Fighting A Losing Battle?
By the mid-1960s, the USPHS had accumulated a wealth of data and experience on the subject of waste disposal. In a 1965 report, it warned that increasing urban development and waste generation would lead to inadequate land to site waste disposal facilities. And that current practices, if not managed properly, would exacerbate public health in the form of respiratory illnesses (via odours, incineration or open-burning dumps) as well as hazards caused by contamination of surface and groundwater supplies. The 1965 report also forecasted that waste generation would double over the next two decades.
Looking back with 20/20 hindsight, some of the warnings contained within that USPHS report have come to bear and the forecasted statistics now appear almost optimistic. The authorities did not have a crystal ball to forecast the packaging boom of the 1970s and 1980s, when disposable everything – from microwave meals, cutlery, underwear to drinks and anything else you can think of – rapidly became an accepted part of our modern-day convenient lifestyles.
In a 1999 forecast by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), it was estimated that waste generation by the year 2005 would increase to 239.5 million tonnes (from 58.1 million tonnes in 1960). But four years ahead of the forecasted timeline, in a report by the authoritative industry journal Biocycle, total tonnage of municipal waste in the US in year 2001 alone was a whopping 409 million tonnes. In another report by the same journal, it was estimated that eight states within the US had less than five to 10 years of landfill capacity left. It soon became obvious that alternate strategies of dealing with waste had to found – and fast!
Early Waste Recovery Efforts
Given modern society’s propensity to consume – and at such an alarmingly accelerated rate – it is only logical that alternate methods be found to utilise the waste generated rather than burning or burying the lot of it. We simply don’t have the space for the amount of waste we generate each year. Consider the statistics.
Globally, we will generate about 1.84 billion tonnes of municipal waste this year. By 2008, this global figure is estimated to increase by 31.1 percent. (Global Waste Management Market Report 2004; Research & Markets Ltd.) Of this total volume, a high percentage of it are organic in nature, and hence, potential input sources for waste recovery activities such as waste-to-energy conversion (WTE) and recycled products such as newsprint and compost.
Not that efforts hadn’t been made to recycle before. Feeding raw garbage to pigs in the early years, no matter how misdirected, is an early example. As mentioned, this proved to be hazardous to humans and also fatal to the pigs (which developed vesicular exanthema, an eruptive disease in the veins). Attempts were made to cook the garbage but this proved distasteful (the odours generated were especially heinous) and the process was not exactly cost-effective either.
In Great Britain, the burning of waste has a long established tradition. During the Industrial Revolution, this practice supplied the fuel for the conversion of steam power to electricity. In the 1930s, a popular government slogan of the time was “burn your refuse – reduce your rates.” Ashes and dust were a major concern but the use of incinerators continued unabated well into the 1950s. In homes, the British public continued to burn their waste until central heating became a fixed feature. During both World Wars, recycling took on an urgency to aid the war effort. Unfortunately, when the good times returned, so did die-hard old habits.
In the US, attempts were made to harness the trapped gases from landfills. In 1985, as documented by Fred Rice in The Landfill Gas Industry: Overview And Analysis, there were 15 plants involved in generating electricity from waste. By 2004, the number of WTE plants had increased to 98, as reported by the Integrated Waste Services Association.
However, in the face of cheaper traditional energy sources such as oil, the WTE industry continues to be fraught with problems, including high costs of operations and heavy reliance on tax credits from the US government to stay afloat. Having said that, given that oil reserves are not infinite, energy recovery operations such as these may have a promising future. Already, several US and European firms have investigated and developed some new gasification technologies to recover energy more effectively. On that front, we’ll just have to wait and see.