Waste at U.S. Level
(Part One in a Three Part Series by Paul Slocum–Sustainability Research Student Worker)
Sustainably dealing with waste is one of most challenging issues facing governments on the national level. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) branch of the U.S. government is tasked with all of the environmental issues plaguing the United States today, and effectively dealing with municipal waste remains one of their most problematic tasks, as municipal-waste management is largely orchestrated by state legislature. According to the EPA, “In 2009, 243 million tons of municipal solid waste (MSW) was produced in the United States. Currently, 34% of the 243 million tons is recovered and recycled or composted” (EPA). These 2009 totals from the EPA are their last numerical records of nationally produced solid municipal waste– and their webpage was last revised in 2012. However in 2009, “of the remaining MSW that is discarded, 12% is burned at combustion facilities and 54% is landfilled” (EPA). Yet more recent studies by the Columbia University in 2011 reaffirm the fact that the United States landfills far too much of its municipal solid waste, as: “if all MSW landfilled in 2011 was diverted to waste-to-energy plants, it would supply enough electricity to power 13.8 million homes” (Simet).
Now some might believe complete MSW diversion is an unachievable notion as it requires too much coordination and resources, dwindling luxuries in U.S. government, and currently such theorists would be right. A waste-reduction project on the national scale for a country the size of the U.S. would require a major restructuring of state and national waste-systems; projects which are not in the forefront of most politician’s minds. However, such a project is absolutely worth the investment, and the technology is already available. “Waste combustion is on average six to eleven times more efficient at recovering energy from waste than landfills” (EPA). The rewards of utilizing waste-to-energy technology are also impactful in areas other than just creating power, as Biomass Magazine writer Anna Simet details the benefits: “every ton of MSW combusted in modern WTE plants replaces nearly half of a ton of coal… Diversion of MSW from landfills to new WTE plants could reduce coal mining in the U.S. by about 100 million tons per year”. (Simet) The journalist also notes in the article how waste-to-energy technology could keep the 6,100 new acres of land the U.S. requires for landfilling each year clean and pristine. The benefits have been proven, the technology is available, all that remains is concerted effort on the part of state and federal legislatures to bring about a change in the way our country deals with waste. In doing so, we can provide a sustainable future for ourselves.