Sustainability

The Waste Crisis

According to the EPA, Americans generated about 254 million tons of trash, of which 87 million tons, or about 34%, was recycled and composted. Waste generation has increased to about 4.4 pounds a day per person with 1.5 pounds being composted or recycled. Most of that waste ends up in a landfill, in essence a relatively inexpensive, earth moving operation. The downside of using landfills is that they remove valuable lands from other uses for generations to come, and because decomposition generates explosive methane gas, and waste settles over time, it is impossible to build any structure over landfills once they are closed. The situation is exacerbated since most landfills are located close to urban centers where development pressure is greatest.

But let’s have a look what happens inside a landfill. As it turns out, the waste is not as dormant as it may appear, but has a life of its own instead. Deep inside microbes are feeding on organic materials and produce chemical changes. Settlement takes place as the lower parts of the landfill are compressed by the weight above.

Infiltrating rainwater leaches heavy metals, PCBs, lead, solvents, dioxin, DDT, benzene, CFCs, furans from the myriad of products and substances dumped in the landfill, forming a contaminated liquid that sooner or later percolates downward and – unless we install some barriers – pollutes the underlying ground water. Today, around 45,000 different chemicals are produced and about 1,000 new ones are added each year. Unfortunately, many of these substances are toxic and can damage parts of the complex and fragile environmental web. And equally disconcerting, many of chemicals find their way into our landfills. Even modern landfills with liners and leachate collection systems are a problem. If they are not leaking now, they will probably start leaking within a few decades of their closure. The use of modern technology simply postpones the inevitable.

In addition to the leachate, landfills also cause atmospheric pollution. The decomposition processes release gases such as methane, carbon, dioxide, vinyl chloride and hydrogen sulphide, which slowly seep into the air around the landfill. This impairs air quality in the immediate vicinity and, on a larger scale, contributes to greenhouse effect and global warming.

The production of consumer goods and their distribution to the customer make full use of the latest technological development, while the disposal of the remains is still carried out on stone-age-level. Landfills do not only represent an unproductive land use but also fail to meet the sustainability principle.

In the production and consumption of the myriad of products few seem to care what happens at the end of their utility range. Never before and by no previous society have comparable large amounts of products and such dangerous substances been converted in such a short time into waste. In order to avoid a total waste crisis, the engineering in production must be complemented by an efficient and non-polluting waste management, which aims to minimize waste at the source, in the production process, and transforms the inevitable remaining wastes into relatively harmless substances that can be safely absorbed in soil, water and air.

When considering the costs, decision makers more often than not, focus on the short-term cost of landfills when compared to incineration or waste-to-energy conversion plants. What is frequently omitted is the fact that landfills are effectively permanent facilities, which, unlike incineration or conversion plants, can not be easily after 30-50 years to make room for more advanced technologies or entirely different uses. In fact, while the land used for an incinerator/conversion plant could be sold and used for other purposes, landfills will need to be monitored and maintained for centuries after they close.

The most crucial factor is however, that the costs of damage to the environment, the value of Earth’s natural ecosystems and the services they provide are not fully captured in commercial markets in the way economic services and manufactured commodities are valued. To properly reflect the value of Earth’s ecosystems, additional cost factors should be included in the financial analysis of waste management facilities. For example, landfill costs should be increased to account for the permanent loss of land resources, the exposure of groundwater to leachate, and the atmospheric pollution caused by gas emissions.

Many of the processes and technologies needed to create a circular economy are available today or within reach. What’s lacking is our resolve and determination to change course.

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A short history of solid waste management

The explosive population growth combined with an increasing appetite for consumer goods, has led to an explosion in the amount of garbage we produce. Virtually every aspect of our daily lives generates waste, and it is impossible to think of any man-made process that does not create some waste. The spectrum ranges from refuse produced by all of us in our daily lives, to highly toxic industrial wastes from the production of specialized goods such as cars, electronics computers, cell phones and plastics. What happens to all this waste?

Some is recycled and re-introduced into the production cycle. Some is incinerated, and when this leads to the generation of electricity, useful steam or heat, it can be considered a form of recycling, or more appropriately, a conversion of waste to energy. The remaining waste winds up, as it has over the last three millennia, in a landfill. This basic method of placing garbage in large pits and cover it, at intervals, with layers of earth as remained relatively unchanged.

In Athens (500 B.C.) it was it was the responsibility of each household to taking their garbage to the disposal site located at a minimum of 1.5 kilometers from the city walls. With the Roman Empire, came the first garbage collection service. People threw their refuse into the streets from where it transported to an open pit, often located within the community, by horse-pulled carts. Centuries with no organized waste collection followed. Land was plentiful and people were few, and so garbage was simply dumped in convenient places and forgotten. By the 1700s, refuse had become a major problem: waste was still dumped in the streets and open burning of garbage was a common practice. And yet, it took another 150 years before scientific reports linking disease to filthy environmental conditions finally helped launch the ‘age of sanitation’.

In the United States, the modern concept of solid waste management first emerged in the 1890s. By the turn of the 20th century, a growing number of American cities provided at least a rudimentary level of solid waste collection and disposal, and around 1930 virtually all cities offered garbage collection services. Once removed from urban centers, the wastes were disposed of in a variety of ways, including landfills, incineration, water and, ocean disposal. The latter was outlawed 1933, however industrial and commercial wastes were exempted.

The post World War II era led to a significant escalation of the waste management problem for two reasons: consumerism (over-consumption) and the rise of the chemical age, which, together, resulted in dramatic changes in waste volumes, composition and toxicity.

The 1950s also brought us the so-called Sanitary Landfill, typically defined as an engineered method of disposing solid wastes on land by spreading the waste in thin layers, compacting it to the smallest practical volume and covering it with soil at the end of each working day. But despite the new terminology, it remained in essence an earth moving operation.

That only changed in the 1970s and 1980s, when people recognized that landfills were causing significant contamination of groundwater. The problem was compounded by the fact that once groundwater becomes contaminated it is exceedingly difficult to remediate.

As a result, a number of features were added. Bottom liners made of clays or synthetic materials such as impermeable high-density polyethylene were introduced to stop leachate from leaving the landfill. Caps made of similar materials were placed over the landfill to decrease the infiltration of precipitation. In addition, engineered collection systems were installed to capture leachate and gas. Monitoring of groundwater, surface water, and gas emissions became a routine part of landfill operations.

Despite all the improvement we have made to siting and operating landfills, the real problem is simply their large numbers and the expanses of valuable real estate they occupy. All along, landfills have been a child of convenience. Time has come to develop and implement waste management systems that do not impair our environment, use up valuable resources, or place limitations on future resources.

Public involvement is essential. Wastes are very democratic – they are produced by each and every one of us and so we all should contribute to the solution. The objective must be to minimize the impact on the environment through a combined strategy of reduction/reuse/recycling, and incineration and/or waste to energy conversion. Instead being the first choice, landfills will have to become the last resort.

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Can we discipline ourselves?

As humans we have the desire to understand and explain the world around us. For millennia we have strived to answer questions about life, physics and natural laws. Now it seems we are forced to seek answers to problems we have caused ourselves. The questions are whether we still have time to act, or whether the natural systems have already reached a point of no return.

During times, when nature in general seemed to be indestructible, exerting power and control over all remaining life was considered a natural right. Nature was considered an interference factor and we did not think, and many still don’t, that our own behavior could, in one way or another, significantly impact the natural systems, let alone throw them out of balance. The reality is that the planet reacts very slow; so slow in fact that it requires long-term observations to measure disturbances, disruptions, breakdowns and malfunctions. Hence, the warning signs reach us with such a delay that we mistakenly conclude we could behave and do what we want without consequence. And so we release smoke, soot and toxins into our environment, polluting the place that gave us life, nurtured us, quenches our thirst, provides food and fills our lungs with air.

A mere 150 years ago, natural disasters were practically not influenced by humans at all. Solely reacting to events for millennia, many of which we could not even put into any context, let alone explain, we are incapable to anticipate the outcomes of our actions over the time periods our planet needs to react to man-made pressures and changes.

An additional handicap is that man’s time horizon is short, at best 25 years. He will, if he was alone, do nothing to protect the earth. In an ironic twist of fate it is our intellectual abilities and our technology-based civilization (which have advanced the quality of our lives) that now threaten the survival of all living things on earth – including humans. As the German philosopher Hans Jonas put it, in man nature has disturbed itself with our morality being the only mitigation factor. We are approaching the abyss, and the fundamental question we are facing is whether or not we will be able to discipline ourselves and change course.

We have lived through paradigm shifts before: we once believed that the sun moves around the earth only to have science prove that the opposite is true. Now we are told that the problems (global warming, sea level rise, depletion of the life-protecting (stratospheric) ozone layer, marine pollution, soil degradation and the loss of species and biotope diversity) don’t exist, are not as urgent, are not caused by us, or a combination of all of the above. Again, science has been providing evidence to the contrary but many people continue to believe that the future will be much like the past, the task of avoiding disaster falling to markets and technologies. But think about this: the earth is stable, it does not grow. The input of the sun likewise remains constant. Much of the wealth, derived from that input and stored over tens of millions of years in fossil fuels, has already been consumed in less than two centuries. No technology in the world can alter this equation. The greatest problem is the illusion that subtle changes in course direction could guide us towards a life of cozy shopping malls while ensuring the survival of the natural systems, the glorious diversity of life that surrounds us, and our own species.

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Coastal Development

Nearly 60% of the world’s population lives and works within 100 km of the coast, and a majority of metropolises with a population of more than 2.5 million, are situated at the edge of the sea. People chose to live near the water for various reasons: a fairly moderate climate influenced by coastal winds, and year-round access to leisure, fishing, and ports for navigation and transportation of goods. For many, the deciding factor evolves around the lifestyle coastal environments provide. In recent decades, affluent urbanites and retirees have begun to move to small existing coastal towns or newly created communities in their search for beautiful, natural surroundings. Recent research, suggesting that people who live closer to the coast are in better health, has only strengthened its appeal.

Undoubtedly, the largest influence on coastal development can be traced back to tourism, which represents the world’s largest service industry, supporting 1 in 12 jobs globally and generating $6.5 trillion every year. International travel has increased 40-fold since 1960 and surpassed 1 billion travelers in 2012, with many tourists spending time on the beach, or on the water. In fact, 12 of the 15 top international destinations are countries with coastlines. Sand, sun and sea tourism makes for the largest and most lucrative sector of the tourism industry.

In response to the increasing demand, coastal areas across the globe have seen a great deal of urban and resort development, including large, all-inclusive resorts, small upscale boutique hotels, eco-lodges, marinas, residential (second) homes, and commercial areas. Naturally, these developments often raise environmental and socio-cultural issues, including the modification of the natural landscape, competition for scarce resources, rising real estate prices, potential loss of distinctive character, the displacement of local fishing and farming communities, and the outright destruction of natural jewels, such as mangroves and coral reefs. The promise to create sustainable and resilient developments too often remains unfulfilled, quickly leading to increasing resistance from coastal communities and other stakeholders. Given the diverse ecosystem services coastal systems provide, these conflicts between utilization versus protection are bound to arise, and add to the already existing challenges, from water scarcity, resource shortages and climate change, to social inequities that threaten to destroy the social fabric of many of our communities.

Change is evitable, negative outcomes aren’t. In the past, little if any consideration was given to the importance of the natural and socio-cultural systems in coastal areas that already existed in areas under consideration for new real estate and tourism development projects.

It is encouraging that one of the world’s leading planning and design firms, EDSA in Fort Lauderdale, has begun to develop and employ a more research-based and performance orientated approach that emphasizes sustainability and resiliency when shaping the future of our coastlines.

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Towards an enduring society

The scope of today’s environmental problems is fraught with catchwords such as greenhouse effect, depletion of the life-protecting (stratospheric) ozone layer, marine pollution, soil degradation and the loss of species and biotope diversity. Our steadily narrowing spectrum of consumed products from agriculture, forestry and fisheries, and the concentration on a few economically valuable species, has resulted in a specialization of land and marine food harvesting systems. Combined with the conversion of habitats, these are prime causes of species loss within any particular ecosystem. Obviously, all our activities, especially the harvesting of natural resources, have tremendous impact on the ecosystem. Equally obvious is the fact that non-sustainable harvesting, and causing the extinction of species, is ethically unacceptable and unjustifiable. Because we all need nature; for food, health and scientific innovation, the prevention of floods, droughts and epidemics, the mitigation of natural disasters, and of course we need wild places, animals and plants for recreation, renewal, and inspiration. Consequently, we need to consider the carrying capacity and flexibility of the economic and social systems, but also the cultural diversity, which helps people adapt to changing conditions. perhaps the biggest challenge is that our knowledge about the world tends to be organized in small segments. It is our fascination for parts and pieces that blinds us to the whole. What is needed instead is a holistic view that helps us understand patterns of complexity and interaction that point towards balance over time.

The internationally acknowledged basis for agreements on environmental protection, resource management, and conservation, relies on the principles of sustainable development and the maintenance of bio-diversity.

The concept of sustainable development, first introduced in the Brundland Commission’s report Our Common Future, is based on the realization that the conditions for economic activities will continue to deteriorate in the future, if the natural resources underlying these activities are destroyed at the present rate. By exploiting non-renewable raw materials, we consume resources as if making withdrawals from a limited saving account, without making deposits. At the same time, our species is using renewable resources above and beyond their regeneration capacity. The earth’s limited absorption capacity is strained by emissions and waste volumes, resulting in ecological costs that can no longer be ignored. In other words, to prevent future generations from suffering from shortages of natural resources, or a deterioration of environmental quality, this capital stock should at least be kept at a constant level. But rather than focussing on specific issues, such as resource availability and absorption capacity, I like to think of sustainable development as a means that helps preserve the vital functions of the environment, including the potential for change, evolution and self-regulation.

Bio-diversity is meant to be all-inclusive; it is the genetic-based variation of living organisms at all levels. It includes the world’s millions of species and the ecological systems they live in, ranging from Polar Regions with relatively few species, to the tropics with their great abundance of different life forms. Preserving bio-diversity provides us with at least three domains of benefit: the maintenance of our ecosystems in healthy condition, a potential source of new resources such as pharmaceuticals, crops, fibers etc., all holding economic value, and biophilia, a term used by E.O. Wilson to describe the natural affiliation humans have for the nature. It is our failure to recognize our connection with the global ecosystem that lies at the center of the biodiversity crisis facing our planet. We have to recognize that biological diversity is part of our heritage and is incomparably older and more complex than anything else.

Of the 5-30 million species that exist today, humans consume nearly half of the land-based ecosystem production, and 25% of all plant energy from the land and sea combined. Today there are less than 1 million elephants, but 100 million cattle on earth. These numbers do not reflect intrinsic worthiness, but rather developed usefulness. And yet, we must confront the demographic realities honestly, if we hope to create a sustainable lifestyle and preserve bio-diversity. Although nobody knows the exact rate of extinction, estimates are that about 26,000 species are lost each year, which means that three species are lost forever every hour. It is also commonly accepted that there is a relationship between habitat loss and species numbers. Reducing a habitat’s original size by 10% is thought to eventually lead to the numbers of species inhabiting that area dropping by half. Every species that disappears is a loss of evolutionary potential and potential resource. Human-caused extinction is believed to be between a thousand and ten thousand times greater than what it was before Man populated our planet. This is far in excess of the rate at which new species are being created. So again, we are quickly depleting the capital that took millions of years to create.

To better manage natural resources the following guidelines may be helpful:

  • The depletion rates of renewable resources should not exceed their renewal rates;
  • The consumption of non-renewable resources should be limited to levels at which they can either be replaced by physically, or functionally, equivalent renewable resources, or at which consumption can be offset by increasing the productivity of renewable or non-renewable resources;
  • Disposal of any substances should take into account the maximum absorption capacity of the specific environment with all it’s functions, including ‘hidden’ and more sensitive regulating ones;
  • There should be a balanced ratio between the time frame of man-made environmental footprints, and the time scale of the corresponding natural processes (reaction capacity of the environment).

In principle, a detailed evaluation of how to best address these challenges can be achieved in two ways: the first is inductive and based on the analysis and the assessment of selected substances and potential fields of application. The second is deductive, aimed at substantiating the model of sustainable development within a general context. In addition, we can distinguish between ecological, economic and social objectives, as well as between preservation and restructuring objectives.

Mankind faces the enormous challenge of developing a sustainable global society and economy. This constitutes one of the biggest opportunities in the history of commerce, with billions of dollars in revenues. Business and science, it seems, are the only organizations with the resources, technology, global reach and ultimately, the motivation to achieve this goal. However, the business and scientific communities have never developed appropriate mechanisms for interaction between them; nor have the critical relative balances of scientific knowledge, profit and societal benefits been satisfactorily established. We must strive to create an enduring and resilient society with a system of commerce and production where each and every act is inherently sustainable and restorative; where economics, natural and human systems are integrated and profitable, and expandable companies created that do not destroy, directly or indirectly, the world around them. In other words, the key to restoring and sustaining the earth’s environmental health lies in integrating and balancing the needs of both environmental and human systems through practical choices in pollution prevention, conservation, economic development and a societal shift towards preferences for sustainable products and services.

In the end, all this will contribute to a better understanding of the impact we have on our planet. You can’t have seven billion people growing and running around on a planet without having some major impacts. Right now we are making choices we don’t even understand; better to make an informed choice don’t you think? The technologies needed to stop, or at least slow, the possible dismal inheritance of our children and their children are available. It is the individual and society who will have to accept the necessary and profound changes in life styles, priorities and values as well as the enormous costs. The choices are ours. As Shakespeare succinctly said in one of his plays, ‘Delays have dangerous ends’.

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