Everyday, each one of us creates four and half pounds of garbage, which collectively translates into hundreds of millions of tons of waste, generated across the United States. Over the past few decades, governments, citizens and business have become increasingly concerned about the growing amount of waste being generated and the potential environmental impacts associated with this trend. This concern led to the development of the hierarchical “3R” approach to waste management, which classifies waste reduction strategies according to their desirability: reduce, reuse and recycle. These strategies first aim to generate the least amount of waste possible and then to extract potential benefits from unwanted materials.
Despite the widespread adoption of the 3R approach, landfilling remains the most common form of waste management and achieving diversion targets continues to pose a challenge, especially since there is no consistent universal method for calculating diversion rates across jurisdictions.
Faced with this challenge, some communities have adopted an integrated waste management approach that combines a number of waste management methods in a way that best meets local needs and is consistent with the principles of sustainability. The 3Rs hierarchical approach has left some communities without the necessary options and tools to manage their waste streams effectively in the midst of growing populations and economies. An integrated waste management approach, on the other hand, recognizes that no one recycling or disposal method can deal with all the materials in an environmentally effective way.
This does not mean that the 3Rs are abandoned, just that other considerations such as geographic, financial, social, waste mix, infrastructure and regulatory vary greatly between communities and need to be taken into account.
The integrated waste management approach does not imply recycling or one disposal option’s dominance over another, but seeks to optimize the whole system to meet the community’s needs. This requires each system (and its combination of recycling and disposal options) to be assessed for its environmental and economic sustainability to ensure it is socially acceptable and affordable. By taking a holistic approach, a community can assess and evaluate the economic and environmental impacts and performance of various waste system options, instead of comparing individual treatment options such as recycling versus waste to energy. In fact, this approach creates less waste to deal with in the first place and a system to manage the waste/resources that are left, in an environmentally effective and economically affordable way.
An example of this is Broward County, Florida, that has an integrated waste management system that incorporates various waste diversions and recovery tactics which can turn our trash into valuable resources. In the county, it’s no longer enough to only use a regional landfill, recycling plant or waste-to-energy facility. Instead, to achieve high waste diversion rates, the best option is to incorporate a combination of these facilities, as well as other resource recovery processes. Nearly every material imaginable can be recovered in some way so that it doesn’t take up space in a landfill through the following programs:
Waste-to-Energy Plants – In Broward County, there are two Wheelabrator waste-to-energy plants that serve to “(1) provide an environmentally safe and cost-effective solid waste disposal solution; (2) recover energy and recyclable ferrous metals; and (3) reduce the quantity of waste subject to landfilling.” The energy that is recovered can be turned into electricity. The two Wheelabrator facilities can generate enough electricity to power nearly 100,000 homes.
Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) – Recyclable items, such as paper, cardboard, plastics, aluminum and glass are taken to a single stream recycling facility, Reuter Recycling, which is the largest recycling facility in the southeastern United States and the fourth largest in the country. There the materials are separated on conveyor belts. Employees monitor the belts to make sure non-recyclable items are removed from the belts. Here’s an example of a MRF in action.
Electronics Recycling Program – Electronics are becoming more prevalent in our lives, but also can pose issues when they’ve outlived their usefulness. When it’s time to toss that old cell phone or PDA device, it’s important to remember that if they’re not properly disposed, hazardous materials can be released into the environment.
Hazardous Waste Program – There are also several other household and business products that require this same special care of hazardous waste. Broward residents are able to bring their household items, such as paint, CFLs, and batteries to specific locations so that they can be disposed in a safe manner. Additionally, this program also accepts hazardous waste materials from small businesses (including home-based), government agencies and non-profits that generate hazardous waste, such as medicines and sharp materials. An additional option is ThinkGreenFromeHome which allows people to recycle their universal waste directly from home.
Landfill – For those residual materials that are left that cannot be repurposed, Central Landfill, an environmentally engineered landfill provides leachate processing, ground and surface water monitoring as well as a gas collection system to protect the environment. Here’s an example of an environmentally engineered landfill. Central’s landfill gas to energy plant utilizes methane gas to create enough energy to power nearly 7,500 homes.
Taking out the garbage may be a small chore for all of us, but there is much more behind our nation’s waste management process than meets the eye. When the proper municipal tools are in place, your trash may no longer go to waste. Instead, it can be recycled and recovered into new products or resources that you’ll come to use in the future, creating an endless lifecycle for these important materials.