Waste Goal Offers Durham a Way Out of the Landfill Dilemma
Durham’s public officials are facing a dilemma similar to that faced by many of us in the polling booth -- choosing the lesser of two evils. Do we build a new landfill in Durham or do we construct a transfer station and ship our waste to an out-of-county landfill? I propose we consider a third alternative -- building the public and private infrastructure for near total recycling of Durham’s discarded materials and pursuing a zero waste goal for the next century. By "total r ecycling" I mean waste prevention, recycling, composting, repairing or reusing all discarded materials.
As a nation, we recently exceeded 25% recycling, a level many skeptics called impossible a few years ago. Now, several cities are achieving nearly 50% diversion from landfills, including Seattle, San Jose, Minneapolis, ST. Paul and Takoma Par k in Maryland. Canberra, the capital of Australia, has set a zero waste goal by 2010. Here in North Carolina, the state legislature has established a goal of 40 % per capita waste reduction by June 30, 2001. By working with big industrial g enerators, some rural counties have already exceeded the goal, including Northampton (54 % per capita waste reduction) , Richmond (51 %) and Stokes (49 %). Alamance County, including Burlington, reports 35 % waste reduction, achieved in par t by a landfill ban on a wide range of recyclable commodities, in conjunction with a comprehensive recycling program.
Durham has also made much progress -- achieving 11 % per capita waste reduction from 1988 to 1995 -- the best record of NC’s six most populous counties, according to the state’s solid waste management report. We have achieved this through som e of the state’s first recycling and composting programs, instituted around 1990, combined with higher landfill tipping fees. However, with the right investments, public policy, and civic and business leadership, we could move towards 100%& nbsp;reduction of our mixed waste disposal in the next few years.
Many companies are already striving for and have nearly achieved zero emissions and zero waste, such as Hewlett Packard in CA, Interface Carpets in GA, Wellmark Corp. in Asheboro, and Main Street Café in Durham. These companies ar e working to achieve higher profitability by eliminating environmental liabilities and often generating new scrap product revenues.
Why pursue zero waste? Because disposal of mixed solid waste is inherently dangerous to the environment and public health -- whether handled in landfills, incinerators, pyrolysis plants, mixed waste composting or other "black box" garbag e processing facilities. When we mix our refuse together, we unfortunately sometimes include batteries, waste oil, pesticides, chemicals, and other toxics that will eventually contaminate groundwater, the air, or the soil. By providing opportuni ties to separate and recycle all of our discarded materials, hazardous materials will have "nowhere to hide" in mixed garbage containers and will have to be reduced at the source, recycled, or treated separately.
Beyond public health and environmental concerns, we are losing economic opportunities by burying our discarded material. A waste stream analysis generated by the state estimates that the paper, glass, aluminum and steel cans and #1 PETE and #2 HDPE bottles in Durham County’s "trash" would be worth about $3.9 million dollars if all were recovered and sold to recycling processors – yet we are currently recovering only about one-fifth of these commodities. If we attracted or started manufacturing businesses that not only processed our scrap materials but made new products -- such as glass tiles, molded fiber packaging, cellulose insulation, or plastic containers -- the local sales revenues and job creation woul d be that much greater. The Institute for Local Self-Reliance estimates that processing recyclable materials generates ten times more jobs on a per ton basis than landfilling, while recycling-based paper mills and plastics manufacturers&nbs p;employ 60 times more workers than do landfills. Especially with upcoming welfare reform and the recent loss of two manufacturing employers in downtown Durham, these manufacturing jobs could offer new employment to citizens of our inner ci ty neighborhoods.
"Zero waste!" Is this a crazy goal or a prudent strategy for the future? If I have persuaded you that a zero waste goal could make sense as an environmental and economic development strategy for Durham, your next question might be "How can we do it?" and "Is it affordable?" In my next column, I will note that if we can separate our discarded materials into a few reusable, recyclable, and compostable streams, there are companies interested in profitably recovering nearly all&nbs p;of our materials. In the third and final column, I will suggest some immediate next steps to move Durham towards total recycling and away from reliance on either local or out-of-town landfills.
Waste Could Mean New Businesses
Achieving zero waste and full materials recovery from homes and businesses in Durham will require new thinking, new policies, and new businesses. We currently often mix all of our discarded materials together and call them "garbage", "trash", or "solid waste." When we mix different commodities together in our garbage cans, dumpsters, packer trucks, and landfills we lose their inherent value had they been kept separated at the source. It would be like taking all of the food out of our refrigerators and cupboards and throwing it all in a big boiling pot together – who would want the mess? However, if we take each ingredient out separately and prepare it according to a recipe we can be sure that at least someone in the household will eat it.
So, too, with almost all of our discarded materials. If we keep them separated in a few reasonable categories, recycling entrepreneurs will be eager to process or manufacture them into new products. The NC Environmental Business Study released in July 1996 identified 586 recycling companies in the state, with $945 million in sales and 8,970 employees. These companies are involved in collecting, processing, reusing, composting and remanufacturing a wide range of materials. In Durham alone, these companies include Automotive Waste Recycle, Bakery Feeds, BFI, Building Supply Recycling Center, Durham Scrap Metal, Orange Recycling Services, Paper Stock Dealers, Reynolds Aluminum, S. Swartz & Sons, SunShares, Waste Industries and Waste Management.
By declaring a zero waste goal and instituting the policies and infrastructure to achieve the goal, Durham can help these ventures to grow and encourage more companies to relocate or start-up in the city. Instead of investing most of our public funds in solid waste collection containers, fleets, transfer stations, and landfills, we should build the infrastructure to foster these sustainable ventures. For example, West Virginia’s Solid Waste Management Board commissioned Urban Ore, Inc. to develop designs for an Integrated Resource Recovery Facility (IRRF). The IRRF is designed as a "reverse shopping center" with several recovery businesses leasing space as tenants. Each of these businesses specialize in recovering one or more of the "clean dozen" master categories of discarded material, as defined by Urban Ore: reusable goods, paper, plant debris, food scraps, woods, ceramics (brick, concrete, etc.), soils, metals, glass, plastics, textiles, and chemicals.
Durham’s local governments could play a role in fostering the development of an IRRF by doing site preparation, installing shared truck scales, providing business incubator services, employee training and placement, and providing a flow of source separated materials from municipal collections. With these incentives, recycling entrepreneurs would find the IRRF site an ideal start-up or expansion site. At a minimum, these ventures would need to include 1) one or more recycling processors for cleaning and compacting glass, metals, paper, plastics and textiles for manufacturing markets 2) one or more soil products companies for shredding, composting and screening plant debris, food waste, soil, and mixed paper 3) one or more salvage and reuse firms to receive, organize, and sell reusable goods and to salvage building materials and 4) one or more aggregate processors to separate, crush and screen construction and demolition materials not otherwise salvageable. Companies receiving higher value discards, such as reusables, could accept materials for free (or pay for them) while processors of lower valued discards such as aggregates could charge a per ton drop-off fee that would cover processing costs but be less than the cost of landfill disposal.
Taking this design even farther, plans for Canberra, Australia’s zero waste/100% recovery facility also include space for dozens of small scale manufacturing companies around the perimeter of the core tipping and processing areas – shipping out glassware, fertilizers, furniture, rebuilt computers, cellulose insulation, plastic lumber and a host of other products made from recovered materials. An industrial site like the soon-to-be vacated 150,000 square foot Golden Belt factory in downtown Durham could be renovated as an IRRF, providing new manufacturing jobs for central city neighborhoods and a host of new entrepreneurial opportunities.
The IRRF concept helps us to visualize what is possible. Given the realities of existing development and businesses, it is likely that a network of recovery ventures across Durham would also grow and develop if we put public support behind a full recovery strategy. However, the centralized and networked recovery locations must be convenient and affordable for citizens and haulers, so that they have an economic incentive to separate and recycle their discards. In the near term, some residual mixed solid waste will be generated, but high local or out-of-county landfill costs should strongly discourage wasting and encourage patronage of local recycling companies. I will suggest some next steps for Durham to move from a "solid waste disposal system" to a "recovered materials economy" in my next column.
Recycling a Convenient Civic Duty
How can we convert our garbage into commodities and jobs in Durham? By making it easy and cheap to recycle and reduce waste while difficult and expensive to create waste. In our homes, this means convenient, weekly collections not only for newspapers, bottles, cans, leaves, and brush, but also for magazines, junk mail, office paper, textiles, used oil, reusable goods and food scraps. With all of these materials collected for recycling and composting, we should generate very little if any waste for landfilling.
However, household waste is only about one-third of what goes in the Durham landfill – the rest comes from businesses, industries, and universities. Each of these generators also needs convenient collections of the materials it discards– paper from offices, cardboard from retail outlets, food scraps and containers from restaurants, and specialized scrap materials from industrial facilities.
If we institute more comprehensive recycling collections, though, how can we be sure everyone participates? Some businesses and homes in Durham already reduce waste and recycle aggressively, but many still are throwing everything "away". Many communities have decided to adopt "pay as you throw" fees in which each home and business pays for the full cost of their solid waste collection and disposal, based on how much they waste. If one printing company fills up a garbage dumpster per week, they pay accordingly, while another printer that recycles all of their paper scrap avoids the waste fees and sometimes even earns recycling revenues. At the residential level, pay-as-you-throw programs need to provide credits for fixed or low income residents to help assure that the fees do not make the tax structure more regressive. Everyone has the opportunity to cut waste costs by reducing their waste at the source and recycling.
Other cities have made recycling a mandatory civic duty – like stopping at stop signs. Easy recycling opportunities are provided for all and all are expected to participate. Homes and businesses that mix their recyclables into waste containers are generating more expenses and environmental liabilities and are cited and fined accordingly. Already, the city has taken this type of initiative with one material – cardboard. Businesses are provided with free cardboard recycling dumpster collections and if commercial garbage trucks dump waste loads at the landfill including large amounts of cardboard, they are double charged tipping fees.
If we provide strong economic incentives, civic requirements, and thorough education, Durham residents will respond by recycling, composting and reusing more and reducing waste at the source. But how will we pay for the new recovery efforts? One way would be to cut back on mixed solid waste collections, once we all have the opportunity to recover the majority of our materials. In my household and home office, only about 15% of our discarded materials goes into the garbage roll out cart, the rest are recycled or composted. At that rate, once per month mixed waste collection would be quite sufficient.
Currently, much of the city’s revenue to support solid waste and recycling programs comes from the tipping fees charged at the landfill, along with property taxes. As of January 1, 1998, state law will require all unlined landfills, including Durham’s, to close. We will have to find a new way to fund our discarded materials system. Reduced mixed solid waste collection and disposal costs, higher recycling and composting revenues, property taxes, and pay-as-you-throw fees can all be part of the mix to address this fiscal shortfall. Our new financing plan should provide more revenue and less expenses as we reduce waste. Unfortunately, we now have the counter-productive economic incentive to landfill more so as to collect more tipping fees.
The added benefits of overcoming our reliance on landfills and fostering a sustainable materials economy can be significant. With the loss of many cigarette manufacturing jobs, Durham needs new industries that are accessible to skilled blue collar workers. If we keep our scrap commodities separate, many new employment opportunities could be generated in manufacturers using recovered materials, in repair and reuse shops, in processing plants, in soil products companies and in collection programs. By realizing that our "solid waste problem" is really a "commodity manufacturing opportunity," Durham has the chance to develop a win-win solution.
Achieving zero waste will be a challenge for every household and business, and especially for Durham as a whole. But what is the alternative? Accepting the continued community divisiveness, environmental hazards, and expenses of landfilling? Accepting the lost economic and employment opportunities of burying valuable commodities? Surely we can do better. As our parents and grandparents knew and our children remind us -- We can "waste not, want not."