Even in the solid waste industry, it is important that we do not view waste solely through the lens of its definition as a noun. The term should be given perhaps even more significance as a verb. For multiple reasons, as producers, consumers, and waste managers, let us be reminded that a material’s status as waste does not mean we should let it go to waste.
By Ryan Duckett

When I spent nearly three years at the Environmental Research & Education Foundation (EREF) as a research intern many years ago, I quickly came to learn a thing or two about waste. Not just waste in the way you’re thinking though—a noun used to describe the material we all know and maybe, just maybe, love—but waste taken as a verb. My favorite definition for this comes from dictionary.com: to consume, spend, or employ uselessly or without adequate return; use to no avail or profit. That last part cut particularly deeply into the mind of a career-seeking college student due to its economic relevance. The truth is that wasting “waste”, especially in today’s world, is still waste. And waste means loss of resources and money.

This applies on several fronts. First and foremost is the stage of the producer. This is the part of a product’s lifecycle that is largely out of the consumer’s and waste manager’s hands, though with increasing public support behind programs like Extended Producer Responsibility, or EPR, that may be changing. I had started out at EREF exploring how the terms “Zero Waste” and “Zero Landfill” were being used by corporations and the occasional municipality. My personal conclusion as a budding engineer was that trying to achieve zero of either, especially the mythical former, looked like an asymptotic curve coming closer and closer to nil, but never quite getting there. Zero waste was a good goal towards which a sustainability-minded entity should strive, but at face value was, and still is, hardly attainable. In fact, the business school perspective in me now pushes back at the idea of zero basically anything. It pointedly reminds me of key economic concepts such as “Diminishing Returns” and “Economies of Scale.” Side note: I was taught about these in engineering school, but only as a part of a one credit hour course sandwiched amongst much more interesting topics to me at the time.

It may be a difficult truth for some hardline zero waste advocates, but at some point, we must accept that the incremental investment we make for an expected benefit might be better used elsewhere. Waste also includes wasted effort, time, and, ultimately, money seeking a result that may be better achieved an alternative way. There is even a Japanese term for this—“Muda” meaning futility, uselessness, or wastefulness. The concept has been deeply drilled into the modern global business environment, and as such producers are more cognizant of their excess materials generation than ever. We in the waste management community tend to have a very good understanding of this concept as it applies to solid waste, because it is literally our livelihoods.

That’s not to say there aren’t also technical hurdles to overcome to achieve “zero waste.” True zero waste with current technology is off the table, as an additional EREF project indicated. Papers and plastics lose their structural strength and eventually their ability to be recycled after something like seven or eight cycles. That means that a fraction of material is coming out in the waste sludge. Zero landfill is at least theoretically doable— again, at face value —but if a company is combusting waste residuals to be able to claim zero landfill, is the term really that meaningful? The tangible material is still being obliterated, even if waste to energy (WTE) technology is employed. Also, the resulting ash has to go somewhere. Striving to minimize the loss of resources, whether material or energy, is a noble goal no matter what the word for it is, and this goes back to EPR. The best way to do this is to practice the first of the three Rs in that old buzz phrase: reduce, reuse, and recycle. Source reduction and the design of products to minimize the volume or toxicity of waste generation, is most effective from the side of the producer.

Consumers are the largest component of the waste system, and this particularly came to light during my final projects at EREF, which involved helping to aggregate data to estimate the national MSW tonnage generated in 2010 (hint: it was quite large then and it is still quite large now). In addition to conducting a deep dive look at the volume of waste going to incineration, I helped compile tonnage data for both recycling and composting. Going through lists of hundreds of MRFs, scrapyards, drop off centers, composters and other facilities really highlighted the breadth of infrastructure we have, even in the most rural of areas (perhaps increasingly in rural areas). Therefore, if a recycling or diversion rate needs improving, it’s largely up to the individual consumers, and by extension, public programs and policy that help equip them with the resources they need to better manage their waste. Reusing and recycling can also simply be a matter of motivation and effort for most people.

In my time as an undergrad, I would often scan Craigslist for items to resell for extra cash. If I was doing that today I suppose it would more likely be on Facebook Marketplace. Many of these discarded residential items were regarded as trash by their owners, given away for free or chump change because of a quick move-out. In fact, the Craigslist advertisement would even go so far as to threaten that the items would be landfilled if nobody came and got them. Sadly, most of these mass-discarders do not use online resources or take the time to donate items. Large amounts of junk varying from useless to valuable ends up going onto the curb or crammed in the can if resourceful “pickers” such as myself didn’t get to them first. One morning the contents of my neighbor’s house met this fate. I recall that this was a family that really knew trash since they worked for the city, and I’d seen at least four different sanitation services vehicles in their driveway. This is also a family that forfeited a recycling can for a second one for garbage. Perhaps, like many Americans, they know trash too well and have adapted the attitude that it is simply a necessary part of life.

While attending college, most people don’t get a simultaneous three-year education on solid waste and for that I am extraordinarily grateful for my time at EREF. What started as a recycling-related high school senior project all those years ago cumulated into a career in solid waste engineering and consulting. You may wonder why someone would intentionally choose this field from the get-go instead of suddenly finding themselves in it 20 years later, but, at least to me, waste is extremely important. After all, it is the tangible remains of all the other goods and services that make up our bustling economy, and right now it looks like those goods and services are going to be around for some time. It is also important, however, that we do not view waste solely through the lens of its definition as a noun, but also as its status as a verb. As producers, consumers, and waste managers, let us be thoughtful when we label a material as waste, as it does not mean we are entitled to let it go to waste. | WA

Ryan Duckett is a professional engineer registered in Virginia, North Carolina, and Puerto Rico. He also serves as a management consultant for multi-faceted issues in solid waste management, a role he has served his entire career. Based out of Geosyntec’s Richmond, VA office, he focuses on advisory services for materials management. He addresses collections, transfer, recycling, and processing facility and program needs through design, analysis, studies, compliance, and other work including financial, economic, and operational consulting. Ryan is on the Board of Directors of the SWANA Old Dominion Chapter and leads its Technical Committee, organizing annual trainings and technical tours Virginia. He also serves as President of the Virginia Composting Council and is active with the US Composting Council. Ryan can be reached at (804) 665-2804 or e-mail [email protected].