Oct 2 - Waste Diversion: The least expensive, quickest and yes, easiest means of achieving sustainability (Guest Post)

Did you know the budget for the California high speed rail represents $15,000 per Household and is, no doubt, a decade or more from completion? Did you know a new Prius is close to $20,000 and that to date, Worldwide, only 5 million have been sold ? Did you know a new high efficiency heating and cooling system is $10,000 and again it will take decades to retrofit every U.S. Home?

Imagine if there were an inexpensive, quick and easy means of achieving sustainability.

Well, imagine no more, it's waste diversion.

Waste diversion programs can be introduced and/or enhanced at a fraction of the cost and in a fraction of the time of most, if not all, other actions we are asking Residents to take to reduce their environmental footprint. 

While it's clear that we burn fossil fuels to power our cars and to heat, light and cool our homes, it's perhaps not so apparent the vast amounts of energy we consume just to make the products and packaging we all too quickly use, then throw away and in doing so discard the energy embodied in the production of that item. The fact we use more energy to produce the goods we consume, then all to quickly bury or burn, than driving and home energy consumption combined! 

In addition, the harvesting of resources; wood, metals and minerals and those which are derived from petroleum naturally leads to their depletion. Furthermore, there are as we all know too well, highly detrimental effects on our land, air and water as a result of the multitude of production processes which turn these raw materials into finished goods.

Clearly this situation is unsustainable. 

The means of increasing waste diversion are simple and begin with an understanding of the composition of our discards. 40% of the waste from a home is perfectly good recyclable material comprised mostly of containers and paper fibers. Yet we fail to capture much of this material - worth millions of dollars and thousands of jobs. As a first step we need to maximize the use of existing recycling systems.

The primary benefits are that the mix of containers and fibers collected can be made from recycled material using 2/3's less energy than if virgin resources were used. Specifically, the energy in all of a home's paper fiber contains the equivalent of three months of heating or cooling, plus an additional 250 miles of gasoline all of which is lost if not recycled. More specifically, the energy in a single pop can could power a TV, or computer, for 3 hours. 

Food scraps and other organic material are another 40 percent of the household waste stream and as such are the logical next step in our diversion efforts. Truthfully, much of what we bury is compostable: all paper products, wood, leaf, and yard material, cotton and other natural fibers, food scraps - together totaling 65 percent or more of household waste.

Additional benefits from the diversion of food scraps and leaf and yard material, aside from the reduction of the need for landfills and their nuisance, include the production of nutrient-rich hummus, a critical component of healthy soil. This, in turn, eliminates the need for fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides, which are remarkably energy intensive to produce and whose use is highly detrimental to our precious water resources.

Food scrap collection systems can realistically be put into place in one to three years at a capital cost oi between zero and $500 per household. The $500 figure would be if the municipality constructed and owned its own compost facility, bought new trucks and purchased new carts and in home containers.

In terms of behavior change, to accomplish all of these amazing results requires only one action by residents, that is to keep items separate at the time of discard. What could be easier? After all, you would purchase a can of beans, a banana separately and a cell phone separately. You consumed each of these items separately and at one point in time you held each of these items separately in your hand. All we are asking residents to do is to keep them separate at the time of discard. 

I use the prop shown in the photo to communicate this idea that you didn't buy things all together so why would you dispose of them in this way.

In closing, I do confess to one challenge, the result of making waste disposal cheap and easy for too long. But I do honestly believe residents want to do more. They see its hot and getting hotter and when they come to understand, like you, that waste diversion is in reality the cheaper, quickest and easiest means of achieving sustainability they'll jump at the opportunity to divert more. 

Rod Muir, Hons B. Comm., MBA, is the Waste Diversion and Sustainability Campaigner for Sierra Club Canada. He is very willing to talk to any Group on this important subject and can be reached at rodmuir@sierraclub.ca or 416.535.9918