Q & A

Where should our trash go?

There's a recycling bin on every doorstep, as cities push to recycle as much solid waste as possible. But Lanny Hickman, the former executive director of the Solid Waste Association of North America, says that we should think of recycling as just one more way to remove solid waste, with its own costs and benefits. He argues that we waste an opportunity by not converting more of our garbage into electricity.

Q: According to the EPA, in 2009, the U.S. generated 243 million tons of municipal solid waste, or about 4.3 pounds per person per day. That number has risen steadily, but it seems to be leveling off.

Just like everything else, it reflects the economy. Historically, the rate of solid waste generation has pretty much paralleled the gross national product.

Q: More than half of that trash goes into landfills, with the rest being recycled or going to waste-to-energy plants. Are we running out of landfill space?

No, we aren't. When I got into the business in 1966, we had about five years of landfill capacity. And it was a big deal. At that time, which is when the federal government first got involved with solid waste management, we had 200,000 or 300,000 open burning dumps in the United States. Those are gone, and we now have probably 2,000-plus sanitary landfills that are supposed to meet the requirements of the EPA. We have plenty of land out there for sanitary landfills, and as we've increased our recycling rate and some industries have taken on the responsibility of trying to make their products more recyclable, I think the capacity of the landfills has leveled out. I don't think we're ever going to run out of landfill space.

Q: How did today's solid waste management industry develop?

Local government has traditionally had the responsibility of providing solid waste management services. By the early 1960s, many family-owned garbage companies were contracted to service the collection side. On the disposal side, there were open-burning dumps and quite a few poorly designed, poorly operated, and poorly managed incinerators, mostly owned by local governments. There were no pollution controls and no care taken about the disposal of the ash.

Collecting solid waste was the second most dangerous occupation in the United States, after logging and ahead of mining. In 1965, the Solid Waste Disposal Act was the entry of the federal government into solid waste management. It accomplished three things: One, it addressed the open-burning dumps. Two, it dealt with collections inefficiencies and the occupational hazards. And, three, it started state-level programs in solid waste management. Overall, it funded the professionalization of the industry, from garbage collection to solid waste management.

The greatest part of the solid waste that goes into landfills now goes to privately-owned landfills that contract with local governments to take the waste. Owning landfills is where the big money is. But there are environmental liabilities that go with landfills which require monitoring for groundwater and surface water contamination, and natural gas emissions. Managing methane emissions is a lot easier with bigger landfills. It's better to have one landfill with 10 million tons than to have 10 with one million tons, so that was a driver of consolidation.

Where I live, in Ocean City, Maryland, solid waste is hauled to a regional authority in Pennsylvania that burns it for energy. In 1970, the Clean Air Act pretty much closed down all the old incinerators. The technology was not properly applied. I remember standing at the back of an incinerator in Cincinnati and you could read the newspapers and the lettuce wasn't even wilted after it passed through. Today the 110 or 115 waste energy plants across the country are the most regulated and controlled solid waste burners in the world. They are effective, and the ash is now regulated.

Q: How does recycling fit in?

Recycling now probably handles 20% of the waste stream. A problem we recognized from the get-go is that the markets are very difficult. Virgin materials are often cheaper than recycled materials because you've got to collect it, which is probably the most expensive part of solid waste. You've got to move it someplace. You've got to process it. Whatever product you end up making from the recycled materials has a big price tag on it.

There are certain segments of the solid waste stream, like cardboard and aluminum, which have always had a good solid market. But glass has no great value and mixed plastics are better but unpredictable.

If you could sustain markets for secondary materials, recycling would be far more successful than it is. We can't control the markets. Many towns and districts pay for recycling, at least when markets are down. There is that willingness because many folks just intrinsically believe that recycling is better.

Q: What is the purpose of recycling? Is it to preserve resources, or to save energy? Or just to keep trash out of landfills?

Recycling can lessen the amount going to landfills and conserve resources. Energy conservation may not occur, as converting waste materials into raw materials or products takes energy too.

Recycling is really just another way of managing solid wastes. It is just as expensive, or more expensive, to recycle as it is to send waste to landfills and WTE plants. For some materials, there is probably less environmental impact. Bottom line, there is no one answer: everything depends on location, cost of energy, cost of labor, cost of environmental regulations, etc.

I'm a pragmatist and I know a lot of people have always argued with me that I'm anti-recycling. And I say, no, I'm not anti-recycling. I view it as another way to take care of solid waste. And if we have to spend money to do it, that's fine. Now, when it starts to cost more than other options, you have to start saying, are we really doing good for the environment or for natural resources by continuing with a recycling program

Q: How do environmental regulations affect costs for different methods of dealing with waste?

Environmental controls on a waste-to-energy plant are pricey, and that makes it more expensive than a sanitary landfill. At a landfill, many of the basic environmental controls go in as the landfill is built, with the liners on the bottom and so forth. But monitoring costs are a very small percent of the total tipping fee.

If you look at a budget broken out by functions for a landfill or a waste-to-energy plant, operations are the biggest cost, and that, of course, is where all the labor is. We used to have four, five, six, seven people on a trash truck. Now lots of places we have automated collection with one person because the biggest cost is labor. A trash truck might cost somewhere from $200,000 to $400,000 but you can drive it for 10 years.

We're a black-box country—we'd like to have our trash just disappear and not have to think about it. There is no magic black box to make trash go away. You're going to have to collect it. You're going to have to do something with it. And every time you touch it, it raises the cost of getting rid of it.

Q: You've written that we are wasting a great deal of potential energy—enough to heat four million homes a year—by sending solid waste to landfills instead of using it to generate electricity.

We can do whatever we can with recycling, but we're still putting a lot of stuff in landfill that we could get BTUs out of.

It can be considered a renewable energy source. The Maryland legislature just passed legislation on renewable energies like wind, solar, hydroelectric, and it includes waste energy. That may have been possible here because on the Eastern Shore, the biggest industry is poultry—raising and processing chickens. The organic runoff goes into the Chesapeake Bay, which is sacred water around here. Perdue has shown that you can burn this stuff and generate energy. We have a viable waste energy industry.

If the existing standards were reliably enforced there might be less of a perception problem. Our biggest failure is enforcement. We established regulations, and then we don't spend any money enforcing them. I'm a firm believer that the closer you get somebody to the courthouse steps, the more they are inclined to obey the law and meet those regulations.

Q: Are significant changes coming to solid waste management?

I think we may see a trend toward a single-waste stream. The technology is out there to separate some paper out, separate some plastic out. Ferrous metals have always been easy to get out. Aluminum is not too difficult. But all those things cost money, and we're always going to be able to make paper from trees a lot cheaper than we can from recycled materials. So we have to make choices.

California has long been on the cutting edge of solid waste management. That's where sanitary landfills really developed. That's where automated collection developed. Now they are looking at "transformation."

We can do a lot of things with solid waste. We can put it through a process where it will make Bunker C fuel oil. But by the time you get through, it's $160 a barrel. We can process waste paper into alcohol, but it's $5 a gallon versus alcohol made another way for $1 a gallon. Some landfills are recycling leachate to speed up microbial activity which allows for faster decomposition and longer lifespan of the landfill. They call them bioreactor landfills. These technologies are emerging and may have benefits.

I don't think there's any new magic way to make our waste disappear. I think there will always be landfills. And we're missing the boat if we don't make better use of waste-to-energy plants.

Former Executive Director, Solid Waste Association of North America