It’s time to take a hard look at the value MSW systems are delivering

Sunshine Canyon Landfill Gas-to-Energy

In a recent Waste Dive article “It’s time to look harder at landfills if we’re serious about addressing climate change,” Philipp Schmidt-Pathmann and Stephen Gerritson don’t want to be dramatic, but they do want you to know that we’re at the “tipping point”…again. That’s right, get ready for temperatures to be unacceptable levels of warm (can’t be too warm, can’t be too cold), the rates of severe weather events and our seas will rise (kiss that beachfront property good-bye), and droughts too (don’t want to forget those). No worries though, this can be avoided if we separate organic waste, eliminate Solid Waste systems and RECYCLE EVERYTHING ELSE.

Good grief, seriously? If that’s the “moment of truth” that will affect the “survival of mankind” – we’re screwed.

Philipp and Stephen conveniently cherry-picked the current recycling rate as being “stuck” in the 30% to 35%. The actual overall recovery rate for plastics is more like >10%. But don’t let 50 years of data that proves the inefficiency of recycling plastics get in the way, no! Instead, let’s throw-out Solid Waste systems and force everything into the recycling stream. Not too smart.

They point to solutions using anaerobic digestion, which is what modern landfills are today. But somehow negate these systems in the same breath. So, are they throwing the proverbial “baby out with the bathwater?” According to the U.S. EPA, LFG energy projects across America will capture roughly 60 to 90 percent of the methane. These same projects are providing renewable energy to the grid, heating millions of homes, fueling thousands of fleet vehicles and providing power to industries across North America. With new regulations looming, these capture rates will only continue to improve, as they have over the last few decades, unlike recycling rates.

Today, 85% of U.S. MSW is being sent to these baseload energy sources (because there’s no such thing as a “somewhat” baseload energy source). In fact, it’s RNG from Solid Waste systems that’s helping California to reach carbon negative milestones. And why four bills in Congress name landfill gas as a renewable energy source including America’s (LIFT America) Act, GREEN Act, Clean Energy for America Act and the CLEAN Future Act. But somehow these gentlemen from the Institute for Energy and Resource Management think this existing infrastructure is inefficient and diverting MSW to non-existent recycling streams would be far better. And if you’re buying that, I’ve got that beachfront property for you in Arizona.

We are not going to recycle our way out of pollution or climate change. Plastics can/should be designed to work in the primary managed waste systems (ASTM D5526/D5511) where consumers properly discard plastic waste. Plastics come from energy and plastics are inherently discarded in Solid Waste systems. Solid Waste systems are providing more return value in energy recovery than any other option available today. Ensuring the highest return value throughout the proper lifecycle of an application, using the infrastructures we have available today. That’s taking accountability and achieving circularity.

As for the European model, good on you if you want to incinerate waste for road projects. The U.S. prefers to sequester Solid Waste in highly designed, strictly regulated, anaerobically managed systems to extract the biogas from carbon-based [solid] waste to protect the environment, reduce GHG and recover clean renewable energy. We do this in the ground because we can. After which, that land is repurposed as a nature reserve, park, sanctuary, or golf-course. So, you do you, EU.