Monday, August 08, 2005

Trash Talking Civilization


Every living creature produces one or more by-products during their existence. It is just a fact of life that the plant produces oxygen as part of photosynthesis, a tiger converts ingested meat into excrement or anaerobic bacteria transforms carbohydrates to hydrocarbons. It is also a fact of life that when waste materials build up to excessive levels, the life form that created them often is seriously impacted by their actions. In a closed system this relationship usually is fatal. Fish living in an uncirculated fish tank will consume all of the dissolved oxygen and pollute their water to a point where the tank conditions cease to support any life. By installing a pump and filter system, we artificially increase the fish tank’s carrying capacity.
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Our use of waste treatment strategies similarly extends our carrying capacity, especially in our largest, densest urban areas. Without it our natural and economic wastes would accumulate to levels that would endanger our health.
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Human generated waste management is a serious matter. In the US, we generate some 231 million tons of waste materials in any given year. Only 30% of that is recovered. Californian rates are somewhat higher as the state has begun to sanction municipalities that fail to recycle at least half of their waste stream. The law mandating this elevated diversion rate, AB939 has caused some jurisdictions (including mine) fits trying to reach the mandated target rates. Only now, under the risk of fines, have we begun to take this issue seriously.
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The motivating factor behind this of course, is the dwindling amount of space at many landfills across the state (and country). More than one jurisdiction has faced that tricky question on how to handle waste matter once landfill capacity has been reached. New sites are usually difficult to permit and more often than not, located well away from the major urban area generating the trash. In a number of locations, that trash is exported out of the region altogether, to an area with sufficient capacity. In some cases this turns out to be poorer rural areas or third world countries.
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Other countries have faced the trash issue and taken a variety of approaches from extensive reuse/recycle programs to dumping trash at sea. In recent years, many locations have begun tapping into the potential energy embodied in the waste by constructing elaborate methane collection systems that channel the gas to a generating unit that burns off the gas to create electricity. (One of our county landfills now does this) Other places incinerate the trash itself to reduce the size and harness the produced heat to generate electricity. As energy prices continue to climb, these strategies will become ever more popular.
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But household solid waste is only half the picture. We, of course, also produce waste materials. Each year the USA produces 6.9 million tons of (dried) sewage waste that also needs to be properly disposed of. Like solid waste, there are multiple ways to handle human waste. While a sizable number of individuals rely on septic systems, most sewage treatment needs are handled by large municipal operations that treat the incoming waste for pathogens, concentrate and remove solids and discharge the now cleaner water. An area of controversy remains over the disposal of the remnant solid materials also known as biosolids. Industry advocates insist the spreading of these materials over farmlands is a safe and effective tool, while opponents cite the possibility of trace pathogens and industrial chemicals (many of which are toxic) as a reason why they should not be applied to farmlands, especially those producing food for human consumption. If biosolids are not spread over the landscape, they are primarily disposed of in a landfill or incineration unit. In past decades they were also dumped at sea.
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Both strategies for waste disposal discussed here also have something else in common. They are energy intensive. In 2000, municipal systems consumed approximately 21 billion kWh of electricity while privately operated facilities consumed roughly twice that. Solid waste disposal strategies are entirely dependent on diesel to fuel the tens of thousands of garbage trucks that ply our streets each day. The larger the urban area, the more sophisticated these waste control strategies have to be. Without either, waste and trash would accumulate in densely populated areas and increase the risk of pest infestation and disease transmission. When either of these waste removal strategies fails (whether due to equipment failure in the case of a treatment plan or labor problems for garbage removal) health concerns quickly manifest themselves.
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To put it simply, we are just as dependent on cheap energy to rid our settlements of our waste materials as we are to get the raw materials to us in the first place.
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Removal of this energy subsidy calls into question the viability of our waste handling strategies. Just as it is doubtful if we can maintain regional and global supply networks of food and water, it is equally questionable whether or not we can continue to treat and remove the millions of tons of waste our society produces each year. This problem is almost as serious as the input question and deserves our attention.
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We need a lower energy, more holistic approaches to waste management. The continued linear flow of nutrients from field to plate to toilet to treatment facility to landfill is not sustainable. Nor is mass treatment and biosolid application on agricultural lands. Just as food should be produced close to home, so should our waste. Ideally the issue of sewerage treatment would be handled within each household, via a composting toilet if possible, with the compost removed for eventual application near the community. The Chinese used to practice a less sophisticated version of this (look up night soil) for millennia resolving the issue of nutrient flows. A more sophisticated version of this would accomplish the same thing but with less risk of illness. Likewise, grey water should be treated close to home, if at all possible. The use of garbage disposals must be eliminated in favor of composting. What remains of our commercial and industrial sectors also must learn to reduce or treat their waste and not send it on down the line.
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Now I recognize this will not always be possible to accomplish, especially with multifamily residences or large urban conurbations, but in the end if we are to continue living in concentrated settlements of any size, a low energy form of sewage treatment has to exist. The status quo will not cut it.
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Nor will our solid waste strategies continue to remain sustainable. The dependence on once or twice weekly pick of refuse will become ever more difficult for municipalities to maintain. Commercial establishments will be forced to pay higher and higher rates for private haulers to service their needs. Unlike the issue of human waste, the best strategies for coping with solid waste will undoubtedly originate from the development of more re-useable forms of packaging, more recycling of various products, less packaging for other products and the elimination of most forms of globalized trade that require sophisticated packing and presentation. Similarly, the shift from a consumptive to a steady state economy would also go a long way to reducing the consumerist purchases so typical of many shoppers.
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Instead of milk products, mass produced in mega dairies, processed in large centers and distributed to multiple states in plastic containers, we could return to local dairies and reusable glass bottles.
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Instead of cheaply made plastic toys from China, packed in plastic packaging and sent to the US, we could return to the hand crafted toys more common of the pre-industrialized era.
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Substitutions like this would inevitably reduce trash production.
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So would more efficient manufacturing processes and more recycling of nonsalable portions. Or more durably made products. Or fewer products altogether. Each would no doubt, play a part.
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Some of these strategies probably come off as idealistic. That’s a fair enough argument. My point in this piece isn’t in really to promote these concepts as “must do” ideas. Rather, it was my intention to describe how the business as usual methods will not cut it. I still stand by those statements. The maintenance of our civilization is due in part to our ability to remove wastes from our system before they result in disease or death. Unfortunately as our civilization grew more complex, so did our waste management strategies.
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Like other carrying capacity increasing strategies, large scale treatment options are dependent on cheap energy. Without them, many of our largest cities will become as healthy to us as that uncirculated fish tank is to the fish.
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1 Comments:

Blogger Marek said...

In a serious breakdown of public services the knowledge contained in a book like Joseph Jenkin's Humanure would be most helpful. Besides food/water/heat/light dealing with human waste in serious service dislocations would be a significant problem.

8/09/2005 6:09 AM  

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