Waste Management’s Dirty Little Secret

By Linda Seggelke

The hauling and handling of garbage is a job that few of us really want to think about. But we should, because the industry has a huge potential to increase landfill diversion, resource conservation, material reuse and, perhaps most importantly, jobs.

“Garbage” is a loaded word. It implies worthlessness, that the things we send to the dump deserve to be there because they have no business in the real world. But our “garbage” is laden with potential. We need only to be more efficient about how we handle it.

BinsIn the Chicago metropolitan region, that potential is particularly large. A recent study by the Delta Institute found that the efficiency of Chicagoland waste management falls behind metro regions elsewhere in the country. Cook County residents produce seven pounds of waste per day, much more than the national average of 4.4 pounds per day. The U.S. also recycles 34% of its waste on average, but in suburban Cook County, only 29% is recycled. Clearly we can, and need, to do better.

The report creates a baseline of current waste-handling procedures, and then poses several scenarios for action by 2040: status quo, a 40% recycling rate and 60% waste diversion rate. The status quo scenario imagines how our waste infrastructure would look without any efficiency improvements. The recycling scenario is an improvement on our current method of mixed recyclables sorted off-site. The waste diversion scenario incorporates improvements in both recycling and composting.

Comparing these four scenarios, an odd trend appears. Regardless of what ultimately happens to the waste, the largest financial expenditure is collection—the separate pickup of residential mixed refuse and commingled recyclables. Projected costs between the 2014 baseline and 2040 status quo would increase because of population growth. But surprisingly, collection costs would increase for the other two scenarios as well. This is because a more efficient recycling and food scrap collection infrastructure is more complex than the current methods.

Those added costs are significantly offset, however, when one considers the second life of the materials that are salvaged from the waste heap. Recycled and composted materials can reenter the economy much more cheaply than producing from raw materials. Among the three hypothetical future scenarios, the cost to transfer and transport the waste are comparable. The cost to separate waste increases from status quo up through recycling and composting, though the cost to dispose of that waste goes down, as the need to landfill or incinerate collected material is reduced.

The takeaway is that more efficient waste hauling, handling and processing will save the local economy more than continuing down the current path. And of course, the latter two scenarios make the most sustainable sense, as remanufacturing recycled materials uses less energy than extracting raw materials.

So, how do we implement a better waste infrastructure? More than anything, it will take two things: consumer education and a strong political will.

Educating Chicago area residents about how to sort their recyclables and compostables is very important. Separating materials that can have a second life—metals, paper, glass, food waste, etc.—is much more difficult when they are commingled with waste that will end up in a landfill. This means that, for now, the burden is on individuals to sort their waste onsite, before it is hauled away for processing.

The zeitgeist around recycling has already shifted significantly over the past few decades. What used to be viewed as the efforts of an overzealous, eco-conscious minority is now much more common. That said, recycling rates here are still much lower than in other regions and can be improved. San Francisco and Seattle, for example, currently divert more than half of their waste from landfills, well above the national average. Inconsistent and sometimes inconvenient recycling options are part of the reason why Chicago area diversion rates lag behind the rest of the country. Some local municipalities, for example, offer drop-off locations rather than curbside pickup, putting a further onus on residents and driving down recycling rates.

For politicians, the sell may be even easier, as the report highlights a benefit that no elected official can scoff at: more jobs. According to the projections, reaching for the 40% recycling rate scenario would mean the creation of more than 30,000 jobs by 2040. Add composting into the mix and the Chicago region could have over 39,000 more jobs in the next 25 years.

To achieve these goals, the Delta Institute included a number of recommendations. One suggestion is for municipalities to reverse legislation that hinders commercial-scale composting and food scrap collection. They also propose that waste haulers, trade groups and communities convene to discover the needs of each, and discuss strategies for moving forward with more aggressive waste efficiency. Ultimately, those in the Chicago metropolitan area—governments and citizens alike—must take action now to take advantage of the future benefits that improved waste management offers.

Image: Peter Kaminski

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One Response to “Waste Management’s Dirty Little Secret”
  1. Kay says:

    Nice story but what’s with the pic of the seemingly discarded garbage cans?

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