinerators are at the top of a short list of sources of GHG emissions that may be quickly and cost-effectively reduced or avoided.

Leading scientists now agree that atmospheric GHG concentrations must decline over the next 15 years in order to avoid rapid and widespread climate change. Unfortunately, widely used tools to measure greenhouse gases evaluate the effects of the gases over 100 years. Over the 100-year timeline, methane has a global warming potential 25 times more potent than CO2. But on a 20-year time horizon (reflecting the need for significant reductions over the next 15 years as just noted), this global warming potential jumps to 72 times that of CO2. What does this mean? It means, for instance, that the impact of methane emissions from landfills in the short term are almost three times higher than reported. And it points to the need to target methane now. Based on a 20-year time horizon, methane emissions from landfills alone represent 5.2 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gases.

Current landfill methane mitigation strategies focus on methane capture rather than methane avoidance. However, landfill gas capture systems are not an effective strategy for preventing methane emissions to the atmosphere. The portion of methane captured over a landfill's lifetime may be as low as 20 percent of total methane emitted, according to a 2007 Working Group's report to the International Panel on Climate Change (see full report for complete references). Despite best available control technologies, most methane will escape uncontrolled, as the bulk of it is generated before gas capture systems are installed on those landfill cells.

The only effective method to prevent methane emissions from landfills is to stop biodegradable materials from entering landfills. The good news is that landfill alternatives such as composting and anaerobic digestion are readily available and cost-effective. Compost has the added benefit of adding organic matter to soil, sequestering carbon, improving plant growth and reducing water use - all important to stabilizing the climate. Composting is thus vital to restoring the climate and our soils and should be front and center in a national strategy to protect the climate in the short term.

Methane from landfills is far from the end of the story. A new generation of waste incinerators are being falsely promoted across the country as renewable energy, green power and as a solution to global warming. The truth is that incinerators are energy wasters rather than generators, and are significant emitters of carbon dioxide. Incinerators emit more carbon dioxide per megawatt-hour than coal-fired, oil-fired or natural-gas fired power plants. And because recycling conserves 3 to 5 times the energy these facilities purport to generate, they are better labeled as “waste of energy” or WOE facilities. In other words, incinerating trash is akin to spending 3 to 5 units of energy to make 1 unit. By destroying resources rather than conserving them, all incinerators - including mass burn, pyrolysis, plasma and gasification - cause significant and unnecessary lifecycle GHG emissions.

Incinerators, landfill gas capture systems and landfill “bioreactors” currently are being subsidized under state and federal renewable energy and green power incentive programs or carbon trading schemes. Far from benefiting the climate, subsidies to these systems reinforce a one-way flow of resources on a finite planet and make the task of conserving resources more difficult, not easier.

Incinerators are not the only problem, however. Planned landfill “bioreactors,” promoted to speed up methane generation, are likely to simply result in increased methane emissions in the short term and to directly compete with more effective methane mitigation systems such as composting and anaerobic digestion technologies. Preventing potent methane emissions altogether should be prioritized over strategies that offer only limited emissions mitigation. Indeed, all landfill operators should be required to collect landfill gases; they should not be subsidized to do this.

The good news is that preventing waste and expanding reuse, recycling and composting - that is, aiming for zero waste - is one of the fastest, cheapest and most effective strategies available for combating climate change. Figure 3 illustrates an alternate path based on rising recycling and composting rates and the source reduction of 1 percent of waste per year between 2008 and 2030. Under this Zero Waste Approach, 90 percent of the municipal solid waste generated in the U.S. could be diverted from disposal facilities by 2030.

Using the U.S. EPA's WAste Reduction Model (WARM) to estimate greenhouse gas reduction, the Zero Waste Approach - as compared to the business-as-usual approach - would reduce greenhouse gases by an estimated 406 megatons CO2 equivalent (eq.) per year by 2030. This reduction of 406 megatons CO2 eq. per year is equivalent to removing 21 percent of the nation's 417 coal-fired power plants.

This puts the 3Rs - reduce, reuse, recycle, along with composting - in the same league as other leading climate protection proposals such as improving national vehicle fuel efficiency, retrofitting lighting and protecting forests (See Table 1). Further, a Zero Waste Approach has greater potential for protecting the climate than environmentally harmful strategies proposed to reduce carbon emissions such as the expansion of nuclear energy. Moreover, reuse, recycling and composting facilities do not have the severe liability or permitting issues associated with building nuclear power plants or carbon capture and storage systems.

In order for a zero waste strategy to reduce U.S. GHG emissions by 406 megatons CO2 eq. per year by 2030, the following 12 priority policies are needed:

Implement 20-year national, statewide and municipal zero waste targets: Any zero waste target or plan must be accompanied by a shift in funding from supporting waste disposal to supporting zero waste jobs, infrastructure and local strategies.

Retire existing incinerators and halt construction of new incinerators and landfills: The use of incinerators and investments in new disposal facilities - including mass burn, pyrolysis, plasma, gasification other incineration technologies, and landfill “bioreactors” - obstruct efforts to reduce waste and increase materials recovery. Eliminating investments in incineration and landfilling is an important step to free up taxpayer money for resource conservation, efficiency and renewable energy solutions.

Levy a per-ton surcharge on landfilled and incinerated materials: Many European nations have adopted significant landfilling surcharges of $20 to $40/ton that are used to fund recycling programs and decrease greenhouse gases. Surcharges on both landfills and incinerators are an important counterbalance to the negative environmental and human health costs of disposal that are borne by the public.

Stop organic materials from being sent to landfills and incinerators: Implement local, state and national incentives, penalties or bans to prevent organic materials, particularly food discards and yard trimmings, from ending up in landfills and incinerators (see sidebar on COOL 2012 campaign).

End state and federal “renewable energy” subsidies to landfills and incinerators: Incentives such as the Renewable Electricity Production Tax Credit and Renewable Portfolio Standards should only benefit truly renewable energy and resource conservation strategies, such as energy efficiency and the use of wind, solar and ocean power. Resource conservation should be incentivized as a key strategy for reducing energy use. In addition, subsidies to extractive industries such as mining, logging and drilling should be eliminated. Instead, subsidies should support industries that conserve and safely reuse materials.

Provide policy incentives for locally-based reuse, recycling and composting: Incentives should be directed to revitalize local economies by supporting environmentally just, community-based and green materials recovery jobs and businesses.
Expand Pay-As-You-Throw (PAYT) programs: Adoption of per-volume or per-weight fees for the collection of trash, such as PAYT, has been proven to increase recycling and reduce the amount of waste disposed.

Make manufacturers responsible for products and packaging: Manufactured products and packaging represent 72.5 percent of all municipal solid waste. When manufacturers are responsible for recycling their products, they use less toxic materials, consume fewer materials, design products to last longer, create better recycling systems, are motivated to minimize waste costs and no longer pass the cost of disposal to the government and the taxpayer.

Regulate single-use plastic products and packaging: In less than one generation, the use and disposal of single-use plastic packaging has grown from 120,000 tons/year in 1960 to 12,720,000 tons/year today. Policies such as bottle deposit laws, polystyrene food takeout packaging bans and regulations targeting single-use water bottles and shopping bags have successfully been implemented in several jurisdictions around the world, and should be replicated everywhere.

Regulate paper packaging and junk mail: Of the 170 million tons of municipal solid waste disposed each year in the U.S., 24.3 percent is paper and paperboard. Reducing and recycling paper will decrease releases of numerous air and water pollutants to the environment, and will also conserve energy and forest resources, thereby reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Reject climate protection agreements that incorporate burning and disposal: Decision-makers and environmental leaders should reject climate protection agreements and strategies that embrace landfill and incinerator disposal. Rather than embrace agreements and blueprints that call for supporting waste incineration as a strategy to combat climate change, such as the U.S. Conference of Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, decision-makers and environmental organizations should adopt climate blueprints that support zero waste. One example of an agreement that will move cities in the right direction for zero waste is the Urban Environmental Accords signed by 103 city mayors worldwide.

Assess the true climate implications of the waste sector: Measuring greenhouse gases over the 20-year time horizon, as published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, is essential to reveal the impact of methane on the short-term tipping point. Also needed are updates to the U.S. EPA's WAste Reduction Model (WARM), a tool for assessing greenhouse gases emitted by solid waste management options, as well as new models to accurately account for the impact of local activities on total global emissions and to compare the lifecycle climate impact of different energy generation options.

Bottom Line
By cutting waste, we would not only better protect the planet's climate, we would also double or triple the life of existing landfills, eliminate the need to build expensive new incinerators and landfills, create jobs, build healthier and more equitable communities, restore the country's topsoil, conserve valuable resources and reduce our reliance on imported goods and fuels

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