Tag Archives: waste

Waste Not . . .

The plastics industry is the third largest manufacturing industry in the United States.  In fact, the US hosts half of the world’s top fifty plastics manufacturing companies.  Sales in 2014 were over $961 billion, with the US holding a sizable trade surplus in plastics.  Demand continues to rise, with consumption between 2011 and 2012 going up 5.7 percent.

Since its basic component is mineral oil, plastic is considered a petrochemical.  Some of the largest plastics manufacturers are household names in the US, including Exxon Mobil, Dow Chemicals, and Chevron Phillips.

In developed countries like the US, a third of plastics goes into packaging.  Another third is used in buildings, such as pipes, plumbing, and vinyl siding.  Other uses include toys, furniture, cars, and medical equipment, among other things.

Thanks to the fracking boom, the US is now one of the cheapest places in the world to manufacture plastics.  The chemical industry plans to spend $185 billion in the next few years to expand its capacity.  Four new plastics plants were slated to begin operations in the US in 2017.

At the same time, the US’ main export to China is—or has been—trash, including plastic trash.  It is a multi-billion dollar industry.  Since the 1980’s China has been the world’s largest importer of waste.  By 2012 56% of global exported plastic waste ended up in China, but lack of oversight led to major environmental and health problems.  Also, China’s middle class has started discarding enough waste so that the Chinese no longer need imported garbage. So, as of January 1, 2018, China has imposed a ban on imported waste.

According to the New York Times of January 11, 2018, “Plastics Pile Up as China Refuses to Take the West’s Recycling.”  According to the article, Canada, Ireland, Germany, Britain, and Hong Kong have reported backups in their waste.  Steve Frank, of Pioneer Recycling in Oregon is looking to export to Indonesia, India, Vietnam, and Malaysia.  In Britain, Jacqueline O’Donovan of O’Donovan Waste Disposal also exports and reports huge bottlenecks.  China’s ban covers 24 kinds of solid waste and sets new limits on impurities.  China notified the WTO last year it would ban some imports because of contaminants, including hazardous materials.

Germany leads the world in recycling, at 70%.  Americans generate 4.4 pounds per person per day of trash, and generate the most waste in the world, but Americans only recycle 34% of waste and only 9.5% of plastic.  Fifteen percent is burned for electricity and/or heat.  About one-third is exported, and until the ban began, half of that went to China.  The remainder goes to landfill.  It is estimated that it takes 500 years for plastic to break down.  As it does, it leaches toxic components into the ground.  But many US landfill sites are old and fast reaching capacity.

China has the highest carbon emissions in the world, as of 2011, but it also has the largest population.  The United States (third in population), Russia and India (second in population) are the next largest carbon emitters.  Emissions have grown faster than population since 1950.  Since 2000, emissions have grown twice as fast as population.

China, which has a longstanding problem with pollution, is making comprehensive efforts to improve its air and water quality.  Beijing has started promoting green technology, including waste-to-energy incineration.  With WTE, China’s stated priority is trash disposal rather than energy production.

Waste-to-energy (WTE) is a process by which trash is burned to generate electricity, steam, or both.  According to Wikipedia, the first waste incinerator was built in the United Kingdom in 1874.  The first in the US came on line in 1885 on Governor’s Island, New York.  Burning reduces original waste volume by 90-95%. The plants produce electric efficiencies of 14-28%.  Or, water is boiled to power steam generators.  Co-generation can increase efficiency to 80%.

WTE must meet strict emission requirements for nitrous oxides (NOx), sulfur dioxide (SO2), heavy metals and dioxins, based on worldwide emissions standards set by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), an inter-governmental economic organization with 35 member countries, founded in 1961.

The plants may emit low levels of particulates, heavy metals, trace dioxin, and acid gas.  There’s also toxic fly ash (which requires hazardous waste disposal installation) and incinerator bottom ash, which must be reused properly.  Lime scrubbers reduce acid gas.  Electrostatic precipitators, fabric filters, reactors and catalysts are also used.  In WTE, filters capture mercury and lead. However, even controls can’t eliminate all the dioxin, according to some claimants.

Proponents say the plants emit the same amount of nitrous oxide as coal-fired plants and have the same requirements, but WTE plants emit fewer particulates than coal.

Some European countries burn half of their waste.  Cost for the facilities can be prohibitive, at up to $1 billion.  There are 87 operational WTE facilities in the US, 431 in Europe, and 330-439 in China, depending on the internet source.* Japan is the biggest user of WTE in the world.  It burns 40 million tons of municipal solid waste annually.

Because Germans generate so little waste, the country’s WTE plants lack enough trash to supply its electricity generators.  It imports trash from the UK, Italy, and Switzerland.  Sweden imports trash, too.

The largest waste-to-energy plant in the world is currently under construction in Shenzhen, China, but protesters have succeeded in getting a delay in the project.  Babcock and Wilcox Voland of Denmark has the $40 million contract to design a 168 megawatt boiler that will consume 5600 tons/day of trash.  The roof is to be covered with solar panels.  It is expected to recover 95% of water and 90% of metals, with slag recycled as gravel.  Flue gas is expected to be 95-99% clean.  An even larger WTE plant is being planned in Dubai, capital of the United Arab Emirates, with construction scheduled to begin later in 2018.  It is projected to produce 185 megawatts.

The EPA says the US sent 33.66 million tons of waste for conversion to energy in 2013.  Fifty percent of facilities are privately owned, with Covanta Energy and Wheelabrator Labs the largest.  Most produce electricity only, and 25% produce electricity and stream.  A handful produce only steam.  Twelve states have operating WTE plants.  Florida has the most, at twelve, then New York (10), Massachusetts (7), Pennsylvania and Connecticut (6 each), Virginia and Delaware (5 each).  California, Maryland, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Maine have three.

The largest WTE facilities in the US produce over 90 megawatts of electricity and consume around 3000 tons/day of waste.  They each serve around one million people.

In the US, the first WTE plant in 20 years opened in Florida in 2015.  It consumes 3000 tons/day of waste and cost $670 million.  The Palm Beach Renewable Energy Facility in West Palm Beach, Florida is publicly owned by the Solid Waste Authority of Palm Beach, County and operated by Babcock and Wilcox, an international firm out of Denmark.  It is a mass burn facility and produces 95 megawatts. Advocates stress the idea that waste is a resource.

However, the new plant is not getting the loads it expected.  The county already had a WTE plant, in operation since 1989.  There was a fear that landfill would reach capacity around 2022-2023, so the new plant received little public resistance.  There are substantial controls on emissions.  Emission requirements allow for 110 pounds of mercury/year.  The price of the electricity is competitive.  They test for the toxicity of the ash.

An argument against incinerators is that they compete with recycling. Recycling has increased three-fold over the 1980s.  Still, it’s cheaper to make new paper than to recycle, and China’s new ban on trash imports includes mixed paper.

There is a $1 billion facility planned for Baltimore, but it is meeting with public resistance.  Opponents object to emissions so close to a school and blame WTE facilities in Detroit and Harrisburg, PA for those cities’ bankruptcies.  However, WTE industry representatives claim that Harrisburg continued to refinance its facility and to pull cash out for the general fund.  The cost went from $15 to $240 million.  The plant sold for $130 million.

The trajectory of plastics from production to disposal presents a growing problem worldwide, including in the oceans, where huge “gyres,” of floating debris have formed in five separate locations.  The best known is the “Great Pacific Garbage Dump,” which some say is at least the size of Texas.  If there were ever an industry looking for jobs, the pollution control industry would be one of them.

* A problem with internet research is that data is often old, sometimes without posted dates. Some is promotional (so possibly biased), often superficial, and hard to verity.

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The Problem with Immortality

Several people have stated over the years that man’s biggest problem is overpopulation.  These are usually people who have propagated and have adult progeny who have also propagated.  I don’t believe they were volunteering to be euthanized themselves, so the obvious question becomes one of who gets chosen to solve the overpopulation problem.

As I move through time and reach official “retirement” age, my perspective has changed.  I see the uncomfortable dilemma of feeling superfluous on the planet, reinforced by a youth culture that obviously or covertly resents the Baby Boomers for having robbed the universal till to secure comfortable retirements for themselves.

If the world is overpopulated, then war, disease, and famine work to right the scales.  If the mystics and other seers are right, there are many dimensions beyond the physical one, and many worlds being created all the time.  Even the astrophysicists say the universe is expanding.  Isaac Asimov anticipated overpopulation in his first sci-fi novel, Pebble in the Sky.  In that futuristic book, entire galaxies had been colonized, and there was mandatory euthanasia on Earth at age 60.  Other sci-fi novels present similar scenarios

It appears death is necessary in physical reality, to make room for new life.  If everyone were physically immortal, and lacking room to expand, the Earth would become crowded with humanity, as some claim has already happened.  Longevity is blamed, along with other factors.

The dilemma of immortality—or longevity—becomes one of what to do about overcrowding?  Presuming people continue to be born, a race of immortal beings that requires physical space must live somewhere.  Thus do the sci-fi novels delve into colonizing other places or, as in Pebble, making euthanasia mandatory.

When animal populations grow too large for their habitats, and if they can’t move, self-correcting mechanisms serve to reduce the population.  In human history, wars, disease, famine, infertility, homosexuality, abortion, infanticide, human sacrifice, expulsion, and even cannibalism have served that purpose.

Few would deny that Americans are the most wasteful people on the planet.  Not only is “consumerism” encouraged, but it is a source of pride for many.  It comes at a huge cost, though, as we must live in the garbage dump we are creating.  If overpopulation is the source of our problems–leading to war, pestilence, and all the other natural and unnatural mechanisms used to lighten the planet’s human load—then it makes social and personal sense to curb excess and waste.

My minimalist lifestyle represents a symbolic effort to curb my own excesses.  I chose not to have children, for instance.  I didn’t want children dependent on me, but I also recognized there are plenty of other people propagating, so my contribution in that sphere was unnecessary.

As I move through time, towards the age of superfluousness, and even towards a time of consuming more than I produce–along with my Baby Boomer cohort–I have to wonder if it becomes my social responsibility to get out of the way.  The growing support for physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia seems motivated in part by the perceived burdensomeness of the elderly.  The alternative, for those who still have some living to do, would naturally be to remain “productive,” useful, and to continue contributing in some way to society.

There is no cure for death, in the time-space construct we have chosen.  There is hope for healthy and happy longevity, one in which age does bring wisdom, grace, depth, and understanding—valuable commodities that money can’t buy.

 

 

Packaging

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Has anyone considered the carbon footprint (and excessive waste) of all this single use packaging?  Whatever that fluorescent light bulb saves in end-of-line energy use is used up front in excessive packaging.  Why has Congress outlawed incandescent light bulbs?  Because if people had a choice, they would buy them.  Deprived of choice, people are forced to buy the patented technology or go back to using candles.

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Making Waste

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April, 2016

It occurred to me yesterday that money hoarding and information hoarding go together.  Information hoarding is most obvious in the patent industry.  This translates into mass confusion at the grassroots level, where multiple companies compete on the same turf for “market share.”

faucetplastic0316My new bathroom faucet provides the most recent example of this dysfunctionality.  Home Depot supplies only one brand of faucet, and the bottom of the line (read “simplest”) faucet only comes in one color, an off-color, “polished nickel,” so doesn’t match my formerly standard chrome.  In the 20 years since I bought the old faucet, the metal to plastic ratio has declined maybe 50%.  The drain pipe, pivot nut, and strap are now plastic.  I only needed the new faucet because the plastic gears inside both handles on the old one broke.

Plastic gears, plastic joints, and plastic moving parts have replaced metal in an across-the-board move that creates enormous waste and is dangerous, to boot.  I’m thinking of the aluminum lawn chair that snapped without warning because of the plastic joints.  Plastic, unlike metal or wood, is unfixable, so the entire product must be discarded.

Back to the faucet:  I considered substituting the old metal drain pipe for the new plastic one, but found that male and female ends had been reversed.

Why?  I have to wonder if patents have replaced standardized parts in our universalized conveniences.

Who benefits from this subtle downgrading of standard household equipment?  Certainly not the homeowner, who has not only the expense but the inconvenience of replacing equipment that should have lasted much longer.  Faucets installed all over town in the early 1900s are still functional.   While somewhat corroded and rusty on the outside, they still work as well as ever.

This isolated example would be a minor problem, except that every new replacement product I buy is worse than the old one.  Why did I even have to buy a new one?

“We can’t get parts,” is the standard answer.  When I suggest that digital controls on everything from my propane gas stove, dryer, and tankless water heater, to microwave–and even coffee percolator–add unnecessary levels of complexity and increase electrical and repair costs, people look at me as though I’m the crazy one.

stovefrigidairedig0416Why, in an age when we claim to want to reduce energy waste, are we being maneuvered into untenable situations like this?  My desire to free myself from the grid and Southern Company’s monopoly is blocked at every turn by corporate desperation to keep me hooked into a system that bleeds individuals like me dry.

And they wonder why the economy is imploding?

*The Waste Makers, by Vance Packard, (1963) which I read in the 1970s, made a profound and enduring impression.  I skimmed through it while writing this blog and see that Packard’s observations are even more apparent today.  It should be required reading in every high school.

**Total cost of replacing the Frigidaire stove’s digital control panel was $115. (The replacement part was $82).