Pricing Trash Out of Existence
Our collective waste stream is one of the prime issues in need of attention in our country. Americans produce more waste per capita than any other country in the world. For as good as we are at creating ideas of value, we are apparently even better at deeming volumes of things worthless. But if more waste streams became feedstock—new raw materials—for parts of the economy then our trash would actually become valuable and draw more people away from tossing refuse so carelessly. We are approaching a time where more materials will retain a latent value to be harvested for second, third, or indefinite uses in the economy, thereby eliminating them from the waste stream entirely.
I came across a great article recently on Triple Pundit that highlighted a growing trend of people stealing waste grease from restaurants so they can turn it into black market biofuel. A Five Guys Restaurant (a solid burger joint) in Manhattan had their store of used cooking oil pilfered by a pair of thieves in a van. These guys actually drove from off the island to pump this yellow ooze into the back of their truck and then high tail it out of there—apparently the one load alone was worth some $1,400! As soon as I read the article I couldn’t help think what great news it was.
That’s right. As odd as it may be to consider theft and breaking the law great news, this pointed out the beginning of a cultural shift in a decidedly positive direction. Not that long ago, cooking grease was a waste product that restaurants had to pay to get removed. It was an expense of business—now it’s a revenue source so valuable that it’s worth stealing. A post on TheCityFix.com talks about how the town of Kilmarnock, Scotland had the idea for trading waste cooking oil for bus passes. In time spent cooking oil will be removed from the waste stream entirely. We could only be so lucky for cardboard and paper to be stolen out of recycling bins at night.
On average, Americans produced 4.6 pounds of trash a day in 2007 according to the EPA. Today, the majority of waste is written off as being worthless—a by product of living that not only holds no latent value but costs money to dispose of. Another way of saying that is trash is ascribed no value because we have no idea what to do with it.
As far as reducing trash, one of the stalwart methods is conservation and reduction—getting people to produce, purchase and discard less stuff to lessen the problem of where to store it. Our culture has begun to be more innovative with ways to use less material to create the same product. But like recycling, this method is still a temporary fix in that we are still adding material to a waste stream we have no end use for.
A different, and perhaps smarter, model is trying to find new end uses for waste streams and then using that knowledge to remap how our economy functions. Every time we can make a type of waste valuable it removes the material from the realm of waste entirely—once something has value it is no longer worthless and people are less inclined to toss something in the trash that is worth money.
I don’t think there are many waste streams that cannot be targeted for re-utilization and those that can’t should be the ones we are trying to phase and our replace with more pliable materials. Eventually, entire industries and economies can function like ecosystems where materials and processes are traded between companies that refine them into a new likeness ready for productive use. The city of Kalundborg, Denmark would be a great example with its “industrial ecology” while the antithesis is more like Dubai, the nemesis of sustainability.
While cooking oil may be only a small step, it is one of a growing number of supply chains that are having their ends relinked back to the beginning, upcycling rather than recycling (what’s the difference?). According to RecycleinMe.com, spot recycled steel prices around just shy of $20,000 per tonne while scrap heavy copper is around $39,300 per quintal. These prices not only make it affordable to be more careful with managing construction waste, but they become components of existing buildings that can help turn a demolition industry (a large source of waste in the U.S.) into a deconstruction economy that dismantles existing buildings for targeted reuse. Other bountiful commodities that are prime for fostering a new demand is waste water and heat—by products of nearly all business and production.
Imagine the repercussions of this kind of mindset settling into our culture. Consumers could actually base some of their purchases on which products can be most easily disassembled or broken down for further use. Companies would design new products with the goal of having them returned to raw materials rather than being discarded into a landfill. The amount of waste we produced would be a fraction of what it is now. In order to get there, we need to support products and companies that use recycled content in their products and reward producers that invest the time and energy to design products that can end up somewhere besides in the ground.
Sustainable Cities Collective