Zero Waste or Waste Authority?

by Tom Ellis, Citizens’ Environmental Coalition

Save the Pine Bush and friends won a partial victory in late February when Clough Harbour & Associates (CHA) revised the preliminary draft solid waste management plan it had issued in mid-December on behalf of a “steering committee” appointed by Albany Mayor Gerald Jennings. CHA faced considerable pressure from two steering committee members, SPB, Citizens’ Environmental Coalition, and many others.

During the past fifteen months, the city of Albany has been developing a long-range solid waste plan for the thirteen municipalities it partners with on solid waste and who use Albany’s Rapp Road landfill. Two months ago, Albany’s solid waste consultant, Clough Harbour & Associates released a draft plan in which it advocated for vastly enlarging the existing planning unit (220,000 people) to a multi-county grouping (all counties in the region were mentioned) that would serve the needs of 700,000 persons. Clough Harbour recommended the state legislature create a regional solid waste authority and the authority then have constructed a large treatment (disposal) facility. The type of disposal facility was not specified but a 1500 tons per day waste-to-energy station was mentioned in the report and discussed several times at meetings I attended last year.

The revised draft still calls for creation of a regional authority and a disposal facility. However, it contains some improvements. It describes “zero waste” as minimizing the amount of waste that must be disposed of, and says zero waste is “not inconsistent with the waste minimization goals” of the plan. The new draft states the still unspecified type of disposal facility would be for all waste remaining after implementation of “expanded and aggressive” waste reduction and recycling programs. These three words are important.

The new draft contains language stating the plan does not favor waste-to-energy over any other emerging disposal technology, and “a [disposal] facility would need to be sized according to the size of the regional wasteshed. The first draft’s language mentioning a “1500 tons per day” disposal facility to meet the needs of “700,000 persons” have been deleted although the revision asserts “economies of scale would occur with a larger wasteshed.”

Albany and Clough Harbour have several motives for favoring creation of a regional authority and constructing a giant-sized disposal facility. Obviously they hope to dominate the authority and Clough Harbour hopes to make a lot of money. Albany presently generates revenues (the exact amount is unknown with many numbers bandied about) with its landfill and hopes to continue using disposing of trash as a major income stream for the city. Several Albany politicians have also speculated that a regional authority would likely absorb the tens of millions of dollars in debts Albany has incurred expanding its Rapp Road landfill.

Clough Harbour has said that one reason it favors establishment of an authority is because an authority can compel participating municipalities to bring their disposables to the authority’s facilities. This would prevent the participating municipalities from shopping around for lower cost options. Municipalities might be forced to pay for disposal they are not using. If a municipality achieved very high reduction, reuse, recycling, and composting rates and had little to be disposed of, the municipality might be forced to pay the authority for what it is not disposing or to pay exorbitant rates for what it is disposing.

Albany does a poor job of managing discarded items now. The dump has periodic odor problems that have sickened many people in the Village of Colonie, the City of Albany and the Town of Guilderland. Albany has very weak recycling programs, no reuse programs, no waste reduction planning, no education programs on reduction and reuse, pathetic educational efforts on the benefits of and how to do recycling, and weak enforcement of recycling laws. Last year, a survey of post-recyclable materials brought to the landfill showed vast amounts of designated recyclables being disposed of at the dump, especially from commercial sources. Albany has a weak city council and government is usually not conducted in a transparent manner.

Clough Harbour and Mayor Jennings have a poor vision for the future. Even though Clough Harbour was tasked with creating a 20-year plan, both the December and the February drafts provide goals for only the first ten years. CHA asserts that 65 percent is the highest reduction, reuse, composting and recycling rate we can likely ever achieve. Many municipalities and solid waste planning units in the United States are shooting for rates much higher than this. With a higher or much higher rate, the supposed need for a large or giant-sized disposal facility disappears. I am convinced that Clough Harbour and Mayor Jennings do not want highly successful waste reduction, reuse, recycling and composting programs because they would prefer to generate lots of money disposing waste.

We can do much better. Twenty years is a long time. My sense is that as climate change impacts become much more apparent in the next few years, vast improvements will be made, perhaps quickly, in reducing the size and toxicity of the waste stream. In many parts of the US, the volume of trash being disposed of dropped by double-digit rates since the onset of the “Great Recession.” There is a growing awareness that discarded items do not become “trash” unless the items are mixed together.

NYS or the federal government may pass extended producer responsibility (sometimes called product stewardship) legislation requiring manufacturers and importers to take back their products after their useful life is over; passage of such laws would likely lead to quick and huge reductions in quantities of packaging that accompany new products, better built products that last longer, and giant reductions in the toxicity of products as manufacturers and importers hurry to reduce or eliminate future costs. With discarded materials being much less toxic, combined reduction, reuse, composting and recycling rates could surpass 90 or 95 percent and approach the ultimate goal of zero waste. The CHA-Bill Bruce-Jerry Jennings vision would create an unaccountable authority, lock us into unneeded disposal capacity, disincentiveize intensive reuse and recycling, and cost a fortune.

Published in the March/April Newsletter