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Advertise on the Tentacle

April 17, 2008

Flies in The Ointment…

Farrell Keough

Zero Waste or Zero Landfill is a somewhat new catchphrase gaining use in our lexicon. Let’s be clear, there is no such thing as Zero Waste. Sooner or later, virtually every product we use becomes waste. To believe any different is to fool yourself.


The concept is based upon a two-fold process: those things that can be recycled will be, and those that cannot become the responsibility of the producer. In other words, since we are not responsible for the disposal of products not immediately recyclable, the manufacturer carries the burden and we have no responsibility. Somewhat disingenuous. Pass the responsibility unto others and we become free of the burden. But, I am getting ahead of myself.


This column was spawned from a seemingly new awareness and action against the proposed Waste-To-Energy (WTE) plant before the Frederick Board of County Commissioners.  While a handful of people seem to have been fighting this proposal for some time, a new presentation and call to action has arisen. A presentation by Steve Cassis has been one avenue for this fight. I recently attended one of the presentations of this alternative.


Mr. Cassis requested time during the WTE presentation to the commissioners to make his pitch. The commissioners wisely determined his presentation was too long for that venue and requested he attend at another meeting time. Mr. Cassis declined. He chose instead to have a number of presentations open to the public. This presentation is a PowerPoint talk and not currently available online, but I am told this should be available at some time.


The presentation has a number of graphs and charts outlining the positive effects of recycling. Unfortunately, the source data for these are not currently available. Hopefully that situation will be remedied as something presented as fact should have the underlying data and assumptions available for public consumption.


One of the important aspects to this presentation is the ability to recycle plastics. Two very important points need to be recognized with respect to plastics recycling:


1)       Plastics burn at a very high BTU which is necessary for a WTE to reach and maintain its best efficiency. Removing them from the wastestream could have serious efficiency problems for a WTE.

2)       The ability to market recycled plastics requires them to be picked up from households in a separate container. Sorting is possible, but research indicates that plastics are becoming marketable as an additive to the plastics process only if they remain separate and can be cut into flakes, (current manufacturing allows for about a 25% addition of recycled plastic to many processes).


So, if plastics are removed from the wastestream going to the proposed WTE, an additional heat source may need to be found. Of course, plastics from places like hospitals and other establishments in which recycling is limited will still exist, but the bulk of this wastestream would be restricted.


This must be accounted for if intensive recycling is to be part of the plan for the WTE. But, it brings forth an aspect to intensive recycling that we need to be aware.


Single stream recycling will not fulfill the needs of the program proposed by these organizations opposing the WTE. In short, products to be recycled must be sorted and kept separate. For instance, Mr. Cassis noted that paper recycling causes serious problems if broken glass ends up in the wastestream.


To this end a number of poorly outlined aspects must be taken into account. First, the presentation notes that organics (coffee filters, used paper towel, etc.) should be composted or buried in one’s yard. This may sound workable, but what of those people living within the city, renting, in a townhouse, or under an HOA?


It is highly unlikely they will be able to bury their organic waste. This brings us to the concept of Pay-As-You-Throw. In short, an additional cost will be attributed to those who have waste not separated into recycling bins. This has the potential to be a very regressive tax.


Consider the young couple with children. This is a time in life when many extra waste products occur. It is also a time in life when folks are strapped for income as their professional life is still early. These people may well be hit hardest for the Pay-As-You-Throw concept of trash removal.


There are other groups that will suffer a greater impact as well and these scenarios need to be recognized and mitigated. Of course, that may well mean even more government intrusion and regulation.


Speaking of regulation, how will these costs be determined? When the idea of the Recycling Police is brought up, it is immediately dismissed. But that is not quite true as far as I can tell.


A large part of this program is based around the haulers. Computer and GPS systems will be an integral part of this intensive recycling system; in short, bookkeeping of our trash and recycling streams.


For such a system to work, records of weight and potentially types of waste must be kept, hence the Pay-As-You-Throw concept. The only workable mechanism to handle this process is at the point of pick up. Therefore, the haulers will, by virtue of being in charge at the point of pickup, become the Recycling Police. This throws an interesting twist into the idea of the county designating waste haulers for certain areas.


These are but a few of the issues surrounding this proposed alternative to the WTE. Even with a high recycling rate, there will still be a significant wastestream. Where we are to put that waste is still in question.


Recycling is becoming a legitimate practice. We have a market for much of our paper; interestingly, one of the larger markets is China, a nation of questionable practices. If handled correctly, plastic also has a market, but this requires more specialized processing.


One does wonder how well fully recycled containers of food will be accepted by a public questioning more and more aspects of our food sources, but that is another topic.


Just as those opposed to the WTE are questioning its price and potential downside, those proposing recycling as a possible solution should also accept questions.


This dialogue will continue as recycling is to be an integral part of the WTE proposal. Both aspects to dealing with our waste crisis need serious review, honest dialogue, and legitimate acceptance. We have a serious problem and determining the best course of action is paramount.


I, for one, believe the WTE in conjunction with a well-defined recycling program is our best option.


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