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#289 - The Recent History Of Solid Waste: Good Alternatives Are Now Available, 09-Jun-1992

Do you remember the organization Keep American Beautiful (KAB) from the
1960s? Few people knew KAB was an industry association formed by some
America's largest corporations. Their symbol was a proud Indian with a
tear in his eye. Their main focus seemed to be an anti-litter campaign.
But there was more to it than that. According to the conventional
wisdom of the day, to keep the postwar economy expanding, waste
disposal capacity would need to keep growing. To develop and maintain a
throw-away society, you needed to have plenty of "away" places. By the
mid-1960 anyone familiar with scientific literature on water pollution
could see that burying waste in the ground was guaranteed to cause
trouble. (See RHWN #97, #98.) Solid waste disposal was becoming a

In the late '60s Keep American Beautiful formed a non-profit research
group called the National Center for Solid Waste Disposal. This soon
became the National Center for Resource Recovery. Resource recovery
meant incineration.[1] Industry had found its answer to the solid waste

By the early 1970s, this industry association had convinced EPA [U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency] that incineration made sense. After
the first energy crisis occurred, in 1973, the federal Department of
Energy (DOE) came on board; DOE became an aggressive advocate
for"energy recovery" from municipal solid waste.

As the '70s progressed, landfill rules became stricter, so landfilling
became more expensive. The 1976 Resource Conservation and Recovery Act
(RCRA) greatly increased landfill complexity and cost. Landfills began
to disappear. In 1980 there were 20,000 landfills but by 1986 only 6000
remained; during this period the "solid waste crisis" emerged.

Simultaneously,--and entirely by chance--in the mid-'70s the nuclear
power industry fell upon hard times. No U.S. firm has bought a nuclear
power plant since 1975; when Three Mile Island melted down in 1975, the
handwriting became visible to investors everywhere.

Companies that manufactured nuclear power plants had teams of people
skilled at making large machines, and the four major nuclear-plant
manufacturers--Combustion Engineering, Babcock & Wilcox, General
Electric, and Westinghouse--began to manufacture solid waste

DOE--a loyal servant of the nuclear industry and now the solid waste
incineration industry--set the pace. In a 1980 plan, DOE envisioned 200
to 250 new solid waste incinerators by 1992, or 4 to 5 in each state.
According to plan, these machines would burn 75% of the nation's trash
and would require a capital investment somewhere between $11.5 billion
and $21.5 billion, or roughly $50 million to $100 million per

According to the 1980 plan, by 1987 there would be 160,000 tons- per-
day (tpd) of incineration capacity in the U.S. and 325,000 tpd by 1992.
But, in reality, by 1988 incineration capacity was only 50,000 tons per
day,[3] and it was expanding at a snail's pace. In 1985 there were 42
new incinerators ordered, but by 1987 only 25, and by 1989 new orders
have dropped to 10. In 1987, for the first time in recent memory, more
capacity was canceled (35,656 tons per day) than was ordered (20,585
tons per day).[4] The incineration industry had hit a wall.

That wall was made up of local grass-roots citizens concerned about
many aspects of solid waste incineration: dollar cost, hazardous air
pollution, toxic ash, foolish destruction of material resources,
enormous waste of energy, the political corruption that accompanies
multi-billion-dollar public works projects, and the gobbling up of
small, local waste haulers by the incineration giants.

Citizens took on the incineration industry in many ways. They organized
a frontal assault to kill incineration proposals one by one at the
local level, but, equally importantly, they developed waste reduction,
recycling and composting programs that starved incinerators by
diverting trash. Eighty percent of solid waste can be recycled and
composted, or it can be incinerated--but it's an either/or proposition.
If you build an incinerator, you foreclose your recycling and
composting options for the lifetime of the furnace (20 years or more).

Incineration has been defeated at the local level. But the battle is
not over. The incineration industry and its friends in government are
doing their best to make an end run around local decision-makers. In
California the industry has lobbied hard to have incineration included
in that state's definition of recycling. In Ohio and Minnesota and New
Jersey, the industry has lobbied have toxic incinerator ash "recycled"
for roadway construction. In Michigan and New York, compliant state
governments have allowed toxic ash to be exempted from hazardous waste
rules. In Connecticut, state government obliged the industry by
overriding local zoning laws to make it nearly impossible for citizens
to oppose the siting of incinerators.

But the demise of the nuclear power industry showed that even America's
leading corporations, heavily subsidized by government handouts, cannot
keep a bad technology alive. Municipal solid waste incineration is not
thriving for the same reasons: despite enthusiastic support and
enormous subsidies by federal and state governments, plus immense
backing from private corporations, incineration remains a bad idea,
doomed to fail.

Meanwhile alternative technologies--which, together, go by the name of
"materials recovery"--are expanding rapidly. The Institute for Local
Self-Reliance (ILSR) in 1991 published BEYOND 40 PERCENT highlighting
17 communities that are recycling and composting up to 57% of their
total household, commercial and institutional solid wastes.[1] The
leader is Berlin Township, N.J., a town of 5629 people. But even a
large city like Seattle (population: 497,000) has already achieved 36%
and is steadily climbing toward its goal of 65%. Rural communities,
suburban communities, and large urban areas can all recycle upwards of
50% of their solid wastes. ILSR expects communities will ultimately
learn to recover more than 75% of their trash. Incinerators are simply
never needed. Never.

Having examined the materials recovery programs in many towns and
cities, ILSR makes these observations about key elements of successful

1) Comprehensive composting programs--year-round collection of many
types of yard waste at curbside, and incentives for landscapers to
compost their yard waste.

2) Mandatory participation. Successful materials recovery programs are
not voluntary.

3) Materials must be recovered not only from single- and multi- family
homes, but also from commercial and institutional establishments.

4) A wide variety of materials must be targeted for recovery, not just
metal cans, glass, and paper. The most successful programs aim to
collect aluminum, batteries, brush, corrugated cardboard, christmas
trees, ferrous (iron-containing) cans, glass, high- grade paper,
leaves, mixed paper, newspapers, oil, plastics, scrap metal, tires,
white goods [appliances and furniture], and wood waste.

Food waste and construction debris are other categories that are being
recovered in some locales.

The Center for the Biology of Natural Systems (CBNS at Queens College
in Flushing, N.Y.) is currently running a successful pilot program
composting food waste from the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn,
showing that an urban composting program is viable.

In Baltimore, the Loading Dock is a non-profit organization set up to
receive sinks, bathtubs, cabinets and other construction materials
removed from homes during remodeling as well as excess materials from
contractors, manufacturers and distributors. They sell these materials
at 25% to 35% below retail price to other non-profits, and for low-
income housing. Presently, goods are donated to them from as far away
as West Virginia and New York. Begun in 1984 with a $35,000 seed grant,
they became self- sustaining after seven years. Their budget last year
was $346,000. They figure they've kept 20,000 tons of building
materials out of local landfills.

Their latest experiment is to park a truck at the local landfill to
collect throw-aways from do-it-yourselfers who are remodeling. At the
Howard County (Md.) landfill they collect an average of 3.5 tons in
four hours on a Saturday. Now they're negotiating to park trucks at
other area landfills.

For further information contact Hope Cucina, director, The Loading
Dock, 2523 Gwynn Falls Parkway, Baltimore, Md. 21216; hone (410) 728-

One of the most interesting experiments is called Wastewise, a
community resource center for the town of Halton Hills (population:
35,000) just west of Toronto, Canada. Rita and Len Landry and some
friends started Wastewise to demonstrate that people could do something
sensible with trash.

Begun with a $250,000 government grant, Wastewise now has 3 full- time
employees, six summer students, and 60 volunteers. Wastewise inhabits a
warehouse with four sections: (1) Information and exhibits on waste
reduction and waste avoidance-- "This is our main function," says
project manager Diana van de Valk. (2) a giant flea market where they
sell reusable goods for 50 cents a pound (25 cents for furniture); (3)
a repair shop where volunteers fix appliances, bikes and anything else
repairable; and (4) recycling of cans, newspapers, and bottles. Waste
reduction is their real passion, and they're off to a promising start.

For further information contact Diane van de Valk, Wastewise, 36
Armstrong Avenue, Halton Hills, Ontario, Canada L7G 4R9; phone (416)

Wastewise is the subject of a new 30-minute video, WASTEWISE: A
COMMUNITY RESOURCE CENTER, from: Video Active Productions, Rt. 2, Box
322, Canton, NY 13617; phone (315) 386-8797. $25.00.

--Peter Montague


[1] Brenda Platt and Others, BEYOND 40 PERCENT, RECORD-SETTING
RECYCLING AND COMPOSTING PROGRAMS (Washington, DC: Island Press, 1991),
pgs. 2-5. Paperback: $25.00. To order any book from Island Press phone
1-800-828-1302, 8 to 5 Pacific time.

[2] Louis Blumberg and Robert Gottlieb, WAR ON WASTE; CAN AMERICA WIN
ITS BATTLE WITH GARBAGE? (Washington, DC: Island Press, 1989), pgs. 50-

[3] Richard A. Denison and John Ruston, RECYCLING AND INCINERA- TION;
EVALUATING THE CHOICES (Washington, DC: Island Press, 1990), pg. 67.

[4] Brenda Platt, cited above, pgs. 3-4.

Descriptor terms: keep america beautiful; national center for solid
waste disposal; doe; nuclear power; recycling; institute for local self
reliance; cbns; loading dock; wastewise; incineration;

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