‘Where will it end?’: The future of garbage


Tri-County Hazardous Waste & Recycling Program

Program Coordinator

Historically, efforts to reduce negative effects relating to our consumption have focused primarily downstream (recycling). That’s changing toward a more holistic life cycle approach coined “materials management.”

As important as recycling is, research tells us that the lion’s share of harmful impacts to resources and the environment occurs upstream during extraction and production when making our “stuff,” versus end-of-life impacts.

By example, if the United States recycled and composted 100 percent of our generated waste, our greenhouse gas emissions would decrease by just 6 percent. Don’t get me wrong — recycling is quite important, especially as we move to a future where we can’t afford to waste (for example, rare earth metals).

Yet by building upon the familiar concept of “reduce, reuse, recycle,” the emerging “materials management” approach systemically seeks to reduce materials use and their related environmental impacts over their entire life cycle of products and packaging, starting with extraction of natural resources and product design and ending with decisions about recycling or disposal.

This approach changes how we think about resource protection and recognizes the full impacts of what we consume. How will change beckon, if the bulk of solutions are upstream and out of reach of our consumer influence?

I suggest that the three main upstream drivers for change are: life cycle comparison, policy and innovation.

Life cycle analysis is a technique that assesses environmental impacts associated with all the stages of a product’s life from-cradle-to-grave (i.e., from raw material extraction through materials processing, manufacture, distribution, use, repair, maintenance, and disposal or recycling).

Eventually, this analysis may result in labeling on products that goes beyond size, ingredients and nutritional content to inform consumers about levels of resources, energy and toxicity used in making that product.

Currently, though, life cycle comparison is most effectively providing brand owners with information that they use to reduce environmental impacts. Recently, large retailers have started using a form of life cycle analysis (environmental scorecards) to compare specific products of competing suppliers.

The State of Oregon has also commissioned several life cycle analyses, looking at comparative impacts of e-commerce packaging, drinking water, residential housing and a “carbon footprint” of all Oregon consumption.

On the policy side, get acquainted with the terms “product stewardship” and “extended producer responsibility.”

Product stewardship refers to a broad umbrella of actions where producers minimize harmful impacts across the entire life of their product. Extended producer responsibility is a specific application of product stewardship, where state or federal laws shift responsibility and/or cost of end-of-life management of goods and hazardous materials away from local governments towards the designers and manufacturers.

Here in Oregon, we already enjoy the benefits of extended producer responsibility for deposit containers, paint and electronics. Yet if we look to trends in other states, and Canada and the European Union, our future is likely to include end-of-life management plans that aspire to re-loop most all of the remaining “waste” (appliances, tires, carpet, mattresses, construction and demolition materials, paper and packaging, batteries, plastics, pharmaceuticals, and hazardous waste).

What’s left? Looking upstream, other product stewardship initiatives could lead to healthier design and production. And looking at all wastes, the next term to get familiar with is “zero waste.” Sounds laughable, except it’s already happening elsewhere.

An average of 32 countries of the E.U. shows Europe disposes 38 percent of its waste in landfills, recycles 24 percent, incinerates 20 percent and composts 18 percent. A closer look reveals that the poorer countries generate much less waste per person, but tend to recycle less, too (Bulgaria landfills 100 percent).

Inversely, six of the richer countries (Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Sweden Austria and Switzerland) generate more per capita waste, yet they all send less than 1 percent to landfills. Oregon is right in the middle of that range of possibilities.

On the technology side, here are two local examples: Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber just signed a unique order to promote “green chemistry,” which strategizes to avoid toxic and poisonous substances from ever getting into our communities by incentivizing manufacturers to make less-harmful chemicals in the first place.

Secondly, a company here in Oregon (Agilyx) has developed a process to distill any petroleum-based plastic (#1-7) back into crude petroleum. Agilyx then ships that waste-derived crude to a domestic refinery in Tacoma. They are currently breaking ground on a facility in Portland that will process 40 tons per day of difficult-to-recycle waste plastics (caps, lids, films, trays and tubs, toys and basically all things plastic…).

Oregon Department of Environmental Quality is developing a road map for the future of our “stuff.” I highly recommend you read the background papers for its 2050 Vision for Materials Management in Oregon, which offers definitions, reports and literature reviews spanning from upstream production to end of life recovery, as well as summarized and detailed versions of what Sustainable Materials Management is and how to get from here to there.

DEQ plans to release a draft of its 2050 Vision by early July, giving the public an opportunity to weigh in this summer on the future of materials (including waste) management policy and programs in Oregon. Check the project web page at http://www.deq.state.or.us/lq/sw/materialsmgmtplan.htm, or click on the green envelope in the upper left corner to sign up for periodic e-mail updates about the Vision project.

Meanwhile, I recommend yet another new term, “conscious consumption,” (or “thoughtful consumption”) which describes ethical decision making by shoppers. Conscious consumption challenges us to delve deeper into the meaning of “reduce, reuse, recycle” by further asking “Where does it come from? How is it used? Where will it end up?”

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