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Recycling and Incineration: Evaluating The Choices

Recycling and Incineration: Evaluating The Choices

by Richard Denison

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Recycling and Incineration presents information on the technology, economics, environmental concerns, and legal intricacies behind recycling and incineration programs.


Recycling and Incineration presents information on the technology, economics, environmental concerns, and legal intricacies behind recycling and incineration programs.

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Recycling and Incineration

Evaluating the Choices

By Richard A. Denison, John Ruston


Copyright © 1990 Environmental Defense Fund, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61091-307-2


Waste Generation and Waste Reduction

RELIABLE DATA on both the quantities and qualities of our trash are of central importance in planning for solid waste management; the discussion in this chapter is intended to provide the basics on what makes up our waste and how much of it we generate.

The chapter discusses what is increasingly recognized, though yet to be seriously acted upon, as the option of first resort in dealing with our trash: reducing the amount we generate in the first place, so that we needn't worry about how to manage it. Waste reduction encompasses a broad array of strategies and approaches—some technological, some social, some economic—for reducing both the amount and toxicity of MSW.


Americans generate more MSW—both in terms of the total amount and on a per capita basis—than any other nation on earth. Although definitions of what materials constitute waste can vary greatly among nations, available waste generation data clearly document our lead over all others. In rough terms, Japan and Western European nations generate less than half as much solid waste, per capita, as the United States. Moreover, generation of solid waste is not well correlated with economic output. Many nations have managed to maintain a per capita gross national product close to that of the United States yet produce far less waste per capita. Though precise comparisons between nations are difficult because waste generation data may have been collected differently and in different years, table 1.1 and figure 1.1 display the available international data on waste generation and economic output.

The differences in waste generation rates for different countries also make comparisons between different nations' approach to solid waste management more complicated. For example, incineration proponents commonly assert that Japan burns more than half of its waste; recycling proponents claim that Japan recycles at least half of its waste. What Japan really does is produce far less waste to begin with, recycle a high proportion of it, and then burn what's left. Given the fact that Japan is a small, densely populated island with few natural resources and a different political system and culture, it is likely that Japan generates waste with considerably different proportions of recyclables or compostibles (e.g., yard waste) than the United States. This hinders our ability to make meaningful comparisons among waste management practices in the two countries. For this reason, the remainder of this chapter concentrates on representative waste composition, incineration, and recycling data in the United States.


Municipal solid waste consists of many different materials: some burn, some do not; some are readily recyclable, some are not. Many materials, such as newsprint, are candidates for either approach. A detailed understanding of the composition of our garbage—the relative proportions of paper, glass bottles, leaves, etc.—is not terribly important if the mixture is simply tossed into a landfill. To compare the waste management capabilities of incineration and recycling, however, one needs to know more. To address the environmental impacts of different waste management regimes, we also need information on the sources and quantities of toxic materials in our waste, such as lead-acid automotive batteries and household hazardous waste.

The composition of a local waste stream can be estimated in a number of ways. The best waste composition studies rely on sorting actual samples of garbage from specific locales, and are conducted over time to account for seasonal variations in the waste stream, such as surges in yard waste in the fall or increased print advertising and retail packaging around the winter holidays. Ideally, such studies will provide estimates of the composition of waste produced by different sectors of the economy (e.g., commercial versus residential) or different parts of a region (e.g., downtown office districts and residential neighborhoods dominated by multifamily houses or apartments).

Although obtaining detailed waste composition data is ideally the first step in rational planning, it should not serve as an excuse for delaying recycling pilot programs or avoiding pro forma comparisons of recycling and incineration. Good waste composition data are necessary if a municipality intends to eventually attain a very ambitious level of recycling, and to minimize overall environmental impacts from waste management, but planning can proceed as waste composition studies are in progress. First-phase recycling programs can be designed to provide data on waste generation as they are implemented, and the uncertainty that results from a lack of good waste composition data can, to some extent, be accounted for in initial comparisons between recycling and incineration.

Waste composition studies conducted in support of incinerator proposals are concerned with the amounts of combustible and noncombustible materials, the energy value of the waste or its components, and variables such as moisture content, size of materials, and their abrasiveness. Table 1.2 shows the results of such a study conducted in New York City in 1982. A study of this type is of little use to recycling planners because it does not identify discrete products and materials discarded into the waste stream.

Table 1.3 shows the results of several recycling-oriented waste composition studies conducted for different cities, and illustrates the range of approaches that can be used to estimate the composition of solid waste. The data from Springfield, Missouri, and Portland, Oregon, were extrapolated from statistically representative samples of garbage that were unloaded, sorted, and weighed over the course of a full year. For a given locality, this type of study is generally the most reliable and, unfortunately, the most expensive.

The estimates of the overall composition of the United States waste stream shown in table 1.3 were derived in an entirely different manner; they are based on government and trade association data on product manufacture and consumption. Under this materials-flow methodology, after accounting for imports and exports, assumptions are made about the rate at which of products sold in the United States are eventually discarded, and estimates of these discards are aggregated to give the results as displayed.

The data in table 1.3 for New York City are based on an averaging of data compiled by the city's Department of Sanitation (DOS) from six waste-sorting studies conducted in different neighborhoods between 1971 and 1982. Complicating the effort, each of these six studies used different definitions of waste constituents; for example, some studies treated yard waste and food waste as one category, and three studies did not distinguish between different types of paper. As a result, when the department began curbside collection of newsprint, it discovered that there was roughly twice as much newsprint in residential solid waste as expected. The New York City data displayed in table 1.3 also incorporate the EDF's calculation of the effect of the deposit system implemented through the 1985 New York State Returnable Container Law in reducing the quantities of bottles and cans discarded into the waste stream.

The estimates of residential and commercial waste composition in Seattle in table 1.3 were derived by combining data from Portland's study with preliminary data from an ongoing Seattle waste sort, older Seattle waste composition studies, and records of the Seattle Solid Waste Utility and private waste haulers. An additional estimate of waste produced by various sectors of the economy, such as restaurants and the aerospace industry (not shown in the table), was obtained by incorporating employment and employment growth projections in each industry into statistical functions that predict waste generation. Seattle used this type analysis partly because its Recycling Potential Assessment had to be completed before its waste-sorting study. With the benefit of hindsight, table 1.4 compares Seattle's statistical analysis to the results of its waste-sorting study, finished more recently.

Although the data shown in table 1.3 vary, some patterns are clear. For example, paper constitutes a very large fraction of the commercial waste stream, and, in most cases, yard waste is a major part of the residential waste stream. According to Franklin Associates' waste composition estimates for the United States, conventionally recyclable materials—paper and paperboard, glass, ferrous metals, aluminum, wood and yard waste—comprise over three-quarters of the waste stream. Of course, simply identifying these materials is not the same as separating them from the solid waste stream and finding markets for them.

A key point about all of these studies is that they exclude several large constituents of the waste stream, such as construction and demolition debris and bulk waste. Often these materials are collected separately from the regular garbage and brought to the landfill by private haulers or individuals with their own trucks or trailers. The importance of these materials in any comparison of recycling and incineration is that they are not accepted for processing by incinerators but can, to a large extent, be recycled. The national waste composition estimates in table 1.3 also exclude incinerator ash, imported product packaging, and several other types of waste.

Generation of construction and demolition debris varies substantially depending on the character of a community. Although data on these materials are not especially good, Franklin Associates estimates that roughly 32 million tons of construction and demolition debris were generated in 1984, adding roughly 24 percent to what was otherwise defined as the municipal waste stream for that year.


The potential for and benefits of waste reduction in the United States are substantial. In addition to reducing our solid waste disposal costs, thoughtful waste reduction policies may also cut other consumer costs. For example, $1.00 out of every $10.00 Americans spend on food pays for packaging, which amounts to more than U.S. farmers' net income.

With respect to solid waste, the term "waste reduction" is used in a variety of ways. In this handbook, we will consider waste reduction to include any action that reduces the volume or toxicity of MSW prior to its processing and disposal in incinerators or landfills. For example, waste reduction can include making packaging more recyclable, by replacing multimaterial packaging with a single material. "Source reduction" we construe more narrowly, meaning policies that reduce the amount of material entering the economy, and hence the waste stream, in the first place. Examples of source reduction would be eliminating excessive layers of packaging around a product or replacing inks containing cadmium with inks that do not.

Some discussions of waste reduction have suggested that the topic is so complicated that, in effect, we cannot do anything about it. How, for example, can we agree upon and account for all of the factors that make a package more or less environmentally sound? In fact, we will probably never be able or even want to microregulate the production of packaging and other goods. We can, however, undertake some waste reduction practices immediately, using a variety of commonsense policies that draw their effectiveness from market forces and consumers' growing interest in protecting the environment.


When introducing a new package or product into the marketplace, designers and product managers consider a number of factors, including the cost of materials, the need to protect and transport the product, consumer convenience, how the product will be advertised, and how it will appear on the shelf. When consumers make a purchase, they work through a similar, perhaps more subliminal, calculus relating to the product's cost, advertising, and their perceived needs. To foster voluntary efforts toward waste reduction, environmental and consumer advocates need to inject the consideration of environmental and solid waste impacts of a package or product into both of these processes of evaluation.

The escalating interest in environmental protection among the public offers an excellent opportunity to alter the way manufacturers and consumers think about their products and purchases. Issues like global warming, tropical deforestation, and depletion of the ozone layer may seem scientifically complex, distant, or relevant only in the long term, but everyone relates to garbage because we all produce it. Because reducing waste gives people a way to help protect the environment in their daily lives, solid waste issues are becoming one focus for a wide range of concerns about the degradation of our environment.

Some of the most egregious examples of overpackaging and environmentally unsound product design may be eliminated simply by pointing them out, by giving awards for good and bad packages. Under pressure from environmental groups, a number of major producers of plastic resins have announced that they intend to eliminate the use of cadmium as a pigment or stabilizer in parts of their product lines. After receiving a letter from the New York City Commissioner of Sanitation, the Book of the Month Club stopped using polystyrene foam "peanuts" and shipping books in relatively large boxes, and returned to using smaller corrugated paper containers. Figure 1.2, an insert to Seattle residents' monthly utility bill, provides a good example of simple, direct public education materials on waste reduction. Government agencies and private companies can get involved in waste reduction by buying goods that are more durable or more conserving of resources. The purchase of vehicle tires capable of lasting 60,000 rather than 40,000 miles is a waste reduction measure; so is the use of double-sided rather than single-sided copy machines and the provision of long-term service contracts on home appliances or office machinery.

Retail businesses are recognizing the marketing potential of selling environmentally sound products, from small purveyors of shopping guides like the Seventh Generation Catalog to corporate chains like Walmart discount stores. In the words of one recent business publication:

Thirty-nine percent of Americans strongly identify themselves as environmentalists, according to a Gallup survey for Times Mirror. Environmentalists are a bigger market than some of the hottest markets of the 1980s—such as Hispanics (8 percent of the population), married couples with children (20 percent) or even the baby boomers (31 percent).

Not only is the market huge, it's rich. The affluent are more likely than the average American to act on environmental concerns. Fifteen percent of all households—but fully 22 percent of those with incomes of $50,000 or more—donate money to an environmental group, according to the Cambridge Reports survey.

Forty-seven percent of all consumers—but 57 percent of those with household incomes of $50,000 or more—have changed their day-to-day behavior because of environmental concerns.

Sixty-one percent of all consumers—and 68 percent of those with incomes of $50,000 or more—are "much" or "somewhat" more inclined to go to a store or restaurant that is committed to reducing its use of plastic containers and utensils.

Most Americans want to do something to make things better. Your business can profit by showing them the way. It doesn't take much of an investment to turn environmental negatives into marketing pluses: The first step is easy—just promote what the company does right. The next step is to improve your product or change its packaging. Then tell the mass market of Americans that they can do right by doing business with you.

If our experience with "low fat," "natural," and "low cholesterol" foods is any guide, however, retailers will probably abuse what is now being called "environmental marketing." In fact, the introduction of "degradable" plastics, which confound plastics recycling and probably do not degrade effectively in the real-world environment, especially in landfills, suggests that such abuse is well under way.

One way to harness consumer interest in the environment and to limit misleading advertising would be to adopt a coding or labeling system for packaging and products. Consumer labeling is widespread in the United States. Labels tell us about the content of everything from foods to movies, the safety of appliances and tools, the thermal value of insulation, the harms of smoking cigarettes, and, in California, whether foods contain carcinogenic or mutagenic chemicals above certain levels. Based on existing labeling systems in Europe and Canada, it would be possible to develop labeling schemes that give consumers information about recycled content, recyclability, and the presence of hazardous substances in packages and products.


Excerpted from Recycling and Incineration by Richard A. Denison, John Ruston. Copyright © 1990 Environmental Defense Fund, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Dr. Richard A. Denison is a senior scientist in the Environmental Defense Fund's Washington, D.C. office.

John Ruston is an economic analyst in the New York office of the Environmental Defense Fund.

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