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Making the US Sustainable starts with Waste (Part 1)

By Garrett Gates, Executive Research Assistant

Sustainability is something that I as most Americans believe we should be striving for. Waste is possibly the best example of America's unsustainable nature. Just think about the term waste... Just the definition of waste implies something isn't utilized or squandered, inherently unsustainable. Waste by mass is likely America's largest and most squandered resource. According to the EPA Americans generated 254.1 million tons of municipal waste in 2007. This number is only suspected to grow. What are American's doing with this incredibly large resource?

The answer is burying it and in some instances burning it. Only 33% of the waste was actually recycled, through one process or another. Regardless of your views on recycling currently I am much more concerned with the 66% of America's waste that is squandered. 137.2 million tons of waste ended up in landfills in 2007, where it 1.) takes up space 2.) emits greenhouse gases and thirdly and I argue most importantly 3.) is not utilized as resource.

Incinerators deter waste from landfills, but have there own environmental problems. Incinerators emit a large amount of CO2, and in small amounts produce dioxins and furans, some of the world's most toxic chemicals. Incinerators are also an incredibly inefficient method of generating energy as most if not all of the captured energy created from the plant is used to power the incinerator itself. Not all incinerators capture the energy from waste or even produce enough energy to operate the facility. Burning and burying waste has been a standard form of waste management since the beginning of civilization. Some improvements have been made with regards to the pollution control equipment and preventing hazardous materials from coming in contact with humans, but ultimately the technology has remained the same.

Neither one of these practices sufficiently addresses the issue of waste and making it sustainable. Both of the two most common waste management systems today, landfills and incineration, are inherently unsustainable. Complete sustainability for the US may be an unachievable ideal, but there are two options America has to improve the sustainability of waste management:

Option 1: Eliminate the generation of waste. Everyone would agree that this is the ultimate ideal, but most rational people will agree that currently we cannot quickly eliminate waste generation without catastrophic economic impact and major cultural sacrifices

Option 2: Develop more sustainable and efficient ways to utilize waste. Recycling is an example of this, however there is a limit to things that can be recycled. Investment is necessary in creating more efficient and environmentally friendly ways to utilize waste, rather than just mitigating its environmental impacts.

A combination of these options will be necessary in making significant improvements with regards to sustainability, and particularly with "waste", which the very word itself mirrors the definition of unsustainable.


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