One Man’s Trash

Don't mind me, I'm just walking my trash.
Don’t mind me, I’m just walking my trash.
WHO TOOK THE TRASH OUT? WOOT WOOT WOOT WOOT-WOOT! Would not have been a popular song. Trash is not sexy no matter what you try to say, or sing, about it. Taking out the trash is a phrase that can apply to everything from traditional waste to soon-to-be exes. It is never thought about in a good way. You never hear anyone say “Have you met Bob? He’s got some sexy trash.” And there’s a reason for that. Ignoring your soon-to-be ex for the moment, trash can encourage the growth of molds, fungi, diseases and attract insects and rodents, among other forms of unwanted fauna. None of those are good things for those of you who are new to this planet. If you are new, look me up and bring vodka. I’ll be happy to catch you up on what’s going on. The problem with the prevailing point of view on trash is that it’s vitally important. Unchecked it can do tremendous harm. And there’s no way to eliminate all of it so we need to figure out something.

While the U.S. suffices with landfills, for the most part, other countries have been trying something different. In Germany they instituted Der Grüne Punkt (Green Dot) program. They did this in response to their 1991 packaging ordinance which put limits on how much packaging a product could have.

The Ordinance focused on improving three categories of packaging:

  • Transport packaging (crates and shipping boxes)
  • Secondary packaging (non-essential boxes, such as around bottles of vitamins)
  • Primary packaging (casings that come in contact with the product, such as toothpaste tubes)

Earth 911 says it’s working better than anyone could have predicted.

Many companies had a difficult time complying with all the new standards and recycling laws introduced by the Packaging Ordinance.

They decided that they needed to better organize themselves, and so the non-profit organization Duales System Deutschland GmbH (Dual System Germany, or DSD) was created.

Manufacturers pay a fee to become a member of the DSD and are then permitted to print Der Grüne Punkt (the Green Dot) trademark on all their packaging.

Fees are decided based on the material, the weight and the number of items. The DSD also takes into consideration what it will cost to collect, sort, treat and recycle the different materials.

Recycling companies guarantee to accept any and all materials displaying the Green Dot, because the trademark is a symbol that the product’s manufacturer has paid to become a DSD member and promises to comply with Germany’s recycling laws.

Currently, the Green Dot system is used by more than 130,000 companies in 25 European countries (20 EU members and four candidate countries – Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania and Croatia, as well as Norway). PRO Europe, the umbrella organization for European packaging waste management systems, reports that 3.2 million tons (U.S. tons) of Germany’s commercial packaging waste was recovered in 2007. That’s more than 88 percent of all the packaging produced in Germany that year!

But wait, there’s more. DSD reports that the country’s recycling efforts in 2008 not only kept waste out of landfills, but it also avoided an estimated 1.4 million tons of CO2 emissions.

According to a municipal solid waste report by the EPA, in 2007, the U.S. was able to recover only about 43 percent of all the containers and packaging produced that year.

Since 1996 they’ve reduced their overall net waste by over 36 tons per year. Put it all together and you have a much cleaner country to live in.

However, as Zi-Ann Lum reports, by Swedish standards, they’re rank amateurs.

There’s a “recycling revolution” happening in Sweden – one that has pushed the country closer to zero waste than ever before. In fact, less than one per cent of Sweden’s household garbage ends up in landfills today.

The Scandinavian country has become so good at managing waste, they have to import garbage from the UK, Italy, Norway and Ireland to feed the country’s 32 waste-to-energy (WTE) plants, a practice that has been in place for years.

“Waste today is a commodity in a different way than it has been. It’s not only waste, it’s a business,” explained Swedish Waste Management communications director Anna-Carin Gripwell in a statement.

Every year, the average Swede produces 461 kilograms of waste, a figure that’s slightly below the half-ton European average. But what makes Sweden different is its use of a somewhat controversial program incinerating over two million tons of trash per year.

It’s also a process responsible for converting half the country’s garbage into energy.

“When waste sits in landfills, leaking methane gas and other greenhouse gasses, it is obviously not good for the environment,” Gripwell said of traditional dump sites. So Sweden focused on developing alternatives to reduce the amount of toxins seeping into the ground.

At the core of Sweden’s program is its waste-management hierarchy designed to curb environmental harm: prevention (reduce), reuse, recycling, recycling alternatives (energy recovery via WTE plants), and lastly, disposal (landfill).

Before garbage can be trucked away to incinerator plants, trash is filtered by home and business owners; organic waste is separated, paper picked from recycling bins, and any objects that can be salvaged and reused pulled aside.

By Swedish law, producers are responsible for handling all costs related to collection and recycling or disposal of their products. If a beverage company sells bottles of pop at stores, the financial onus is on them to pay for bottle collection as well as related recycling or disposal costs.

Rules introduced in the 1990s incentivized companies to take a more proactive, eco-conscious role about what products they take to market. It was also a clever way to alleviate taxpayers of full waste management costs.

According to data collected from Swedish recycling company Returpack, Swedes collectively return 1.5 billion bottles and cans annually. What can’t be reused or recycled usually heads to WTE incineration plants.

WTE plants work by loading furnaces with garbage, burning it to generate steam which is used to spin generator turbines used to produce electricity. That electricity is then transferred to transmission lines and a grid distributes it across the country.

In Helsingborg (population: 132,989), one plant produces enough power to satisfy 40 per cent of the city’s heating needs. Across Sweden, power produced via WTE provides approximately 950,000 homes with heating and 260,000 with electricity.

Recycling and incineration have evolved into efficient garbage-management processes to help the Scandinavian country dramatically cut down the amount of household waste that ends up in landfills. Their efforts are also helping to lower its dependency on fossil fuels.

“A good number to remember is that three tons of waste contains as much energy as one ton of fuel oil … so there is a lot of energy in waste,” said Göran Skoglund, spokesperson for Öresundskraft, one of the country’s leading energy companies.

So if Sweden burns approximately two million tons of waste annually, that produces roughly 670,000 tons worth of fuel oil energy. And the country needs that fuel to operate its well-developed district heating networks which heat homes in Sweden’s cold winters.

This is why the country has taken advantage of the fact a number of European nations don’t have the capacity to incinerate garbage themselves due to various taxes and bans across the EU that prevent landfill waste. There’s where Sweden comes in to buy garbage other countries can’t dispose of themselves at a reasonable cost.

But trash burning isn’t without controversy. Some critics claim the process as anything but green because it sends more pollution and toxins into the air.

According to a study in the journal of Environmental Science and Technology, more than 40 per cent of the world’s trash is burned, mostly in open air. It’s a process markedly different from the regulated, low-emission processes Sweden has adopted.

Start-up costs for new incineration plants can get pricey and out of reach for some municipalities depending on the integration of processes used to filter ash and flue gas byproducts. Both contain dioxins, an environmental pollutant.

The incineration process isn’t perfect, but technological advancements and introduction of flue-gas cleaning have reduced airborne dioxins to “very small amounts,” according to the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency.

Unless manufacturers stop making products with materials that can’t be reused or tossed into incinerators, a 100 per cent recycling rate is unlikely to be achieved in our lifetime. Goods that are or contain tile, porcelain, insulation, asbestos, and miscellaneous construction and demolition debris can’t be burned safely; they have to be dumped in landfills.

“The world needs to produce less waste,” explained Skoglund.

Sweden’s success handling garbage didn’t come overnight — the latest results are the fruits of a cultural shift decades in the making.

“Starting in the ‘70s, Sweden adopted fairly strict rules and regulations when it comes to handling our waste, both for households and more municipalities and companies,” Gripwell told HuffPost Canada, referring to the country’s “waste hierarchy” now ingrained in Swedish society.

“People rarely question the ‘work’ they have to do,” she said.

In fact Sweden’s program is so freaking successful that they now import hundreds of thousands of tons of other countries’ trash. For a nominal fee, of course.

By comparison, Americans recycle less than 35% of all goods and waste over 50% of all food products and export none of our waste for processing. That means it all stays here to fester in landfills.

There has been some, reluctant, progress starting to be made in the U.S. as some grocery stores and restaurants are looking at donating unsold, but still healthy, food to charities. That program is already popular in Europe and has had many unforeseen advantages. My favorite is that people who are given access to healthy foods tend to get sick less and live better, thus reducing the country’s health care costs.

Nevertheless, ‘starting to look at’ is not the same as ‘doing’ so there’s a long way to go.

One cool thing is something I wrote about on August 15. A young man named Boyan Slat invented a device that sits in the ocean and collects trash as it floats by. Since 2013 he has raised over $2 MIL in crowdfunding and worked with over 100 engineers to turn this into a reality.

Laura Willard defines the problem and the need.

The plan is to deploy The Ocean Cleanup near Tsushima, an island between Japan and South Korea, and let it do its thing for two years. Then the next step is to use all the plastic junk it collects as an alternate energy source.

Talk about killing two birds with one stone. (Although, this is quite the opposite of killing birds, so … bad metaphor).

Unfortunately, the ocean is suuuper polluted.

A lot of that pollution is plastic trash — 8 million tons of plastic end up in the ocean every single year.

Right now, about 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic are floating around the ocean.

And pollution, as we know, causes many environmental, economic, and health problems. For example, plastic kills over 1 million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals every year.


Plastic pollution is expensive! Plastic in the oceans costs companies across the world over $13 billion a year and the U.S. government hundreds of millions in coastal cleanup efforts.

Additionally, the traditional method of dragging nets behind ships is wildly ineffective and kills fish. Since Boyan’s contraption is passive, it lets the waves bring the trash to it, it has zero environmental impact.

Also, it’s over 70% cheaper to use than current methods.

By the way, this is what it looks like. Click on the image for a larger picture.

All righty then, now you’ve got fuck tons of trash collected (yes, that’s the proper mathematical term) so what do you do with it?

Well, you can certainly send some to Sweden. And, as noted in Boyan’s project, you can use it for alternative fuels. But I like this idea better.

Robert Goodway says you can send it to Italy and they can build someone a house.

Clay – not the most advanced building material, or so you might think. The World’s Advanced Saving Project, or WASP, has just unveiled a giant 3D printer that – rather like a real wasp – can build a house out of the stuff.

The 3D printer, called BigDelta, works much like any other you may have seen – layering up a material into a pre-determined structure. The difference is that it stands 12 meters (40 feet) tall and claims to be the world’s biggest.

It was unveiled this weekend at the three-day “Reality of Dream” rally in Italy, where BigDelta was made. In a statement, WASP proposes that its technology could help meet the rising demand for housing, citing a UN calculation that over the next 15 years there will be an average daily demand for 100,000 new housing units.

It is thought the technology would be of most use in disaster or war zones, where the speed of production could help those who have become displaced. The use of natural materials could also benefit the environment by reducing cement – a major contributor to carbon dioxide emissions.

Yes, they’re using clay now but any processed waste product will work too.

Imagine the next time you take out the trash you could be helping someone get a home. Not a bad thing to have happen to your Hungry Man packages.

Or a music video. You can always make a music video and then send it to Italy.

GARBAGE – "PUSH IT" – andrea giacobbe from Giacobbe Andrea on Vimeo.

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