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Let's Talk Trash

(November 22, 2011)

Talking trash is a large part of what I do each day, and I’ll start with you. In 1960 "you" generated, on average, 2.68 lbs of trash (household waste) every single day. But in 2007, you generated almost twice that amount at 4.63 lbs per day. In fact, your average daily trash consumption only dropped a mere .13 pounds in 2008, the first time our daily per capita average has decreased in 50 years.

What’s going on here?

Several trends converge to create these data, but since they are per capita calculations, population increase isn’t one of them.

The primary factor underlying these pounds-per-day increases is that we consume more now than we did 50 years ago. In 1960 we had fewer clothes in our closets, fewer toys in our playrooms and fewer cars in our garages. But increased wealth, credit cards, a collective and inflated sense of self-worth, and the ever-perfected art of advertising, have led to greater consumption of goods. And more consumption means more trash.

Our cultural shift to fast food feasting and convenience store grazing has created its own increase in food packaging that has a shelf life of a few minutes before it enters the waste stream to the tune of gazillions of tons of waste per hour, but that’s my gut data calculation, not one that the industry has provided.

And don’t forget that 1960 was a world relatively free of electronic gadgetry. The average household had one TV (black and white), one record player and perhaps a transistor radio. We now live in a world where digital "toys" are on every shelf and desk in every room and are as necessary as clothing for our work and entertainment. And they become obsolete in increasingly shorter cycles, and then we toss them.

So what’s the big deal?

The problem is that all of us create the problem of waste disposal while collectively interfering with logical solutions by fighting necessary landfills or refusing to allow tax dollars to be directed to more modern disposal options. We are an entitled society. We have our cake . . . and then eat it, too. But here’s where the increase in population is relevant. An extra 1.95 pounds of trash per day, times an extra 100 million or so people adds up to . . . LOTS OF TRASH.

Last year I attended the annual meeting of the Solid Waste Association of North America (NC Chapter) and listened to several presentations on solid waste, waste-to-energy technology, and regulatory developments. As an environmental and land use attorney, I was where I needed and — believe it or not — wanted to be.

One of the presentations was by John G. Carlton, a solid waste engineer and engaging "futurist" with the highly regarded engineering firm CDM (Camp Dresser McKee) in the firm’s Edison, New Jersey office. In addition to the consumption statistics presented above, Mr. Carlton pointed out that the U.S. population is conservatively estimated to increase by 42 percent in the next 40 years.

Will we end up like the humorously mythical and future world in the movie Wall•E? Or can we find adequate disposal options? Because I can tell you now that, as humans, we insist upon greater and greater consumption and that all disposal options exist 40 miles and three counties away. We can’t have it both ways. As our seemingly endless rural areas and large tracts of land without wetlands and streams disappear, our landfill options diminish by the day in inverse relationship to expanding urban growth.

One of the most interesting trends Mr. Carlton described was our move towards eleven "Megaregions" in the U.S. and Canada defined by economic linkages, transportation systems, land use patterns and population. By 2050, most of North Carolina will exist in what is described as the "Piedmont Atlantic" region that extends from the Triangle to . . . Birmingham, Alabama. I’m not making this up.

These megaregions will become mega-generators of waste, causing us to develop mega-options for dealing with disposal and the wise use of disposed waste for energy. Whether it is the conversion of landfill gases to transportation fuels, using closed landfills for solar and wind generators, or mass-burn waste-to-energy technology, converting landfills to generators of energy will be necessary.

Carlton also discussed the effects of landfill gas, waste transport and waste-to-energy emissions on climate change and LEED certification of landfills, issues that planners and elected officials will soon absorb into their vocabularies and knowledge bases.

Fifty years ago the waste industry was primarily concerned with collecting garbage from homes and businesses and dumping it into a hole in the ground. Today it is a high tech, environmentally conscious industry supported by huge venture capital firms and university-backed research. As Carlton describes its future, it will be a field dominated by chemical, electrical and mechanical engineers with an increasing army of our best and brightest who get their PhDs in . . . talking trash.


Click here to view the full digital version of the The Economic Development edition of SML Perspectives.  


Thomas E. Terrell
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