A World to Waste, Part 2

August 28, 1998

By Michael Jessen

Your attitude toward waste is likely coloured by both your view of the world and the room in your backyard.

If you believe in the continued gobbling up of Earth's resources to make stuff, you are obviously not concerned that the world economy since 1950 has consumed the equivalent amount of resources used in human history from the beginning of time to 1950.

It probably also doesn't concern you that for every 100 pounds of product manufactured in the United States, at least 3,200 pounds of waste are created.

What's the problem? None according to A. Clark Wiseman of Spokane's Gonzaga University. He figures that, at the current rate, Americans could put all of the trash generated over the next 1,000 years into a landfill 100 yards high and 35 miles square. Or dig a similar-size hole and plant grass on top after it was filled.

Wiseman's 35-square mile plots can be found in some U.S. states such as Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, North Dakota, Montana, and Idaho. It is perhaps therefore not surprising that these are the states that collectively spend the least on recycling in the U.S. -- a combined total of only $497,400 in their 1997-98 budgets. Compare that to Washington state's $12 million recycling budget and a better than 40 percent recycling rate.

If you have lots of room in your backyard to dump waste, you're likely not to be easily convinced of the necessity to change your wasteful practices. And if you don't believe the warnings of scientists around the world about an impending scarcity of resources, then its business as usual for you. Go away and don't bug me, recycling kid.

But that's not the attitude in Europe, particularly in Germany and the Scandinavian countries. Recycling is a very high priority in Scandinavia and is being implemented through recently passed producer responsibility legislation. Landfilling is being discouraged through landfill taxes and the prohibition of landfilling of organic wastes.

The principle objective of Danish waste policy is to reduce the amount of waste and its environmental burden. Priority is given to preventative strategies that reduce waste production. Recycling is also a high priority and Denmark has established an ambitious target to recycle 50% of its waste by the year 2000.

In Sweden, 38 percent of municipal solid waste is incinerated with energy recovery, 32 percent is recycled or composted, and 30 percent is landfilled. Sweden is instituting a disposal tax in the next year in the range of $30 per ton for landfilled waste and will begin to implement producer responsibility legislation which requires manufacturers to take back discarded products and packaging for reuse or recycling. Mandatory take back schemes are being put in place for newspaper, packaging, tires, batteries, and automobiles.

By 1990, the German Federal Environment Ministry estimated that landfill capacity would run out in two to five years and population density made it virtually impossible to find new sites. A new packaging law was passed in 1991 based on the "polluter pays" principle, which requires manufacturers that produce the packaging be responsible for disposing of it.

"This reverses the conventional approach, as in the United States, where waste disposal is the burden of municipalities," says Betty Fishbein of Inform, Inc., a private, non-profit environmental research organization in New York City. Fishbein has written a book on the German system to encourage North American policymakers to study the German experiment. "It makes environmental sense to ask manufacturers to consider the entire life-cycle of their products," Fishbein says, "and we can learn from Germany's experience."

Today the typical German kitchen has containers for seven categories of recyclables -- different colours of glass and kinds of plastic, newspapers, magazines, and metal cans. An eighth category, discretely hidden under the sink in a plastic bag is for organic food waste. Squeezed in a corner is a container for the rest.

So much for filling up the backyard with trash.

TRASH TIP - The latest service in Germany is a mobile dishwasher, a trailer stocked with two industrial strength dishwashers and crates of china, glasses, and flatware for three hundred people. Sporting clubs and other groups rent it instead of using disposable paper or plastic. Some larger cities have banned the use of disposable beverage containers at events held on public property, which in Munich has cut the waste from the Oktoberfest by more than half.


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