Green Energy Institute Charged Debate: Pursuing Zero Waste Goals Closes the Loop

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Pursuing Zero Waste Goals Closes the Loop

Saving the planet: The Logic, Law and Business of Recycling

By Brandon Kline, Energy Law Fellow

A number of my eco-friends caught John Tierney’s New York Times column on “ The Reign of Recycling,” and it got us thinking about the current position of the recycling movement – which has gone from outlier status to accepted insider in recent years.

While most consumers now engage in recycling to some degree, they are less likely to consider recycling from a legal or economic perspective. Growing up as a Millennial, Recycle Rex’s mantra was beyond debate: “Recycle, Reduce, Reuse…and close the loop.”

In other words, closing the loop through individual action is something we must do to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Not so, says Tierney, who has been trashing recycling since the 1990s.

His most recent op-ed criticizes the economic and environmental cost of recycling and assails the land-use goals of the recycling movement.

He writes: “But how much difference does it make? Here’s some perspective: of one passenger’s round-trip flight between New York and London, you’d have to recycle roughly 40,000 plastic bottles, assuming you fly coach. If you sit where each passenger takes up more space, it could be more like 100,000.”

Critics suggest that Tierney gives short shrift to recycling and distorts the context.

“Americans recycle enough plastic water bottles every year to offset the carbon emissions generated by flying round-trip between New York and London, annually,” notes blogger Adam Minter, author of Junkyard Planet. “I find it representative of ‘The Reign of Recycling’ – sloppy, deceptive, and lacking any kind of context for a reader not familiar with the recycling industry.”

Tierney correctly notes that waste management is not likely to avert the land fill crisis “in a country with so much open space.” But this is so for a number of reasons. Most importantly, under Article I of the U.S. Constitution, the Commerce Clause protects the practice of cities exporting waste to rural communities, near and far, as a matter of course. Even if that means landfills overtake land locked states. This is so because the United States functions as a national economy. See, e.g., City of Philadelphia v. New Jersey, 437 U.S. 617 (1978) (New Jersey statute prohibiting importation of most solid or liquid waste which originated or was collected outside the territorial limits of the State violated commerce clause).

As such, Tierney isn’t wrong to state that the country has yet to run out of landfill space. But it does not follow that the Zero Waste goal lacks merit.

According to the Zero Waste International Alliance, the zero waste goal attempts to guide people in changing their lifestyles and practices to emulate sustainable natural cycles, where all discarded materials are designed to become resources for others to use. Zero Waste means designing and managing products and processes to systematically avoid and eliminate the volume and toxicity of waste and materials, conserve and recover all resources, and not burn or bury them. Implementing Zero Waste will eliminate all discharges to land, water or air that are a threat to planetary, human, animal or plant health.

This goal can be pursued in a number of domains, including renewable energy.

For example, in San Jose, California, renewable energy advocates came together to design and construct an innovative dry anaerobic digestion (AD) facility for the City of San Jose’s commercial organics processing services. Built by a green energy public-private partnership in December 2013, advocates lauded this facility as the largest dry AD project in the world, processing an estimated 90,000 tons per year (TPY) of commercial organic waste that would otherwise be disposed of in a landfill. The high-quality compost produced is used to enrich soils. In addition, the renewable biogas provides both on-site power for operations and power for sale to local users of green energy.

In conclusion, pursuing zero waste goals is about closing the loop of consumerism, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions through end-use efficiency. As a policy matter, stressing the importance of recycling goes beyond economics. It also makes us attentive to our levels of consumption. Even Recycle Rex understands that.