Waste is a huge opportunity. We’re talking mainly here about waste from human consumption and daily activities (food, shelter, clothing, etc.). Humans produce it daily by the bucket loads (about 4.4 pounds per day per person according to most estimates). According the EPA:
- In 2014, in the United States, about 258 million tons of MSW were generated. Over 89 million tons of MSW were recycled and composted, equivalent to a 34.6 percent recycling rate. In addition, over 33 million tons of MSW were combusted with energy recovery and 136 million tons were landfilled.
- Recycling and composting of MSW results in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduction. In 2014, the 89 million tons of MSW recycled and composted provided an annual reduction of over 181 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions, comparable to the annual emissions from over 38 million passenger cars.
So we still have a long way to go (about two-thirds) if we want to get to an 100% recycle rate. Better management of waste is going to mean less pollution (e.g. methane from landfills), less garbage in oceans and islands, and bring benefits like more efficient (less costly) process and even new sources of energy.
Convenience is a big issue. Many localities don’t have the facilities and have to have waste hauled away to different states. In rural areas there’s often no service at all for recycleable materials. For food waste, the opportunities for composting are massive. Maintaining soil quality is a major issue for farmers, and by combining nutrient-rich compost with biochar (another waste product, which also sequesters carbon), there could be major improvements. It could also reduce society’s dependence upon phosphate-based fertilizers currently used in agriculture, produced from natural gas.
Instead of loading garbage on landfills, we’re getting better at using it for energy. Think “Back to the Future II” where Doc loads up the flux capacitor with banana peels and some beer out of the garbage can. We’re not quite there yet. Things are moving a little faster in Europe and elsewhere for waste-to-energy. Energy produced from “other biomass” (“municipal waste from biogenic sources, landfill gas, and other non-wood waste”) is a small percentage in the US but growing.
There’s also something known as “waste prevention,” or “sustainable materials management.” This is the basis of the circular economy models, where waste is designed out of the entire product life cycle, where waste is minimized and everything possible is reused. “Waste is a feedstock” is the mantra of some in this business. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation is dedicated to advancing the circular economy, and they produced a report on how to reduce waste in the consumer goods sector (with a focus on Europe).
Hope you’ve enjoyed this post. Have any ideas on how to apply any of these ideas in your community? Please post in comments.
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