A Sustainable Alternative

Departments - Editor's Focus

Environmentalism, as described by Parker, involves the use of “ambiguous terminology,” while sustainability “is much more definable; the metrics are there.”

November 26, 2012
Brian Taylor

Brian Taylor


In a mid-2012 interview conducted by Waste Age magazine, outgoing Environmental Industry Associations CEO Bruce Parker was asked about the “green movement.” In his reply he drew a distinction between environmentalism and sustainability. Environmentalism, as described by Parker, involves the use of “ambiguous terminology,” while sustainability “is much more definable; the metrics are there.”

Parker’s definitions come into play in the context of renewable-energy-from waste decisions being made throughout North America and indeed the world.

At industry conferences focusing on solid waste, energy from waste or a combination of the two, it is difficult to avoid the topics of community relations and community perceptions.

When an energy-from-waste project is proposed, no matter how low on emissions or uninvolved with combustion it may be, it is typically labeled by opponents as “an incinerator” and increased recycling is proposed as an alternative.

As Harvey Gershman has pointed out in previous columns in this publication, jurisdictions that have energy-from-waste facilities—even mass-burn ones that most closely resemble incinerators—tend to have higher recycling rates, not lower ones. This has been the experience for Westchester County, N.Y., (See the article “Multiple Diversions” on p. 33.).

It’s not difficult to understand why. Communities that seek landfill alternatives generally want to or need to seek the best fiscal alternatives to landfilling. Harvesting the maximum amount of valuable secondary commodities (particularly metal, paper and plastic scrap) fits into any such plan.

In nations as vast as the United States or Canada, it is probably premature to say that the era of landfilling is drawing to a close. And yet, large corporations, municipalities and even landfill owners such as Waste Management Inc. are all seeking sustainable alternatives to the long-time practice of burying what is discarded.

As of late 2012 I am now living in and working from Hong Kong. From here, when appropriate, I intend to report on how China and other Asian nations with fast-growing economies incorporate energy-from-waste solutions into their solid waste handling practices.

As in North America, the recycling of metal, paper and plastic is clearly playing a major role in how corporations and government jurisdictions here both avoid disposal costs and seek returns on secondary commodities.

As well, though, energy-from-waste projects are being announced and invested in on a regular basis in Asia. As in North America, some are likely to yield the predicted results, while others will prove disappointing. If we’re doing our job right at REW magazine, we’ll report from all parts of the world from a platform using “metrics that are definable” while avoiding the “ambiguous terminology” that can cloud the issue when trying to determine when waste to energy makes sense.