Green Garbage Men: How Waste Collection is cleaning Up
The waste management industry has come a long way over the past half century. Gone are the days where garbage haulers would dump their trash into large unlined pits and then simply cover them up with soil. Gone too are the days where you could throw your plastic bottles and aluminum cans into a trash bin without feeling a pang of guilt.
Recycling is so prevalent that everyone from individuals to large corporations have jumped on the green bandwagon. Today, many families incorporate some level of recycling into their weekly trash collection, diligently separating their milk cartons from their regular trash bins. And businesses all over the country boast about composting their organic waste and their use of recycled materials. This increased focus on sustainability has helped to fuel the growth of recycling and composting services throughout the country.
Currently, over half of all households have access to curbside recycling services, making it far easier for people to participate in the recycling process. In 2012, the aluminum recycling rate alone spiked to 67%, thanks in part to the broad availability of curbside recycling. There have also been significant advances made in curbside composting, with some 100 cities currently offering dedicated bins for collecting organic waste. Curbside compost services allow customers to separate their food and yard waste so that it can be used for producing compost or even electricity. This has the double effect of freeing up landfill space and reducing methane emissions from landfills.
This surge in recycling and composting services also has economic benefits. Cities that have a well-established recycling program end up spending less per ton on processing recyclables, compared to using traditional waste processing facilities. And in many cases the city can sell off their recyclables to reclamation companies, providing even more incentive for cities to invest in recycling.
Significant improvements have also been made in developing waste-to-energy plants. These facilities utilize a variety of wastes to produce energy. One of the most intriguing forms of this technology is called an anaerobic digester. These large silo-like containers are used to break down organic waste, such as food scraps and yard clippings, into nitrate-rich fertilizer. As this organic waste breaks down it also produces methane which can be burned to produce heat and electricity.
Other waste-to-energy technologies include landfill gas power plants. Landfill gas plants utilize the methane that is released by microbes as they slowly break down the organic waste trapped inside. This methane can be combusted to generate electricity or it can be used to fuel on-site equipment, including garbage trucks.
There are currently over 621 such plants in the United States with an additional 450 sites that could utilize the technology. The technology’s widespread adoption could very well mean that the energy you are using to read this article came from something you threw out last week!
Utilizing everyday trash for energy is just one way in which the waste management industry is changing to meet the demands of today. Expanded recycling operations, improvements in composting, and huge investments in waste-to-energy technology are enabling the industry to keep up with the increased demand for sustainability. Our ideal waste-free world isn’t here yet, but we are on the right track towards that future.
Kevin Rossignol is a writer and outreach coordinator for Budget Dumpster.
Environmental Protection Agency: http://www.epa.gov
Recycling Today: http://www.recyclingtoday.com/
Mother Jones: http://www.motherjones.com/
Image 1: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/11/ACT_recycling_truck.jpg -Creative Commons License
Image 2: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/87/Gas_turbines.JPG -Public Domain