What zero-waste-to-landfill means to America

Departments - Critical Thinking

  • April 7, 2014
  • Harvey Gershman

Have you noticed the increasing number of major corporations saying their manufacturing, distribution and offices are now zero-waste-to-landfill? Subaru, BMW, Ford, General Motors and Proctor & Gamble are among the ones touting this in their advertising. These companies have been able to achieve these goals to be greener, more sustainable and reduce their carbon footprints by greening their supply chains; reducing their packaging; designing for recycling; doing more organics separation and processing in new anaerobic digestion (AD) facilities; redesigning their processes to recycle materials and energy; increasing other recycling as much as possible; and disposing of residual waste to WTE facilities.

Then, why can’t local government and regional waste management authorities also reach zero-waste-to-landfill as these major manufacturers have? Their solid waste management plans often reference the successes in Germany, Denmark, Sweden, France and Japan, where recycling levels are at 40 to 60 percent, WTE capacity at 20 to 30 percent, and very little going to landfills. In the U.S. we have a bit over 30 percent recycling, 10 percent WTE and 60 percent going to landfills, often reached through transfer systems.

To add another 10 percent of WTE capacity in the U.S. would require approximately 75,000 tons per day of nameplate capacity needing upwards of $19 billion in capital investment.* With higher tipping fees projected versus landfills, even if remotely located, increased waste disposal charges for waste generators are likely. So, will increases of 10, 20, 30 or even 50 percent for tipping fees be acceptable to waste generators? Probably not!

The U.S. needs to keep up its efforts to increase recycling to match the levels of the most successful countries. Additional focus on increased organics and plastics diversion and utilization should be at the top of our list. As that is being done, more WTE facilities need to be developed to create reliable, long-term disposal locations producing renewable fuels, chemicals, power, or combined heat and power.

Since roughly two-thirds of the solid waste management dollar is spent on collecting the waste or recyclables, there should also be concerted focus on making collection costs as efficient and low-cost as possible. This is more than just applying best practices to the routing and equipment selection. It involves looking at closing the collection marketplace. Are there many service providers serving customers on the same street and almost every day of the week? Have the residential routes been adjusted for those extra tons going to the new single-stream recycling collection? Have the waste container sizes and frequency of collection been reduced because food scraps are now collected separately from certain commercial customers?

Looking at options (like privatization of collection services, managed competition, closing the commercial services through a competitive process) to make collection as efficient as possible is paramount to being able to spend more on WTE facilities.

Since we are not likely to see the $50 to $100 per ton taxes the European Union and the U.K. have placed on putting municipal solid waste into landfills, the local governments need to focus their efforts also on making collection as efficient as possible. With those savings, there can be financial capacity to take on development of new infrastructure to get closer to zero-waste-to-landfill.

* This assumes WTE capacity to process another 25 million tons per year, or about 10 percent of MSW as estimated by the USEPA; 0.92 availability factor assumed; $250,000 per installed daily ton assumed.

Research assistance provided by Elizabeth Rice and Ljupka Arsova, consultant IIs, GBB.

Harvey Gershman is president of Gershman, Brickner & Bratton, Inc., solid waste management consultants; hgershman@gbbinc.com.