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Sustainability importance expandsClick to Enlarge

Since the 1950s, the old-fashion notion of “conservation” has expanded to be called “sustainability” and has become the buzzword synonymous with grand visions of environmental responsibility and lifestyle.

The word has now entered the common lexicon and is often featured by government, environmentalists, green businesses, recyclers and waste handlers. In the realm of ecology, sustainability describes how the earth can endure, remaining healthy and productive.

Since 1987 the most widely quoted definition of sustainability is that of the Brundtland Commission of the United Nations, “sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”


Although the concept of sustainability can reach philosophical dimensions in balancing environmental, social and economic concerns, it is a practical issue for solid waste managers. It comes down to basic sanitation and the best ways to handle the garbage with the least danger to the environment.

Everyone seems to agree that protecting and improving our potable water supply, sea and air quality and arable land is vital to sustainability.

On how best to achieve sustainability in waste management, however, there is disagreement. In theory, it is accepted that landfilling should be minimized. Yet today that is where nearly 60 percent of U.S. municipal solid waste (MSW) and the vast majority of construction and demolition debris and commercial waste go.

Many environmentalists would like to see most everything recycled, but that goal appears to be an impractical, economic impossibility.

The U.S. EPA estimates that the average American generates 4.6 lbs. of waste per day, but only recycles 1.5 pounds. Improvement is possible, but how much and at what cost?

Many advocates insist that incineration or waste-to-energy plants are an ideal processing method and others see them as air-polluters.

Despite what many say, the EPA claims they are as clean as natural gas fired power plants with respect to emissions per megawatt hour. There are only 87 MSW-fired power generating plants in the U.S. and most were built over 15 years ago.

Converting waste into biofuels or using anaerobic digestion to make biogas or fertilizers is emerging technologies, but at best fractional solutions.

Nonetheless, California is now home to nearly 30 advanced biofuel companies and dozens of other states are beginning to realize the economic benefits of this emerging industry. Today there are more than 80 advanced biofuel companies, refineries and related operations located in at least 27 states.

What the future holds for fossil fuels is uncertain. Experts agree that the supply will run out someday and that day draws closer as developed and undeveloped countries continually demand more energy. Current estimates are that we have ample known resources for the next hundred years. Energy efficiency and renewable energy derived from wind, solar, tidal, small hydro and other clean sources are part of the sustainable solution.

Sustainability seems to be as elusive as perpetual motion, an ideal objective well worth pursuing, but impossible to fully achieve. For waste management professionals the job is a balancing act between the best sustainable methodologies and economic reality while continually searching for better solutions.

Waste management is a significant expense for most municipalities. An integrated waste management plan, which uses a variety of methods to manage municipal waste can help reduce the amount of waste a community generates, moderate the cost of waste removal, and alleviate landfill burden.

The Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA) is an association of nearly 8,000 solid waste professionals in the United States, Canada and other countries with a mission of advancing the practice of management of municipal solid waste. American Recycler News asked Jeremy O’Brien, P.E. and director of applied research at SWANA about sustainability.

“As a trade organization, through our conferences, training and research we try to identify the performance and costs for different systems and help people understand the benefits and cost so they can make the best choice for their local community. We don’t set policy. Our overall mission is to improve the economic and environmental sound management of waste. Sustainability is a part of that.”

“There are ways municipalities can do better, but those ways often cost more money. Economics often drive the systems to be less sustainable than they could be, ideally. The question is always whether the investment is worth the results. In the U.S. most of our systems are landfill based, except that recovered waste that has material or energy value. That’s not the most sustainable way of managing, but the most economical way.”

O’Brien said that in order to make recycling convenient, collect at the curb instead of requiring residents to carry it to a drop-off center. That collection requires energy and costs money whether in taxes or user fees. During the process we recover material, but in another sense it subsidizes the export of recovered materials.

“There’s a lot of technology that you can use in waste management and some of them are pretty far out,” O’Brien continued. There’s a big push now to generate vehicular fuels from waste and there are big plants being built. This new trend is being driven by renewable fuel standards that some federal and state agencies have adopted. So now there’s an interest to recover energy from waste in form of a fuel versus energy in the form of electricity. There are dozens of vendors out there approaching local governments and marketing these processes. The big questions are does it work and how much does it cost? One of our roles is to get the local managers up-to-date and accurate information on these technologies so they can make informed decisions.”

“In my mind the most sustainable systems are ones that recycle materials that have an economic value and recovery energy from the non-recyclable portion of the waste stream. Another thing people interested in sustainability sometimes don’t understand is whatever we don’t recover we put in a landfill. As a result, these landfills will have to be managed and monitored for posterity due to the latent potential for this waste to biodegrade. In Europe they have decided to phase out landfilling of biodegradable waste and, as a result, the waste has to be thermally or biologically treated before it’s landfilled so the material is not reactive, but biologically inert. That’s a very important environmental issue,” O’Brien concluded.

Sustainability for waste management at the local level is of course a long-term incremental process that is slowly taking place across the country. One outstanding example is the City of Durham, North Carolina.

Durham is the fourth-largest city in the state with a population 233,252 – home of Duke University, North Carolina Central University and Research Triangle Park, the headquarters for the hi-tech Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill-Research-Triangle area.

Durham’s solid waste management department partners with the community to provide exceptional customer service and waste collection, recycling and disposal services in a safe, efficient, cost effective and environmentally sound manner. The department enhances the appearance of the city and environment by providing collection of garbage, bulky items, recycling and yard waste. The department also operates a Hazardous Waste Center, Waste Disposal and Recycling Center and a Swap Shop to enable residents to divert recyclables and hazardous items from landfills.

Donald Long, director of Durham’s solid waste management department explained their Ten Year Solid Waste Management Plan and Waste Reduction and Sustainability Program.

“We updated our 10 year plan 3 years ago when we started a new way of collecting recyclables. We used to do collections with a contractor, but we brought it in-house. We went from weekly 18 gallon recycle bins separated at the curb to 96 gallon single-stream roll carts with every other week collection. With the contractor we were paying nearly $1 million a year. Now we are getting paid around $300,000 a year.

“With the contractor, our participation rate was around 58 percent. That means on any given trash day, 58 percent of people who set out garbage carts were also setting out recycling bins. Now, our participation rate is just short of 90 percent. I would like to say our ultimate goal is to be at zero waste, but we are not there yet because we don’t have a feel on what it’s going to look like when we move to an organic recycling program. We are in the planning process of getting a new transfer station that we hope to be able to include a pilot program for organic recycling. Once we get our new transfer station built we also hope to be able to ship recyclables directly to the processor and cut out the middle man. I think we would be doing very well if we could get a rate anywhere between $35 and $40 per ton.

“The biggest thing for us is to have a diversion rate from landfills in the 30 to 40 percent range. When we started the program we were about 14 percent. Right now we are hovering around 21 percent. Today, our largest cost, other than personnel, is paying to have our transfer station ship to a landfill for disposal. If we can reduce that cost, we can use those dollars more efficiently and eventually reduce tax dollars,” said Long.

If there is ever to be sustainability in waste management, it will have to be as a subset of an overall economic model that considers sustainability in all aspects, particularly in the production of the products it creates and consumes. Creating newer, lightweight packaging, for example, that is less expensive and more protective has advantages, but those benefits must be weighed against the materials’ ability to be recycled or safely biodegrade. It will take a global materials management program to identify, eliminate or redefine materials before they enter the waste stream. If we can prevent or minimize undesirable materials entering the waste stream, identify alternative materials to make them more easily recyclable or marketable we may find the pathway towards attaining meaningful sustainability.