Landfills: A concern piling up

CLEAN Living

Geoffrey Castro

Original article here

With just over four million residents living in the Houston –Galveston Area Council’s (H-GAC) region, garbage is piling up although most of it is kept out of sight. The region is expected to grow by as much as 40 percent over the next twenty years creating a concern about disposing of the trash, paper and yard waste all those people will add to already bulging landfills.

Americans generate trash at an alarming rate— almost twice that of other countries. In Houston residents throw away 8.2 pounds of garbage everyday, twice the national average.

Within the H-GAC region as much as 4.5 million tons of solid waste is produced each year. According to a report by H-GAC, an estimated 60 percent of the waste stream is composed of paper, cardboard, aluminum and yard waste such as grass clippings, leaves and other litter from lawns and gardens. Residential collection accounts for an estimated 58 percent of the region’s waste whereby the rest is generated from business and other activities. Of this waste, roughly 90 percent ends up in landfills.

Currently there are 2,300 acres allocated for landfill space for this region – a capacity that Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) reports will fill up within 20 years. Estimates of capacity are constantly changing as new permits are accepted or denied making it difficult to obtain an approximate number for years of remaining landfill capacity.

Trends over the past 30 years have given way to building fewer and larger landfills in response to federal legislation that regulate landfills. As a result, many smaller city and county dumps have closed and giant mountains of trash are emerging. This has caused TCEQ to become lambasted by environmental groups crying a dramatic increase in problems such as water contamination, noxious gases, erosion and terrible odors.

“We have a very poor way of planning for landfill capacity in Texas,” says Robin Schneider, director of Texas Campaign for the Environment, a group working to strengthen and enforce trash rules across the state. Schneider, who has been focusing on landfill regulations around the state since 2001, feels that Houston and much of the state are behind in adequately addressing source reduction.

Zac Trahan, a campaign organizer for the organization, says that there is a general lack of education about landfilling because there are so few of them. “They have been reduced in number and centralized into regional landfills where most people don’t see the consequences of big mountains of trash on a day to day basis.” He says most people put their garbage out once or twice a week, it gets picked up and they never think about it again. “There is no such thing as ‘away’,” he adds.

Although it appears cheap and easy to operate landfills, an EPA study shows that almost all landfills eventually end up leaking into the ground adversely affecting water sources.

Currently, there is no system for containing this waste. Some states require a double liner for leak protection, but Texas has yet to follow suit. Although landfills in Texas have groundwater monitoring, proximity of ground monitors have been widely debated. TCEQ’s current standard requires monitors to be at least 600 feet apart. Schneider says this standard does not adequately protect public health. She argues that plumes extending from leakages might be very narrow and that they may go undetected.

Schneider says product manufacturers and local governments have the largest role to play in change. Crockett Texas, for example, has perhaps made the biggest stride for other cities to follow by passing a law which mandates recycling. The city currently recycles 50 percent of is waste, more than any other city in Texas. Other cities such as Austin, have signed on to the Urban Environmental Accord, a plan to have zero waste by 2040.

Houston ranked among the lowest in recycling rates in a survey earlier this year. Waste Stage, an industry publication, compared recycling rates for the 30 largest cities in the U.S. and found that Houston recycles 2.5 percent of its waste compared to other cities such as San Francisco which recycles 67 percent of its waste.

The low recycling rates throughout the region and the state are often attributed to the cost structure of landfills. “Because landfilling is so cheap, the costs of recycling don’t often match up,” says Schneider.

Progress & Solutions:

In response to low recycling rates, Mayor White recently unveiled “Go Green,” the city’s new recycling awareness program. “Recycling is the environmentally right thing to do. It saves landfill space, saves tax payer dollars, and helps conserve natural resources,” says Mayor White.

The H-GAC is also working with local municipalities and providing solid waste stream analysis as well as assistance to increase recycling efforts through its Solid Waste Implementation grant program. The program distributes 3.5 million dollars each year for funding the purchase of recycling equipment and facilities including the City of Houston’s Westpark Recycling Center. Each month, the center serves more than 6,000 Houston residents who are not served by curbside recycling to collect an array of goods including computers, newspaper, used oil, tires and much more. According to an H-GAC spokes person, grant money also funds local enforcement of illegal dumping and anti-litter.

What we can do:

Groups like Schneider’s, Texas Campaign for the Environment, are committed to zero waste as a long term goal. This will take a comprehensive change in many areas that includes not only landfills and recycling but design, consumption, packaging and waste. Long term solutions must be aimed at making products easier to recycle and making producers and manufacturers responsible for the end of life of their products.

Ultimately, reducing waste begins at the source – the people who create the trash. To reduce your contribution to the growing landfills try:

  • Reducing—use less energy, water, materials, and toxic products.
  • Reusing—use items again and again, until they cannot be used anymore.
  • Recycling—make new products or packaging from used materials.
  • Rebuying—consume products made from recycled materials.

The steps are easy. For more tips on simplifying your lifestyle and minimizing your personal waste stream click here . Source reduction programs are paramount and will ultimately depend on an informed public. Citizens just like you need to plug into more recycling efforts and become more educated about the long-term consequences of landfills and the benefits of recycling. If citizens have curbside recycling programs they need to maximize their participation. If not, they need to demand better recycling options and take advantage of drop off points.

The mountain of trash and debris is rising. Houston can still support this type of policy and legislation on producer takeback, minimize its waste and save taxpayers money. How will you make a difference?

Tech Trash Talk Recyclers will discuss future of electronics scrap industry at Austin conference this week

Austin American Statesman
Dan Zehr

The tractor-trailers started showing up 18 times a day, and they didn’t stop for a month. Each one backed up to the dock at Image Microsystems Inc. in North Austin with another haul of old electronics equipment. By the time the final truck pulled away, workers had unloaded 93,000 phones, computers and monitors. The caravan cleared out a massive warehouse where the New York Department of Education had stored the equipment for years, trying to figure out what to do with it all.

“If you take someone as educated as a department of education, you’d think they’d know,” said Jim Rollins, an executive vice president at Image.

But that lack of awareness is the problem dogging the electronics-recycling industry and one of the key issues recyclers, product manufacturers and environmentalists will take up at the annual E-Scrap Conference, which starts Wednesday at the Austin Hilton. Organizers say more than 600 people from 10 countries have signed up for the event.

“That’s what this conference is all about,” Rollins said, “educating people about what do to with that product and where to go with it.”

Spreading the word is easier than it was in 2002, when fewer than 400 people gathered in Orlando, Fla., for the first conference. Back then, the electronics-recycling industry was a scattershot collection of small companies. Today, it’s a billion-dollar market, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

“We used to talk about why to do this business,” said Jerry Powell, editor in chief of E-Scrap News, which runs the conference. “Now, we talk about how to do this business.”

It’s a business that has grown easier in some ways and harder in others. A few high-profile protests, some forward-thinking companies and slowly increasing awareness have directed thousands of tons of electronics toward recyclers instead of landfills over the past five years.

147-4732_IMGThe Texas Campaign for the Environment led a two-year campaign against Dell Inc., including a well-publicized 2003 incident in which members dressed in prison uniforms to protest the use of prison labor in the company’s recycling programs. The group’s two-year campaign and a growing number of recycling requests from customers persuaded Dell to change its policies.

Now the company is considered one of the leading computer makers when it comes to recycling and other environmental issues. It offers free recycling for any Dell product, whether the owner buys something from the company or not. Hewlett-Packard Co. also has extended recycling and take-back programs worldwide.

“When we started in 2002, H-P was really the only company that had this on their radar screen,” said Robin Schneider, the Texas Campaign’s executive director. “Now they all do. . . . There is much more cooperation than there has been in the past.”

That has led to a rush of new recyclers in Austin and around the country, Schneider said. Companies are popping up to grab a piece of the market, which had doubled to $1.5 billion in 2005 from three years earlier, according to EPA estimates.

“People recognize they have valuable stuff there; it’s not just a tin can or a glass bottle,” said Powell, the E-Scrap organizer. “But when you open the collection programs, the question they have is how, when and where.”

Most recycling firms do business solely with equipment makers or large customers and typically don’t market their services to consumers. So, most home users end up piling their old equipment in a closet or furtively tossing it in the trash.

“Five years from now,” Powell said, “everyone will know all Austin Goodwills take used computers.”

But new recyclers could have a tough time even if awareness grows to a point where everyone turns in their old electronics equipment, experts say. Despite the industry’s growth, they say, there will be less and less money to make on recycling and refurbishing old machines as manufacturers improve products and make them more environmentally sound.

Meanwhile, manufacturers such as Dell and H-P, both leading sponsors of the E-Scrap Conference, keep raising their standards. They have to guarantee customers that sensitive data will be destroyed and the equipment will be disposed of properly. And given that their customers reside across the country and world, the manufacturers increasingly prefer recyclers who have a broad presence.

“We need the support of a large network of participants to be successful,” said Tod Arbogast, who helps direct Dell’s environmental efforts. “We need them to drive efficiencies in the processes of recycling.”

That almost certainly means consolidation is on the way. Among the people registered for E-Scrap, organizers said, the most intriguing were the investment bankers.

“They’re seeing if there’s a play here,” Powell said.

The interest from outside sources of capital isn’t new. In August, Austin-based recycler Newmarket IT received $50 million from Catterton Partners, a private equity firm based in Greenwich, Conn.

“Consolidation and mergers are occurring in this business,” Powell said. “Some of the people coming to Austin are seeing it a bit as a dating bureau. They’re coming to the dance to be seen.”

The consolidation will help drive more volume, which in turn will help recyclers squeeze more return out of their scrap lines. But no matter how efficient they become, said Rollins, of Image Micro, “it’s a very hard thing to make true business sense out of. . . . You have to have other offerings to make up for recycling.”

Image Micro refurbishes some machines and re-sells them. Goodwill also re-sells refurbished computers as part of its partnership with Dell. The venture now offers free recycling at Goodwill sites in Austin, San Antonio, San Francisco, Pittsburgh and all of Michigan.

Unlike Goodwill, though, Image Micro is in the business to make money, so it has developed a range of products and services to supplement its recycling business. For example, it has installed presses that allow it to make garbage can wheels and rain gauge covers out of the plastics it recovers.

“The economic benefit is not from recycling electronic products,” said Hong-Chao Zhang, director of the Center for Advanced Manufacturing at Texas Tech University. “It comes from other businesses that accompany recycling.”

And although the rising participation in electronics recycling programs means more computers, cell phones and digital music players for companies to recycle, Zhang said, recyclers will have to diversify if they’re to survive.

“They hope someday this industry could become a major industry,” Zhang said.

“A couple years ago, I’d have believed that. . . . But without legislative support, I think this industry will still be struggling. There’s not much money in end-of-life products.”