August 7, 2006

Recycling’s “China Syndrome”

At last month's Southern California Emerging Waste Technologies Forum State Senator David Roberti (ret.) made a statement about the duplicity of state policy on "diversion credits" for specific forms of recycling. I had heard Roberti make a similar statement at a hearing last November but hadn't researched it. Here is what I have learned since...

What are "diversion credits"?

In 1989, Assembly Bill 939, known as the Integrated Waste Management Act was passed because of the increase in California's waste stream and the decrease of its landfill capacity. As a result, the current California Integrated Waste Management Board (CIWMB) was established. A disposal reporting system with CIWMB oversight was created and facility and program planning was implemented.

AB 939 mandates a reduction of waste being disposed: jurisdictions were required to meet diversion goals of 25% by 1995 and 50% by the year 2000. Those that didn't meet these deadlines were liable to receive noncompliance fines. Whether a form of diversion receives credit toward the target or not is based on an ongoing refinement of legal definitions in the state's legislature.

Currently, California municipalities qualify for diversion credits on trash that recyclers ship to the China. China can process waste far less expensively than we can in the U.S. because of cheap labor and their incredibly toxic emissions and health standards. As long as the waste is segregated as recyclable it makes no difference how it is processed afterwards as far as our diversion counting is concerned. Talk about sweeping a problem under the rug!

Even waste China is not asking for, e.g. the e-waste piling up in China’s coastal river valleys, is considered diverted according to our counting methodology. Whether the Chinese dump it or we dump it - it shouldn't receive diversion credit.

Believe it or not, if local municipalities instead opt to build clean CTs - conversion technology facilities using gasification or pyrolysis to significantly reduce the volume of waste to be landfilled while generating green energy and clean fuels - they would NOT receive diversion credit! This in spite of the fact that it would represent an ultimate and environmentally responsible processing of the waste near the source.

Why should facilities that convert waste into heat, electricity, and renewable fuels not earn credits for the municipalities that build them? The answer is that recycling groups are afraid of losing control of any portion of the waste stream - that such credits would create irresistable incentives to municipalities at risk of being fined for non-compliance. Once municipalities gain control of their waste streams, recyclers may get less, or as Scott Smithline of Californians Against Waste (CAW) worded it, "“We are concerned that demand, that hunger for feedstock, is going to pull materials from other traditional recycling uses.”

So the environmental interests are taking second seat to bickering over control of the waste stream. But the duplicity is far worse than that. Consider the trail of the waste that goes to China -

1 - The ships that transport the trash thousands of miles to China spew tons of greenhouse gases from burning bulk fuel (the least refined and most toxic oil-based fuel sold). These emissions into the atmosphere return to California and points in-between.

2 - The destinations in China are unregulated, polluting factories that, among other repugnant policies, employ children as sorters within close proximity to toxic ovens that smelt and reform the plastic. Are we so unprincipled that we would ship recyclables to foreign destinations knowing that their low health standards would endanger the workers that handle our trash? Should we credit those shipments for landfill diversion?

3 - Airbourne particulate matter from all unregulated Chinese combustion factories reaches back to the U.S. In a recent article in the San Diego Union Tribune entitled China's growing air pollution reaches American skies, UC/David researchers have evidence that as China consumes more fossil fuels to feed its energy-hungry economy, the U.S. is seeing a sharp increase in trans-Pacific pollution that could affect human health, worsen air quality and alter climate patterns.

4 - Plastic and trash debris from throughout Asia accumulates and returns to North America via Pacific ocean currents. In a story titled Plague of Plastic Chokes the Seas writers for the Los Angeles Times detailed evidence of waste that was accumulating in giant offshore gyres:

The debris can spin for decades in one of a dozen or more gigantic gyres around the globe, only to be spat out and carried by currents to distant lands. The U.N. Environment Program estimates that 46,000 pieces of plastic litter are floating on every square mile of the oceans. About 70% will eventually sink.

The purpose of this article is not to point fingers at the recycling industry. Rather, to insist that the California Integrated Waste Management Board's attempts to modernize California's recycling policies, including diversion credits, receive the full backing and support of the California legislature – which it clearly has not. California not only needs to reduce the source of its waste and expand programs for dealing with more types of waste, but also must update the definition of transformation and conversion technologies so that we can process more waste, more completely while creating "green collar jobs" for our own workers. These are the objectives of AB 2118, currently hung up in negotiation before the California Assembly Natural Resources Committee.

Exporting our waste to poorer countries is unprincipled and uncivilized. Furthermore, CTs represent a new opportunity to significantly expand our recycling efforts, reduce landfill demand, suppress pollution of our atmosphere and oceans, reduce greenhouse gases, and create new energy resources to help meet the electricity and fuel needs of future generations both here and abroad.

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Tom Konrad said...

Whenever we design an incentive system to accomplish some goal there are unforseen effects. In this case, an attempt to encourage recycling interferes with waste-to-energy. This is why regulatory incentives need to be carefully designed to reflect the goals they are seeking to accomplish.
If the point is to encourage recycling, then an incentive should be given to the act of recycling, not the act of sending waste to China.
It is a conundrum: we need regulation, but our regulations so often have unintended consequences.

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