Posted by Kathryn Warren, Senior Technical Consultant on 2 July 2012
Adam Read, Mark Broomfield and I have just returned from the US Air and Waste Management Association annual conference in Texas. It was a very hot and sunny week in San Antonio, home of the Alamo, the San Antonio Spurs and as much Tex Mex as one could ever eat. It wasn’t all fajitas and margaritas though, with conference sessions starting at 8am, and going on until 6pm in the evening.
We presented six papers (available at www.slideshare.net/AEA_Europe) across four different conference sessions, enabling us to get into some interesting debate about what’s hot and what’s not in the US waste management sector.
Trash, garbage, yard waste, and tipping fees were all foreign sounding terms at first, but there were many familiar terms too. Zero Waste, MRFs, Kerbside recycling (or curbside!), and alternate weekly collections and were all very much on the agenda for debate.
Certain peculiarities raised a few eyebrows though, such as the ability of states to pass ‘Flow Control’ laws which protect their investment in landfills by passing state laws banning all waste from leaving the state, even to recycling sites!
One interesting presentation outlined a study being done in Canada to maximise methane production from a landfill where for much of the year waste is placed in sub-zero temperatures. A valid piece of research perhaps, but led us to ask the question that perhaps it would be more useful to remove the biodegradable waste from the waste stream in the first place?
Perhaps the most striking difference between the US and the UK is our attitudes to landfill. With so much space, landfill is still king in the US. We were surprised that a map of US EfW plants showed only 86 plants in total. These are mainly clustered around the heavily populated East coast states. Texas is almost 3 times the size of the UK, and has none.
It wasn’t difficult to understand why there were less than we thought though. As well as the abundance of space, landfill tipping fees can be as low as $21 (£14). There is also no equivalent of the EU landfill directive or other similar legislative drivers to divert waste from landfill. Perhaps a bit surprising that any EfW plants get built at all?
When they do get built, it seems a much less tortuous process – with some recent examples of planning being awarded in as little as ten months!
We got a great welcome from our ERG colleagues and the people of Texas in general. Many of us are guilty of stereotyping Americans as being our gas-guzzling, mass-consuming, un-environmentally friendly cousins. So, what was the reality? Emboldened by a few beverages one evening, we put the question to some of our new American friends and fellow conference-goers. Was their idea of environmentally friendly turning the air-conditioning up? Or was waste management simply making sure the waste disposal system in the kitchen sink worked OK? Worryingly, they seemed to agree with our assumptions, and estimated that 75% of Americans matched the stereotype.
One thing that the US does do much better than us is doggy bags! In all the restaurants we visited, it was a common sight to see waiters delivering polystyrene containers to neighbouring tables for every scrap of leftovers to be taken home. Whilst we may get away with this in a pizza restaurant, it’s hard to imagine most restaurants at home doing this. Of course, it could be that if US portions were a little smaller, there would be no need for doggy bags, but that is a whole other issue!
Our overall conclusion was that the US is working towards many similar goals to the UK, and there are some good steps in the right direction. However, progress is slower and perhaps more than a couple of years behind where we are.
Given the lack of state or federal legislation, it was heartening to hear that some states are making improvements and efforts to reduce and recycle. Our host city of San Antonio has a Zero Waste policy, and has recently piloted food waste collections in 30,000 homes in the city. At the same time though, a feasibility study undertaken on behalf of the city concluded emphatically that there was no viable and proven EfW currently on the market that could compete economically with landfill. Cost remains the sole driver, as the charismatic 6”8’ ex-basketball player who is now Director of Waste at San Antonio cheerfully admitted. So, if anyone has a solution that can beat $21/tonnes, we recommend you get on a plane to Texas, y’all be very welcome!