Some of the subtle features I remember about my grandmother’s farm in the rural United States include a rusty milk truck from the 1930s—permanently parked behind the garage—and two old oil barrels perched below a small hill about 100 meters from her house.
This was waste management on the American frontier (or at least in western North Dakota). My grandmother incinerated household trash in the barrels, and for larger appliances—generally anything that couldn’t be burned, composted, parked, or sold for scrap—there was a pit hidden away in a nearby coulee.
These days, rural household waste can be collected by professional services and sent to landfill. My relatives still burn what they can, but plastics are taken into town to be recycled. Even the old milk truck has been sold, restored to its original condition and is now pampered like it was a Porsche 911—driven only on sunny summer days and special occasions. I guess one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.
Let’s think about trash
It’s intriguing how quickly we can become disconnected from our waste, when we ourselves don’t have to deal with it. Prior to writing about infrastructure, I never gave it much thought. Unlike my grandmother, I grew up in a small town with good public services. Waste wasn’t a problem—more of an unwanted chore and occasionally a punishment. To “take out the garbage” required walking just 20 meters, opening a gate, and tossing a bag in a massive bin we shared with our neighbor. Job done. Out of sight and out of mind. If only it were truly that easy.
As the global population continues to grow, waste management has become more sophisticated to deal with an increasing problem—more humans means more waste. Additionally, as the world’s population begins to shift from the rural to the urban, the new class of city folk—if they’re lucky enough to have good public services—does not have to deal with the realities of the waste they generate. They will bin it, pay their taxes, and forget about it—leaving management to city planners and professional service providers.
Of course taxes are not always popular, and waste is not a particularly attractive resource. Historically, cost has been the driving issue leading most city planners to choose the cheapest treatment options available—most of which are not much more sophisticated than what my grandmother did on her farm. The two mainstays of global waste management involve either burning trash or burying it in landfill. Both of these options carry some significant environmental baggage. As the world’s population grows (particularly with a wealthier middle class), these activities are viewed as unsustainable—and, increasingly, socially unacceptable.
A 21st century approach
While public authorities can change to some extent how people consume—by incentivizing the use of more efficient packaging and biodegradable materials—governments cannot feasibly limit consumption. This requires the waste issue to be viewed and managed more holistically in the 21st century.
Therefore, more and more private companies and public authorities are developing strategies for not only reducing cost but also generating revenue from waste and recycling. With such a valued asset to manage, this will have a profound impact on the quality of life surrounding historical waste treatment facilities.
In India, for example, the closure of the Gorai dumping ground in Mumbai was a public-private partnership that transformed the quality of life in the local community. In addition to the health, safety, and counter pollution benefits achieved by sealing in the dump in 2009, the new operators now have designs on generating electricity from waste methane currently flared from the site.
This is how waste management is rapidly evolving in urban areas. Unfortunately, the pace of change in rural communities is not keeping up, but progress is being made.
In 2010, I flew on a small private aircraft to Alderney, a place in the Channel Islands between the United Kingdom and France. As the plane circled around the small island of about 2,500 people to land, the pilot pointed to a cliff hanging out over the sea and said, “That’s the local tip.” In other words, this is the point from which residents dumped trash into the waters below.
To be fair, Alderney has a modern waste disposal and recycling program with containerized garbage taken to appropriate facilities on nearby Guernsey. The island is also considering energy from waste via anaerobic digesters to cut both waste export and energy import costs as the community currently burns expensive oil for power.
However, tipping waste into the sea was once the cheapest solution for the residents of Alderney. While it may no longer be such an issue there, it remains a serious problem around the world. Unlike other critical sectors—such as transport or energy—the waste industry has no strong economic driver to support innovation. The truth is, there is no shortage of innovative solutions available to treat and manage waste, but rather a general and widespread unwillingness to pay for anything other than the cheapest option.
This has to change. Poor waste management is a debt for future generations to pay. As the pace of technology quickens, our public authorities need to evolve their approach to waste and explore how technology can be integrated into existing systems to enhance efficiency and sustain relevance for future users.