Putting Waste to Work

November 3, 2002

By Michael Jessen

Of all the functions performed by municipalities, collecting and disposing of garbage is one of the most useless and expensive.

Yet for slightly more than a hundred years, cities, towns and villages around North America have performed this weekly task without questioning its relevancy. Sure it keeps the streets clean and reduces health hazards, but it has also created a society that believes garbage is a fact of life, like death and taxes.

As the recent summer audit of waste going to the McKelvey Creek Landfill in Trail, BC revealed, most of what is picked up by municipal crews is NOT garbage. The landfill serves the communities of Trail, Rossland, Warfield, Montrose and Fruitvale. An analysis of waste brought from all five communities showed an average of 42% of the waste was compostable and a further 18% was either recyclable or refundable. Sixty percent of the waste didn't even belong on the garbage trucks! Our waste stream is actually full of resources going in the wrong direction.

Garbage is a human creation. There is no such thing as waste in nature. No other species on Earth wastes. Cast-offs of one become food for another. Except for the human species. We even buy plastic bags strictly for the purpose of filling with waste that we then pay to throw away. This is the height of false garbage economics!

Consider a small city like my hometown Nelson, BC -- population 9,300 -- give or take. Its citizens create about 2,500 tonnes of waste a year, spending approximately half a million dollars collecting and disposing of this residential and commercial garbage. And the cost just keeps going up. When I arrived in Nelson in 1970, the city spent about $75,000 to collect and dispose of waste.

Of course 30 years ago, the City of Nelson was still burying its waste on its Kootenay River foreshore, an archaic practice that began in the 1930s. Now Nelson's garbage is transported 50 kilometres by diesel fuelled trucks (spewing greenhouse gases) to a landfill near Salmo. The Regional District of Central Kootenay Central Subregion, of which Nelson is a member, budgets about $1.5 million annually to transport waste and recyclables, operate the landfill and transfer stations, and maintain its infrastructure. All of the money expended to deal with waste barely creates a dozen full-time jobs.

Making waste is a natural resource management decision rooted in poor production methods and bad consumer choices. Landfilling is an atrocious business practice that is eroding our local ecosystems. As pointed out in the article "The Hidden Life of Garbage" in the November/December 2002 issue of Utne Reader (www.utne.com), the first US landfill built by engineer Jean Vicenze in Fresno, California was declared a toxic Superfund site some 50 years after its christening in 1937.

In the late 1960s, recycling began in an effort to decrease our piles of trash. Yet after more than three decades of trying, we are still making more waste. The three R's -- reduce, reuse, and recycle -- have barely made a dent in all but a minority of communities. Heather Rogers and Christian Parenti, authors of the Utne Reader article, are so pessimistic that they write "garbage production is crucial to a market economy. American capitalism hinges on our willingness to keep producing trash."

Thankfully, many American corporations have already -- and continue to -- prove the authors wrong. Companies like Pillsbury, Interface, IBM, IKEA, McDonalds, Collins Pine, Xerox, 3M, Electrolux, Hewlett Packard, Sony, and Toyota have discovered millions of dollars in savings by reducing waste and producing and shipping their products in resource conserving ways. Collins Pine adopted a plan to eliminate waste at their manufacturing facilities and saved $1 million in the first year alone. By recycling 100% of the sander dust used in particle board production, Collins Pine reduced their annual fibre purchase by 14,000 board feet of timber, saving $525,000 per year.

Collins Pine (www.collinswood.com) is one of the leaders in the movement toward sustainability in Oregon where organizations like Sustainable Northwest (www.sustainablenorthwest.org) are building partnerships that promote environmentally-sound economic development in Pacific Northwest communities.

The Waste to Work Partnership (www.wastetowork.org), a program of the Center for Watershed and Community Health at Portland State University, has determined that thousands of new jobs could be created in the Northwest by expanding and starting businesses that add economic value to waste materials through reuse, remanufacture and recycling. Their April 2002 report "Making Waste Work" can be downloaded from their web site.

The report is based on a survey of Northwest businesses that reuse or manufacture products using waste materials. It says that a more intensive approach to waste management, called Waste-based Economic Development, would change our concept of waste entirely. Waste-based economic development focuses on adding economic value to materials once considered "waste," thereby creating new businesses, products, and jobs. The report also found that waste-based businesses could help revitalize distressed communities and neighborhoods by providing family wage jobs and job opportunities.

"Two-thirds of the waste generated in Oregon and Washington is currently being incinerated or sent to landfills," states the report. "If all this waste material were collected and manufactured into new products and services, 22,000 new jobs could be created."

"We found that significant economic, social, and environmental benefits already exist in waste-based economic development," said Diane Garcia, Director of the Waste to Work Partnership. "We also found that these benefits could be dramatically increased if more waste materials were converted into products and services here in the Northwest."

Through an analysis of case studies, government reports and databases, Waste to Work found that waste-based economic development is already providing significant economic opportunities, jobs, and incomes for the region. Over 800 businesses in Oregon and Washington collect, process, and manufacture products using recycled materials.

The report discovered that many waste materials are "downcycled" -- reused or recycled without adding economic value. Two examples of downcycling are when scrap wood is turned into compost rather than reused in its existing form or remanufactured into new construction material or when glass collected in recycling programs is simply used for landfill cover. This results in lost revenue and lost jobs, as does the shipment of collected recyclables outside state boundaries for remanufacturing into new products.

The "Making Waste Work" report includes 24 case studies of small and not-so-small businesses that are turning waste into useful products and providing meaningful employment for 1,520 people. Some of the more interesting examples include:

Trillium Artisans (www.trilliumartisans.org) is a non-profit organization that supports home-based businesses in outer Southeast Portland. Fifteen artisans make and market arts and crafts from recycled and reclaimed materials. Their retail store and online catalog carries children's toys, pet toys, garden products, home décor, furniture and other natural living products. Materials are obtained through donations and from scraps headed to the landfill. Resource Revival (www.resourcerevival.com) is a privately owned company that designs, manufactures and distributes products made from recycled bicycle and machine parts. In business since 1994, Resource Revival's product line includes picture frames, clocks, candleholders, furniture, wine and CD racks, and jewelry. Their feedstock comes from local auto/engine rebuilders, bicycle repair shops, and scrap dealers. Their products are sold through their retail outlet and internet site, and at national gift shows.

Scatter Creek Enterprises (www.scattercreek.homestead.com) is a family-run business that produces lawn and garden products from recycled glass and cement. Using 74% recycled materials, their product line includes fireplace hearths, stepping stones, murals, mantles, countertops and other decorative outdoor products.

Companies like those above are part of the waste-based economic development movement that has turned the traditional approach to waste management upside down by seeking to eliminate the entire concept of waste. The corporate world pioneered the quest for zero injuries on the job and zero defects in production. The new quest is now zero waste -- both for companies and communities.

This March, New Zealand became the first country to embrace a zero waste goal. San Francisco recently became the first major American city to develop a zero waste plan. As of October 2002, 212 of 445 reporting jurisdictions in California had satisfied the requirement of the California Integrated Waste Management Board to divert from landfill at least 50 percent of their waste beginning in 2000. Even more impressive is the fact 46 of the 212 communities and counties reported diversion rates of 60% or higher and 12 reported diversion of 70% or higher. Two reached 85% diversion, one reached 87%, and Blue Lake reached 91% diversion.

In British Columbia, waste requiring disposal had been reduced by 29.7% by the year 2000 according to statistics (http://wlapwww.gov.bc.ca/epd/epdpa/mpp/tracking_rpt2000.pdf) compiled by the Recycling Council of BC for the BC Ministry of Water, Land and Air Protection. Of Canada's ten provinces and three territories, only Nova Scotia achieved the 50% waste reduction goal from 1990 levels.

By the way, BC no longer keeps statistics on waste reduction efforts. Another victim of the provincial government's budget cuts.

While Premier Gordon Campbell talks of making it easier for miners to dig up the province, the state of Wisconsin has found recycling metal to be a better alternative to mining.

A report entitled "A Penny Saved" (www.wsn.org/mining/miningrecycling.pdf) indicates that more recycling of metals will be good for both jobs and the environment in Wisconsin. "Through the wise reuse of waste metals we can remove the huge environmental problems caused by opening new mines, reduce our landfill needs and create permanent jobs in the economy throughout the state," says engineer George Rock.

The Earth's resources are too precious to waste. Throwing tax dollars at traditional methods of waste management is just as senseless as throwing garbage in a pit in the ground that will become a toxic nightmare for future generations.

The Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR - www.ilsr.org) is a non-profit research and educational organization that provides technical assistance and information on environmentally sound economic development strategies. Since 1974, ILSR has worked with citizen groups, governments, and private businesses in developing policies that extract the maximum value from local resources.

According to ILSR, for every 15,000 tons of solid waste landfilled each year, one job is created. For a similar amount composted, seven jobs are created. If recycled, that material would generate nine jobs in collection and processing alone. This does not include the number of jobs that can then be created or retained in manufacturing.

Neil Seldman, President of the ILSR is bullish about the job creation possibilities inherent in waste reduction, reuse, and recycling. “Recycling is an economic development tool as well as an environmental tool,” he says. “Just sorting recyclables sustains 10 times as many jobs as wasting on a per-ton basis. But the largest economic payoff in the recycling loop is making new products from the old. Remanufacturing from recycled materials creates 25 times as many jobs as landfill disposal. Reuse can create 100 times more jobs. In the new field of deconstructing buildings to recover building materials and train workers, there is the potential for 100,000 new jobs and $1 billion per year of materials flowing back into the economy.”

A study conducted for the US Environmental Protection Agency and the National Recycling Coalition found that the economic size of the recycling manufacturing sector is four times larger than the collection and processing sectors in both job numbers and receipts. The report (www.epa.gov/jtr/econ/rei-rw/rei-rw.htm) explains that, "This is attributed to the fact that the greatest value is added during manufacturing, when previously useless materials with little value are converted into useful products with considerable value. Further, jobs created in downstream manufacturing typically require employees with higher skills and training who earn higher wages."

Waste-based manufacturing adds value, thereby creating more jobs and more economic activity than does waste disposal. Cutting back on consumption and reusing materials -- rather than recycling -- will actually lead to more significant waste reduction.

Urban Ore (www.urbanore.citysearch.com/1.html) in San Francisco receives unwanted things and resells them. The firm advocates the end of the age of waste and designs disposal facilities for zero waste. Every community in North America should have a retail store for used goods like Urban Ore.

Diane Garcia of Waste to Work gets the last word. "This field is just starting," she says. "If we can get the right people together -- government, waste haulers, economic development folks, recyclers, and entrepreneurs -- there's a lot of potential to develop new businesses."

It is time to recirculate materials not waste them. It is time to redesign products to eliminate waste. And it is time to get garbage trucks off the streets of our municipalities.

It is time to put waste to work.

Michael Jessen is a Nelson consultant who specializes in helping companies and communities become more sustainable. He can be reached by telephone at 250-229-5632 or by e-mail at Michael@zerowaste.ca. His business -- Zero Waste Services -- has an award-winning web site at www.zerowaste.ca.

All columns archived here are copyright © 2000 by Michael Jessen, all rights reserved. If you wish to print an individual column for your own use, please do so. If you wish to publish any of the columns in either print or electronic format, please contact the author at toenail@netidea.com to arrange appropriate payment.