I just read of another proposed landfill that has encountered intense opposition. It shouldn’t come as any surprise. Even people who support the idea of a new landfill can find fault with anything too close to their homes or favorite recreation areas.
Landfills have become a precious and dwindling resource. The best way to make them last as long as possible is to keeps stuff out of them.
Here are some laws that limit specific kinds of waste. Two of the following concepts are fairly new. The first has been around for a while, but not every state has started a program.
Americans own lots of electronics–– about two dozen items per household. And all this stuff goes out of date before you know it. So we throw out millions of tons of it every year. In 2009, three-quarters of it went to landfills and incinerators.
Electronic equipment uses a wide variety of metals. Precious ones like gold and palladium. Base ones like mercury and lead. Some of them, at least, can be recovered using less energy than mining new metals. Some are hazardous in the environment.
Electronic waste makes only a small portion of the waste stream, but improper disposal threatens human health like little else. So far, 25 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws to establish statewide programs for recycling electronic waste. California became the first, in 2003. Only Colorado, apparently, actually bans electronic waste in its landfills.
Most of these states require manufacturers to collect and recycle their obsolete products. California requires retailers to impose a fee on every purchase. That money goes into a statewide recycling fund.
But half of our states, including some of the more populous ones, have no electronic recycling laws at all. Some manufacturers and stores offer their own programs.
Disposable coffee cups
Berkeley, California was one of the first cities to move against plastic shopping bags. Now its city council has decided to require coffee shops to impose a 25¢ surcharge on disposable coffee cups.
It would probably be impossible to enforce outright bans on them. Berkeley’s surcharge acts as a stepping stone. Residents toss 40 million cups every year. If consumers start to change their behavior, maybe a ban will work in the future.
If it were just weird old Berkeley doing its thing, the new policy might only evoke smirks and resistance. But Berkeley has only joined a worldwide trend. Europe, India, and Taiwan have already taken legal steps to phase out the cups.
The war on disposable coffee cups creates a big problem for the foodservice industry. Starbucks alone hands out about 6 billion coffee cups every year. Add other coffee chains, the entire fast food industry, and lots of independent restaurants, and the mountain of cups people toss has become overwhelming.
The standard coffee cup is made of paper with a plastic lining. No one can recycle it. It’s possible to recycle foam cups, but they can’t go through standard recycling sorting equipment.
Unfortunately, the industry has been struggling for at least a decade to find more environmentally friendly alternatives. It’s possible to make foam cups from mushrooms instead of plastic, but not economical. Prototype cups made from recycled materials haven’t worked, either.
Customers could take their own reusable cups into stores, but that’s inconvenient on both sides of the counter. It might be possible to make compostable cups, but we lack composting infrastructure.
Someone will find solutions sometime. But governments aren’t waiting.
Food waste causes at least two major problems. It contributes to world hunger and creates greenhouse gases in landfills.
The state of New York has tried to solve them. Its new Food Donation and Food Scrap Recycling Act applies to restaurants, college cafeterias, groceries–– any place that generates more than two tons of food waste per week. They must separate it into two categories and not send any of it to landfills.
Some is fit to eat, but unsold. The restaurants etc. must donate it to hunger relief organizations. Many already did. Now, all the others must, too.
The rest of the food waste includes peelings or what customers left on plates. These same large generators have to send this waste to a recycling facility. It could be a commercial composter or anaerobic digestion facility. These processes don’t create greenhouse gases. Nutrients from the waste eventually return to the soil.
The state built some exceptions into the law. New York City already has its own similar laws, so the state law doesn’t apply there. Also, the mandate to recycle food doesn’t apply if no recycling facility exists within 25 miles.
How effective will these legislative efforts be? My guess is that New York’s food waste law will accomplish more than efforts to ban single-use coffee cups. But Berkeley has at least chosen an intermediate policy that will be less disruptive than an outright ban.
Coercive laws can put the weight of government behind policies of dubious benefit, but we certainly need our governments to keep trying new things. Our complex environmental issues require action from governments, industry, and consumers. No one group acting on its own will accomplish much.