It has been around a year now since I started my own version of zero waste. I say it’s my version because I’m still learning and understanding the way I consume and the resources I have around me to help facilitate reducing my waste. I still have a lot of things in my home that I am using up from years of consumption so it takes time to transition, but I've started.
When I first heard of zero waste, I thought it was a great concept. I had gone through a few years of minimizing and decluttering and being really conscious of how I was consuming and it felt like this was the next step for me. Zero Waste Home by Bea Johnson was my model. I had never heard of her before and was fascinated by all of the things she was doing. I must have watched all of the YouTube videos of her speaking and read her book religiously. I was able to make strides with reducing the amount of waste our home generates and have been more conscious of what I buy. Through all of this, I was focused on my home, my waste. The more I lived my life, the more I realized that for many of us, waste is out of sight, out of mind. Once it leaves our home trash bins, we don’t see it at all. An individual can only do so much. I started emailing companies about what they were doing to reduce their waste or if they had plans to move towards more sustainable packaging, but this was never enough. I was still shocked at how many companies were marketing themselves to be sustainable, eco-friendly, green, yet had no plans to truly create a circular economy of sorts for their product and their packaging.
A few weeks ago, I had a chance to attend a presentation by the Commission of the Department of New York’s Sanitation and New York’s Goals to be zero waste by 2030. I was excited for this. I was happy that a city like New York City was thinking forward. If the New York City can do it, so can any city in the world especially given the complexities of New York, the influx of tourists and the attitudes of its people. You can read more about what New York City is doing here.
From that presentation, I learned that 15 miles from me is a waste-to-energy facility that process one New Jersey county’s trash along with a few percentage of trash from nearby towns. A waste-to-energy facility! It sounds cool. It sounds so forward looking. To think, a facility existed off of the NJ Turnpike and passed by thousands of people each day. I couldn’t believe such a place existed that turned waste-to-energy. This sounded like a solution to the waste. How was it all being done? I signed up to tour the facility.
While I waited for my tour date, by chance one of the books I requested from the library, “The Zero Waste Solution” came in. I didn’t think much when I requested it. I basically just did a keyword search on “zero waste” and requested all of the books available. Reading the first few chapters was eye opening and reading the rest was inspirational. Beyond all of the zero waste blogs I follow, all of the tips to start a zero waste life, after all of the trials and errors with reducing waste, this book summarized the challenges and the possibilities at a scale greater than one home. I’m not knocking what each of us is doing individually to reduce our waste, what I am calling out is that, it’s just not up to the individual. Companies, organizations, governments all have a part in reducing waste.
As I read “The Zero Waste Solution”, I was also introduced to all of the ways waste-to-energy is NOT the solution.
- Waste-to-energy facilities are costly to build. In order to get a positive return on these facilities, the facilities have to have long-term contracts with towns to have them process their waste. This is not reducing waste, but perpetuating the continued production of waste to run the facilities. With other energy sources available, this is a very expensive option for energy.
- While incinerating waste for energy seems like a smart solution, it actually takes a lot of resources to make this happen thus negating the production of energy. There are other and better energy alternatives such as solar.
- Waste-to-energy facilities still produce waste that go to the landfill. This is from the bottom ash that is generated from burning the material.
- Chemical output remains a heavy concern regardless of how much filtering and treatment is done to the gas and water that is generated during incineration. Dioxin, a harmful and toxic chemical, is a common output of burning trash that affects human and animal health.
- It also takes very little human capital to run these facilities. These facilities do not create jobs. A waste-to-energy facility employs less than 100 depending on its size and needs. Not much for a multi-million project.
- Incineration removes resources that could have been used for other things, thus continuing and encouraging the cycle of extracting virgin materials to make new products.
Due to the reasons above and plenty of others in the economic, environmental and societal spectrum, new waste incinerators have seen a decline in the United States, though many other countries are doing their own campaigns to build their own. So then, what happens to all of this trash that is not getting burned? Sadly, they end up in landfills and circulating our oceans. The good news though is that there is a solution, a zero waste solution. It takes a lot of effort, a lot of man power and the contributions of an entire community to make true zero waste happen at a larger scale. I’ll cover those in the next post because I think it’s important to highlight that many communities and cities around the world have already achieved zero waste.
So I toured the waste-to-energy facility still very fascinated by the sheer size and volume of the waste that it processes. I don’t think many people even realize that their trash gets incinerated a few miles from where they drop it off. This is where the problem lies. It’s out of sight, out of mind. I’m sure for many, they assume it’s being trucked and carted to a landfill hundreds of miles away when in reality it is less than 10 miles away.
From Engineering Timeless - How a Waste-to-Energy Plant works
During that tour, I met a young man who was an analyst covering alternative energy at a major investment bank. We had a quick discussion on the facility. In the end, we netted at the following summary: if little to no waste is produced, companies will go bankrupt.
In the next post, I will cover the solutions put forward by Paul Connett in "The Zero Waste Solution" book.
Additionally, I would recommend also checking out the documentary Trashed with Jeremy Irons (yes, that Jeremy Irons) that walks through our trash and consumption problem and the hazards of burning waste. (Available fully on YouTube with subtitles for the time being.)
Note: I received permission to take pictures in the facility. The video above is the general waste-to-energy process. The plant I visited follows this similar process. Waste-to-energy plants are generally open to giving the public a tour of their facility to encourage acceptance. See for yourself, but read up on the process before agreeing to have this in your backyard.