Grime in the City

March 5, 1999

By Michael Jessen

Garbage is most voluminous in rich countries but most visible in the cities of developing countries. Two Nelson residents who returned recently from vacations in the Bahamas and Bali both had the same comment: No recycling and garbage and litter everywhere.

Archaeological excavations of some of the earliest cities suggest that residents there took a hands-off approach to waste disposal. When the garbage in the streets rose to unacceptable levels, the inhabitants simply raised the roofs of their houses. In eighteenth-century Boston, when garbage became a distraction to progress, the city created its first "paved" roads by placing wooden planks on top of the garbage.

Charles Dickens described New York City in the nineteenth-century as "a city without baths or plumbing, lighted by gas and scavenged by pigs."

In the 1950s, Manila began to dump much of its garbage in a poor neighbourhood, laying the foundation for what would become the city's most striking topographical feature -- "Mount Smoky" -- which earned its name from the acrid haze of methane emanating from the burning, rotting refuse. Until a newly elected Philippine president razed the garbage mountain in the early 1990s, it towered 40 metres above sea level in Manila Bay and was home to some 20,000 people who made a living from scavenging the refuse.

Waste profoundly affects human health. Hazards are most pronounced in the developing world, where between one third and half of city trash goes uncollected. Open piles of garbage attract disease-carrying rats and flies, and often wash into drainage channels, where they contribute to floods and waterborne disease.

But throwing everything away in "sanitary" landfills instead of reusing or recycling them is not the answer either. In 1895, George Waring, New York City's commissioner of street cleaning, recognized that the "out of sight, out of mind" approach to trash "is an easy one to follow, but it is not an economical one, nor a decent one, nor a safe one. His foresighted warning went unheeded.

In the industrial world, waste collection has improved public health, but the problem of waste generation has only worsened. Urbanites in industrial countries generate up to 100 times more refuse per person than their counterparts in developing countries.

But cities have the potential to shift from being repositories of waste to great sources of raw materials. Organic waste -- paper, food scraps, lawn clippings, and even human waste -- is a valuable resource. In industrial countries, food and yard waste alone account for about 36 percent of the municipal waste stream. European cities are leading a trend toward composting, which transforms this organic waste into a product that invigorates agricultural soils. Cities in seven countries -- Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Switzerland -- collect these wastes separately, recovering more than 85 percent of them.

Some cities have gone a step further, to engage the industries that create disposable goods or generate waste. In 1997, when Tokyo municipal officials were looking for new waste disposal options in land-short Japan, they announced that hey would require makers and distributors of plastic bottles to recover and recycle their products. And Graz, Austria, has created a labelling program to spur small- and medium-sized industries to reduce waste. Companies received the city's Ecoprofit label if they reduce solid waste by 30 percent and hazardous waste by 50 percent.

A handful of cities are moving beyond recycling to "industrial symbiosis," where one company's waste becomes another's input. The first eco-industrial park began to evolve more than 20 years ago in Kalundborg, Denmark. Today, waste gases from an oil refinery there are burned by a power plant, waste heat from the plant warms commercial fish ponds, and other companies use by-products of combustion to make wall-board and concrete.

According to one calculation, Kalundborg's waste-saving approach translates into $120 million in savings and revenues on a $60-million investment over a five-year period. Since 1993, more than 20 U.S. cities hoping to revive stagnant economies have announced plans for similar parks.

We in the industrial countries may seem light-years removed from the waste problems in developing countries, but until we fully integrate our waste disposal system into our economic system and adhere to an interconnected approach, we are actually only a few steps from throwing it in the street.

TRASH TIP - Nelson's Kootenay Co-op Radio, currently broadcasting for a four-week trial basis at 100.9 FM, is utilizing a transmitter made entirely from recycled and reused materials. Congratulations.

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