Javier Palomarez: Taking on America’s waste crisis
America has a big waste problem. In fact, the problem weighs approximately 280 million tons. That is the quantity of municipal solid waste (MSW) Americans create every year.
As waste creation skyrockets, landfills across the country are nearing capacity, generating a waste crisis that crosses state lines. The U.S. produces more than 30% of the planet’s waste, though it is home to only 4% of the world’s population.
Colorado generates almost 10 pounds of trash per person, per day, which equates to each person creating over 18 times their weight in trash every year.
New York has no landfill space available for its millions of pounds of biowaste — a nicer term for human excrement. The Washington Post reported that New York’s feces were shipped on the infamous “Poop Train” to Alabama, where land is inexpensive and zoning laws are more lenient. The report found over 10 million pounds of biowaste was headed to Alabama’s Big Sky Environmental Landfill. And now we’re finding that over 78% of waste management facilities, including incinerators and landfills, are near low income and minority communities.
To exacerbate the problem, the option to send waste overseas has been virtually eliminated. The U.S. previously sent 4,000 shipping containers of waste to China, every single day. At the end of 2017, China banned the import of waste. Other countries that were among the top 10 importers of U.S. trash have followed suit. India, Thailand, Vietnam, Taiwan and Malaysia have all instituted similar bans.
The solutions to our waste problem that are gaining media attention only manage the crisis, without solving it. We read about better ways to reduce, reuse and recycle. Or even better ways to send waste to landfills. The truth is we’ve been conducting waste management the same way for over 200 years. We either bury it, or we burn it.
But little is written about more holistic solutions that address waste, recycling, energy and climate (WREC). These four topics are interrelated. If we’re going to solve this hydra, we’re going to need a multifaceted solution.
First, we need policy-makers on both sides of the aisle to step up. The Trump administration should be doing more to address our waste and energy crises instead of continuing to reverse policies protecting air, water and land use. Republicans broadly have been hesitant to embrace forward-thinking solutions, opting instead for the status quo. Democrats aren’t much better. Party leaders refuse to address the crisis head-on, kowtowing to industry lobbyists representing the waste management industry. Only the progressives in the party are inclined to rock the boat.
We need policymakers with the political courage to come together and embrace viable, common-sense solutions that will afford us the opportunity to create a cleaner, safer future.
Several technologies already exist to eliminate waste and create clean energy. Hydrothermal decomposition, the best of these technologies, can take municipal solid waste, including plastics and sewage sludge, and process it to create engineered pulverized fuel (EPF), which can be used in place of coal. EPF also burns hotter than coal, creating more energy, with near zero emissions.
Methods for turning waste to fuel are environmentally responsible, sustainable, safe and available in the U.S. today. This approach offers a solution to the rapidly expanding waste crisis, while creating new sources of renewable energy.
Right now, there are small American companies with the technologies to take on the waste and energy crises simultaneously. This approach protects the environment, helps return clean energy to our communities and creates jobs. We simply need the resolve and foresight to invest in these companies.
Regardless of political affiliation, elected officials must demand sustainable solutions that would ensure a cleaner, healthier environment for generations to come. Policy-makers should demand it, because the American people deserve it.