Developing new approaches to the wicked problem of waste disposal

The United States and California face a waste management crisis. Landfills are filling rapidly and building new ones face numerous obstacles from governments and opponents. Various California laws  (SB 1383; AB 341; AB 876; AB 1826) are imposing ever more waste management and disposal requirements on local governments, leading to rising costs to customers and businesses. Most serious of all, China’s “National Sword” policy has virtually halted the import of U.S. plastics for recycling, leading to growing stockpiles with no place to go.  

Santa Cruz County, its cities and institutions–including Santa Cruz and Watsonville–are not insulated from these challenges. AB 876 and 1826 require organic recycling by local businesses, but Santa Cruz has established no program to accept these materials. Watsonville has closed its landfill and is shipping trash and recyclables to Marina, 15 miles to the south. The County’s Buena Vista landfill has opened its last “module” and is expected to close within the next 15 years. UC Santa Cruz is facing a cutoff of access to the GreenWaste composting facility in Marina, California and its highly-touted recycling program is diverting only about 50% due to contamination, leading to a large fraction going directly into the Santa Cruz Landfill.  At the same time, the volumes of disposable packaging are growing, with no means of identifying and reducing packaging materials along supply chains. As Pete Seeger once asked, “What will we do when there’s no place left to put all the garbage?” 

A better question to ask is: why is there so much garbage? For the most part, and for the past century or so, the waste problem is one that has been addressed at the back end of the production-consumption cycle, when “stuff” is no longer reusable or useful, and the costs of repair or rehabilitation are more than the costs of a new one, whatever that is. Concerns with health and hygiene have driven ever-more safe and secure wrappings and containers, as sizable portion of which ends up in oceans, and the rise of on-line sellers, such as Amazon, have generated mountains of cardboard. The relatively low-cost of plastics, and the short life cycles of electronic devices and light appliances, results in things that break more easily than in the past and cannot keep up with either fashion or the growing processing requirements of ever-more sophisticated software.

Recycling has become a fairly sophisticated enterprise, but the sheer quantity of supposedly-recyclable materials begs the question of whether there are ways to address the waste problem before stuff becomes waste? That is, can goods and devices, food utensils and containers, and packaging be made both more durable and more recyclable at the production and procurement ends of the product life-stream? Is it possible to motivate businesses to pay closer attention to the front end of the product life-stream and the reusability,  compostability and recyclability when orders for goods are being placed?

One example of such a focus, which is being adopted by coffee shops around the country, are reusable or rentable coffee mugs. A coffee shop sells or rents one, with a refundable deposit, and offers a small discount on a cup of coffee. At the same time, a customer will be charged a small fee for a single-use paper cup. The savings to both business and customer result in a rapid “payback” for the purchase of the mugs and the reduction in waste manage costs. The goal here is to effectively eliminate the individual customer’s need to make a decision regarding where to put the garbage by eliminating all options except one.

This approach can, we believe, be extended to significant portions of the procurement process, especially for commercial business with significant material inputs and outputs. To date, there has been only a limited focus on how the procurement end of the material stream could be tapped to reduce waste output. There is only limited information available to businesses who might want to go down this path; most who do have to conduct their own research into alternatives products and suppliers.

SSRF IS developing an experimental procurement program that will allow businesses to reduce their costs and limit their customers to simple recycling, composting and disposal alternatives.  One part of this effort is creation of a database of single-use foodservice compostable products that will allow local restaurants to order compostable supplies from the right vendors.


Pilot Waste Audit Program (PWAP)

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