Landfills Stink – So Let’s Have More

Posted on May 27, 2016 by Charles F. Becker

In 1991, Iowa passed a law prohibiting the delivery of yard waste to landfills.  It was during a time when there was a general panic that landfills were filling up too fast.  Twenty-two states have passed similar laws.  They all saw it as a win-win: compost could be created and sold by the city and the landfills would last longer.  A couple short decades later, several states have had second thoughts.  In 2015, Iowa passed a law that allows certain landfills to start accepting delivery of yard waste.  The reasoning is instructive. 

Landfills contain a staggering amount of potential energy.  The tires, paper products and plastic wastes, when burned for energy recovery, could light up a town.  But the cost of getting the BTUs out of the waste doesn’t make economic sense – yet.  There are exciting, new processes on the horizon that will have us mining that garbage for the energy sink it actually is, but that is still a ways off.  One form of energy recovery that is economically viable, however, is methane recovery.  As the garbage breaks down, it gives off methane gas that can be captured and burned.  Many landfills across the country do this type of recovery and find it simple and profitable.

To effectively produce methane, however, garbage must degrade.  The recycling push of the 80s and 90s took away the really good degradables from the waste stream – boxes, newspapers and yard waste were targeted as prime recyclables.  The effect was that the best fuel for garbage degradation (and thus methane creation) was banned.  Sure, it went towards the worthy goals of paper recycling and creation of high quality compost, but at what cost?

Iowa decided to look into that question.  They considered the cost of producing compost from yard waste and compared it to the cost of recovering additional methane that would be made possible by returning the green gold of yard waste to the landfill degradation process.  As it turns out, recycling loses. 

            The analysis turned on a number of factors:

·         The cost of buying, maintaining and fueling the trucks, machinery and facility needed for composting would be eliminated resulting in a yearly savings of $2 million;

·         Methane recovery would increase from the equivalent of powering 11,000 homes to powering 18,000 homes;

·         According to a study commissioned by the city of Des Moines, annual greenhouse gas emission would be reduced by 11% and the landfilling option would provide more than three times the greenhouse gas benefit presented by composting. 

Sierra Club is on record as opposing the trend (Georgia, Arkansas, Florida and Nebraska also now allow landfilling of yard waste) because it will result in landfills reaching capacity sooner.  In the case of one Iowa landfill, its estimated life would be reduced from 2054 to 2052.  Also, Sierra Club argues that more uncaptured greenhouse gases will be produced, but this seems to ignore the net savings from the other GHG reductions identified in the study.

I don’t have any idea whether returning yard waste to landfills is a net positive for the environment.  As counterintuitive as it seems, it appears to hold promise.  And if it does, where else might full cost accounting be used to guide environmental legislation?  At least some states are asking the question - and I suspect more will follow.

Product Stewardship – Coming to a state or locality near you

Posted on October 15, 2014 by Kenneth Gray

Product Stewardship.  It sounds friendlier than “Product Responsibility” or “Extended Producer Responsibility,” but it means the same thing:  arranging for collection and recycling or disposal of unused or waste products.  Mandatory in the European Union and the subject of aggressive national programs in Germany and a growing number of countries worldwide,  the U.S. has continued its state-by-state approach promoting recycling – but for a growing number of products and in more and more jurisdictions.

We may have initially started with glass, paper, and metal in the 1970’s, but the range of products and materials covered is now broad:  from batteries, tires, beverage containers, electronics, and tires, to carpets, mattresses, and paint.  Pharmaceuticals may be in the offing.  A new final rule from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration would allow voluntary drug collection options for retail pharmacies, drug distributors, and hospitals/clinics with an on-site pharmacy.  

Of course, there is a “trade association” – the Product Stewardship Institute -- whose members are state and local governments and businesses and NGOs.  According to PSI, two states -- California (my birth state) and Maine (my adopted state) -- lead the country with seven or more different types of programs for products.   (To see how your state compares, see http://productstewardship.site-ym.com/?State_EPR_Laws_Map.)

 Legislatively, some of these programs were developed on a product-by-product basis, but both California and Maine have adopted over-arching framework product stewardship laws or regulations allowing the addition of more products.  And some municipalities aren’t being shy – the Ninth Circuit just upheld a 2012 ordinance from Alameda County, California requiring manufacturers to pay for collection and disposal of consumers’ unused medications. 

Some of these programs are after-market recycling operations.  Others are closer to product “take-back” requirements.  The common features of these schemes are a deadline for a program submission (e.g., from a trade association and retailers), fees and potential cost-sharing, management regulations and limited government oversight, and proper recycling or disposal options.  “Reverse distribution” options have been favored by some retailers, who benefit from the additional foot-traffic of potential shoppers – if they can stand the paperwork and regulatory burdens.

If you believe the literature, everyone is a winner:  municipalities have less waste to manage thereby reducing their disposal costs; recycling and reclamation occur reducing energy and greenhouse gasses; wastes are properly managed; and coveted “green” jobs are created.   Obviously, some costs are transferred to businesses in the short term (though as consumers or taxpayers, we all ultimately pay). 

More than a few manufacturers and industries are on board.  Some trade associations -- like the American Coatings Association -- have created non-profit organizations to promote and operate state programs.  ACA has set up PaintCare Inc., a non-profit operating paint collection programs in seven states, with more to come.

In advising the Republic of Kazakhstan on possible product stewardship plans, our firm had occasion to consider “best in world” programs.  By contrast to the U.S., the European Union has incorporated Extended Producer Responsibility into the E.U.’s Waste Framework Directive, 2008/98/EC.    At this point, Germany is probably leading the E.U. through its Closed Substance Cycle Law (KrWG),  intending to promote the “circular economy” by requiring products stewardship to be addressed during the design phase.  The goal?  Development, manufacture and marketing of products that are reusable, recyclable, durable and technically suitable for environmentally safe disposal.  While the U.S. plays out these issues on a jurisdiction-by-jurisdiction and product-by-product basis, Germany is trying a very ambitious comprehensive, national approach.   The German effort has run into the complicated realities of sharing collection costs among and between manufacturers and German state and local waste management programs.  The country faces additional challenges of collecting and recycling automobiles and all packaging materials, two of the more interesting programs being implemented.

Don’t expect a national law in the U.S. anytime soon, but watch this Product Stewardship trend – it is one of the more interesting developments in environmentalism – and look around.  What products will be next in your state?  Or in your county?  And yes, Kazakhstan is weighing adoption of an Extended Producer Responsibility law this fall.