Recycling Legislation on the Move

As the 2011 Texas Legislative Session winds down to a close, there are at least two bill to improve recycling that stand a good chance to pass. H.B. 695, sponsored by State Representative Alma Allen (D- Houston), would provide manufacturer-based recycling programs for mercury containing thermostats. S.B. 329, sponsored by State Senator Kirk Watson (D- Austin), would put manufacturers in charge of recycling their obsolete televisions.

These proposed bills would require manufacturers to pay for the collection, transportation, and recycling of waste from consumers, small business, schools, and local governments. Producer takeback recycling ends the existing system of local taxpayers subsidizing waste, shifting the cost of waste management from governments to producers. Producers have the control over design and should be responsible for the solutions. By making the producer responsible for their end of life products, there is a market-based incentive to start designing for reuse, recycling and with safer materials. In addition it levels the playing field to make it fair for everyone.

Justin M. Bowen, Las Vegas Sun-
“After the digital tv switch, a lot of people are going to say ‘no one’s going to want my old analog tv, I need to get rid of this,’ and we expect to see an e-waste tsunami of electronic trash headed for our landfills,” Robin Schneider with Texas Campaign for the Environment, said. 

Some television companies, such as Sony, Samsung, and LG, already have recycling programs, and they’re aiming high: they want to have recycling centers nearby for 95 percent of America’s population.

Mercury-added thermostats more mercury than any other household product. In fact, 6-8 tons of mercury from old thermostats is tossed into U.S. landfills each year. The disposal of mercury-containing products in our landfills and incinerators poses unique problems. In a landfill, mercury often breaks down into its more toxic, more dangerous organic form, methylmercury. In one study of landfill gas destined for venting, researchers found methylmercury at levels one thousand times higher than typically measured in open air. There are an estimated 50 million mercury-containing thermostats remaining in homes across America that have yet to be discarded.

Both of the proposed bills have received bi-partisan support, as well as support from local governments and the manufacturers themselves. The TV recycling bill has already passed though the Texas Senate, and both bills could pass though the Texas House within the next week.

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Plastic, Disposable UT Tower?

Even one of Austin’s best and brightest institutions is capable of a very bad idea:

More from Austin Business Journal:

“A group of University of Texas alum and environmental activists aren’t happy about plans to market H2Orange, purified water in plastic bottles shaped like UT’s iconic tower. The group is gathering July 23 at UT’s West Campus Mall on Guadalupe Street to protest the plan, saying it undermines Austin’s Zero Waste goal and the campus’ sustainability policy. Instead of using disposable containers, the group is hoping the venture will market ‘a refillable bottle with a UT logo’ as a potential alternative to raising scholarship funds, the group said.”

There are so many ecological and economic problems with bottled water, one hardly knows where to start. Plastic pollution is a serious threat to our ecosystem and although the bottles may be recyclable, there is no guarantee they won’t end up in landfills, incinerators and waterways. In fact, the “great Pacific garbage patch” is larger than Texas and growing every day. And in case you haven’t forgotten about the BP spill: 10% of domestic oil production is used to make plastic products. A great primer is the Story of Bottled Water — check it out!

“Going Green” spotlights Texas Campaign for the Environment

Texas Campaign for the Environment was featured in this week’s segment of Going Green with Yolanda Green. Watch and share, please!

This is a terrific portrayal of TCE, the work we do and just a few of our allies. Major kudos to Yolanda and the Going Green team for creating such a comprehensive report. Also, thanks are due to Green Bank for sponsoring several Going Green segments and Citizens’ Environmental Coalition for suggesting TCE for this week’s show. And thanks to TCE volunteer Chris Patterson who helped collect the pictures and video!

The Tale of the Trail of Trash

Photo:  Swamplot

Use it, toss it, bag it, carry it to the curb and forget about it—this is the way most of us think about trash. Out of sight, out of mind. Get the garbage as far away as possible. Even the most adventurous children hold their noses and make excuses to avoid carrying those nasty trash bags to the curb (“But, Mom, I did it last week!”). Of course, nobody wants to live next to their refuse…nor should they, given the potential problems associated with exposure to harmful bacteria, heavy metals, and chemical contamination.

So, as we push discards out of our homes and into the waste stream, precisely what is the journey garbage takes from the curb to its final resting place? The only slightly dramatized tale that follows is more grubby than epic, more nauseating than whimsical, but a tale that nevertheless must be told: the tale of the trail of our trash.

CHAPTER 1: Truckin’ Through the ’Hood
Most homeowners have seen garbage trucks methodically making their way through the neighborhood, often with very sweaty men jumping on and off to hoist bulging bags or mechanical arms lifting overflowing bins into a chasm at the rear of the truck. Thus, the journey of trash begins with the solid waste collection vehicle—or in Britain, the quaint-sounding dustbin lorry—a rolling ferry transporting garbage away from the quiet solace of the shire to a land of, well, more garbage. Once secured by the collection vehicle, trash usually meets the wrath of a compactor to make room for its malodorous brethren. After collecting and compacting about six tons, the truck departs.

CHAPTER 2: A Stop on the Way
While many trucks simply make their way to a landfill, others stop at a trash transfer station. Transfer stations are a kind of trash purgatory, a transitional space between initial collection and final disposition. These garbage depots consist of a simple slab of concrete—a tipping floor with or without walls or covering—designed to allow large trucks to dump their load into a large pile, where it is once again compacted and then packed into larger trucks destined for the landfill. As you can imagine, the stench inside and surrounding such a site often proves unbearable. All this is before the vectors—rats, raccoons, roaches and the like—enter the scene.

CHAPTER 3: A Happier Place
However, our discards occasionally meet with a different fate. Some facilities provide an area separate from the tipping floor for common recyclables, an area for brush and yard waste (used for composting), an area for building materials or furniture or appliances, etc. When the essential function of a transfer station becomes waste diversion and retrieval rather than waste compaction and disposal, our rubbish has stumbled upon a materials recovery facility (MRF)—it still stinks, but the smell is tempered by the environmental and economic benefits of recovering rather than burying items of value. Here, recyclable metals, compostable organics, intact construction materials and reusable items ranging from paint to microwaves to bed frames to bicycles are separated from the refuse. Some MRFs even reach out to artists who can find aesthetic value in the unlikeliest junk, generating economic value in the process. (A footnote on the economy of waste recovery: a recent study conducted for the City of Austin found that the Capitol Region buries in landfills about $40 million annually worth of recoverable materials.)

CHAPTER 4: An Unpleasant Grave
Unfortunately, materials recovery facilities are a rare breed in Texas and throughout much of the country, which means that the journey taken by the vast majority of our trash ends with land disposal, buried in the ground. Trucks arrive from transfer stations or neighborhoods at the landfill gate, where they are weighed, sometimes inspected by a spotter perched above the scales (checking for illegal items such as freon-filled refrigerators) and then waved on to the working face. There, trash meets with more trash meets with menacing compactors—behemoth vehicles often equipped with massive spiked metal tires and a dozer blade—load after load, hour after hour until, finally, the waste is covered with six inches of dirt (or an alternative cover) at the end of the day. This process of burying and covering garbage to prevent contact with moisture is fittingly known as dry entombment. Within this trash mountain our refuse finds its final resting place. Or does it…

EPILOGUE: The Trail of Trash…To Be Continued
A number of studies show that even modern landfills with liners eventually leak, allowing household chemicals and heavy metals to leach into soil and nearby water sources. Garbage dumps are the largest source of human-caused methane emissions, a greenhouse gas twenty-three times more potent than carbon dioxide. Researchers have found high levels of mercury in some landfill gas intended for venting. The journey of our trash may not end with its entombment—it can come back to haunt us.

ALTERNATIVE ENDING
In many ways, the tale of trash is choose-your-own-adventure rather than scripted drama. Opportunities to divert our detritus from the trash trail exist at every turn in the story: we can purchase recycled and recyclable goods and separate them prior to putting them out on the curb, extend life-span by repairing and reusing old items, donate unwanted things like clothes and furniture to Goodwill or sign up with a group like Freecycle.org. Food and yard waste can go to a compost operation. Best Buy will recycle old TVs and computers. Even styrofoam has a more suitable resting place than the landfill: some local companies collect and sort a range of materials for foam recycling. This is the happier ending of the tale of the trail of trash…the ending that leaves no trail at all.

Jeffrey Jacoby, Staff Director, Texas Campaign for the Environment
Article originally published in August 2009 issue of House & Home Magazine