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The California Integrated Waste Management Act (AB 939) was passed by the State Legislature to force communities throughout California to implement source reduction, recycling and composting programs. This vision has been lost, and replaced by the need to meet the State diversion mandate. The numbers game has supplanted the goal. Counting tons disposed and diverted has become more important than an honest evaluation of the effectiveness of the programs implemented, and counting has replaced actual program expansion.
We need to return to the goal -- sensible diversion programs that recover materials and maintain their value. Resources should be recovered for their value, not just to keep them out of a landfill. We need to change the focus, but to do so will require a paradigm shift.
Prior to the 1950s, the waste management industry was primarily oriented toward materials recovery. Scavenging companies sorted discards at the truck and hauled to different locations for reuse. Used clothes were sold as clothes or for rags, bottles and jars were washed for reuse, food waste went to farmers for hog feed, and only a small percentage of the collected discards went to the "dump" at the end of the day. Of course, there were fewer types of discards then, but the collection of materials in separated streams, each of which could be processed for recovery, was the common practice.
With the surge of economic growth and consumer spending in the 1950s, the waste management industry went through a major paradigm shift -- from a resource-based system to a garbage-based system. The shift occurred with the "invention" of the packer truck, designed to collect more wastes from more households with fewer trips to a more distant dump site. Its purpose was to move materials from the house to the disposal facility more efficiently. The process compacts mixed wastes in the truck, and makes previously recoverable materials into unsalvageable "garbage."
Waste Management Contracting
Waste collection contracts are generally structured so that garbage companies can profit from the garbage collection and disposal part of the business. Since communities view recycling programs as add-ons to the garbage collection and disposal contract, they have been reluctant to allow the recyclables collectors to make the same profit margins for recycling services.
To increase diversion, these contract provisions should be reversed. If garbage collection contracts were cost recovery only, and profits were based on how much material is diverted from disposal,the haulers would have strong incentives
Waste collection contracts could be structured to provide powerful financial incentives for source reduction programs. Payments could be based inversely on tonnage disposed, not on the amount of materials collected. Under such contracts, promoting source reduction in addition to recycling would reward collection companies with more profit because they would reduce their expenses for collecting and handling wastes while they would be paid more as the amount disposed was reduced. For example, providing back-yard compost bins to residents and training them on the proper composting techniques could become a major cost savings technique when compared with collection and processing of plant trimmings.
The Cost of Recycling
The cost of collecting recyclables has remained high, relative to the cost of garbage collection, because:
Sending The Right Message
Because many communities still view recycling as a small part of their waste management system, small containers are often provided for the recyclables and large containers for garbage. This sends the message that only a small fraction of the residents' discards are recoverable, but most of it is garbage. This is clearly the wrong message.
Since the late 50s, the waste management industry has continued to add innovation in garbage collection equipment. The most important improvement has been the introduction of automated collection systems to collect more waste in less time and reduce worker injury, when compared with manual collection systems. This change has not been carried over to recycling collection equipment. Collection of recyclables is still primarily manual.
To provide for the highest level of diversion, and to achieve the highest and best community and social benefits, collection systems need to "un-make" garbage by grouping the materials in categories which do not contaminate each other. Separation of wet wastes from dry wastes, and subsets of wet wastes (e.g., kitchen wastes separate from plant trimmings) and dry (e.g., paper separate from other dry materials) maintains the highest and best use for the recovered materials. By keeping these materials separate, the process that makes garbage would be eliminated. Even with this level of separation, there would still be residue to landfill, just as there was in the "good old days" before packer trucks, but once again the residue would be a small fraction of the total wastes generated.
Turning The Management Structure Upside Down
The organization of City government and the waste management industry staffing also sends the wrong message. At most cities, Recycling Coordinators work for Solid Waste Managers. Since garbage is what is left over after the recyclables have been collected, shouldn't Solid Waste Coordinators work for Recycling Managers?
Paradigm Shift: Back To The Future
It is time to re-think our approach to management of the waste stream -- to shift the paradigm back to a resource-based management system. Continuing to make small changes to existing collection operations will not likely provide significantly higher diversion rates in a cost-effective way. On the other hand, if cities step back, reassess their goals, and then design and implement a new system, they can reestablish a system where the majority of wastes are recovered for productive use.
Richard Gertman is the Principal in Environmental Planning Consultants, a firm specializing in solid waste policy and program development. He has written for most of the solid waste management and recycling journals in the United States. He has taught courses or lectured on integrated waste management at San Jose State University, UC Davis, UCLA, and the University of Wisconsin. He has also served as an officer or board member of the National Recycling Coalition, the California Resource Recovery Association, and the Northern California Recycling Association.
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