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Discussion: What to do with Trash

posted on July 25, 2008 at 4:15 PM

Americans like stuff: We buy it, sell it, and horde it. We have so much stuff that many of us have to rent storage space outside the home.

The Self Storage Association says in 2007 one in ten U.S. households rented a storage unit. That's up from one in 17 households in 2005. The association says gross revenue of the industry tops $20 billion -- that's $9.16 per rentable square foot. When one tires of their stuff, it may eventually end up in a landfill.

The Iowa Journal visits with a Johnston woman who "shops" curbside during neighborhood Spring clean-ups for items she can use or sell. The program also visits landfills in Mitchellville and Cedar Rapids to see how our garbage is processed. Another stop was at Rockwell Collins in Cedar Rapids, where the aviation electronics firm has won awards for its efforts to reduce its landfill waste.

In the studio to talk trash and recycling efforts are: Tom Hadden, Executive Director, Metro Waste Authority in Mitchellville and Tom Gentner, Director of Environment, Safety and Health for Rockwell Collins in Cedar Rapids.

Paul Yeager: Rockwell Collins and other Iowa industries are doing their part as are residents who recycle. Here's a few of the questions we'll discuss tonight. Does the amount of trash still far outweigh what can be recycled? Do product manufacturers need more consideration of disposal issues of their products at the end of the product's lifespan? And does the state legislature or Congress need to write tougher laws on waste disposal and recycling? Here to help us address these questions are Tom Hadden, he is the Executive Director of Metro Waste Authority for the Des Moines area and Tom Gentner, Director of Environment, Safety and Health for Rockwell Collins in Cedar Rapids. Gentlemen, welcome to The Iowa Journal. First I want to talk, let's have a status report on trash. I have a question for you, Tom, are we producing more trash than ever before?

Tom Hadden: Yes, well as the report said we're receiving 550,000 tons at the landfill and there's some flood debris in that this year but it's still fairly, it's higher, I've been there for twelve years, it's the most we've ever received by far.

Paul Yeager: Have you also seen higher recycling levels too?

Tom Hadden: There's all kinds, there's many recycling initiatives happening so there is a lot of recycling happening in our community. But we're also consuming significantly more material and it comes to us because some people just don't know what to do with it after it's done.

Paul Yeager: So, we have people recycling more but we also have people throwing away more. Why?

Tom Hadden: Well, let's take electronics. A VCR machine now is a few years, computers a few years and they're done. It used to be you bought your bicycle and you kept it for 10, 20 years but now when a lot of the electronics equipment they're very disposable and that's a significant issue.

Paul Yeager: We may have to get into that issue in a moment first because I do want to discuss a little bit about that. But let's talk about the business fronts. I want to bring the other Tom into the discussion. So, businesses in Cedar Rapids it's almost 80% business and industry contributes to the waste in that community. Why in a business level are they such big wasters, not wasters but creating so much waste?

Tom Gentner: I can't answer why because I don't have an analysis of the 80 versus 20 and where that comes from. All I know is we're trying to reduce our percentage to zero and our goal is to eliminate all the waste we create because we're very passionate about eliminating waste of all kinds. And for us it started with recycling 12 or 14 years ago and taking a lot of the packaging material, the cardboard, the plastic, the paper that we were just putting in a landfill that could be recycled into new, reusable material, got a couple of people passionate about getting that started and learned how to segregate that and stop throwing it away and started to see the value in that, get more people energized and engaged and involved in that and that led from just recycling of waste we were generating to looking at ways of what can we generate less waste? What creative things can we do to use less packaging material or reuse packaging material before it can't be reused any more and then you ultimately recycle it.

Paul Yeager: So, companies are trying to find more efficient ways to make their product and we see the ethanol industry, they're finding uses for their waste. Is that something that Rockwell or any business -- I would assume any business would say if I could save money and reuse something it's probably going to be a good thing?

Tom Gentner: Absolutely. Again, I know Rockwell is passionate about it and I also believe that more and more companies and businesses are getting passionate about it too and not just purely from the straight economic aspect of trying to save money and a direct cost basis but looking at a total cost benefit analysis, improving and protecting and sustaining the environment that we all live in regardless of where we work and companies are really taking that on as an obligation that they need to do something about it these days.

Paul Yeager: Is there going to be a friendly consultation with businesses or individuals to maybe reduce their waste? Is it going to be like gas where we talk about the $4 gas level and we're not going to make changes in our transportation until $4 or $5 gas? Why is it going to take for changes to be made in waste?

Tom Hadden: I think some of it is convenience and markets. For example, in the Des Moines Metro area we're going to be going to single string recycling meaning instead of sorting your stuff and putting it in the green bin at the curb we're going to get the same container you have for garbage and make it easy for you to put those recyclables in there. And now there's markets for paper and cardboard and metal and since it's a worldwide market they have value now so that's going to be helpful and it's the same for businesses. For example, if we get a facility, we're working to get a facility right now called a material recovery facility built in our market which will then help businesses when they can put like a business that produces a lot of paper and a small amount of it is really garbage in a lot of the businesses in Des Moines, it's a lot of paper. So, if you can make that easy for them to take the paper and get it to the recycling rather than the landfill that's what that's going to take but it's also ethics and how you're training your people and convenience, all of those factor in.

Paul Yeager: So, who has to lead the way? Does the authority have to do that? Does it have to be policy changes? The legislature? A city council?

Tom Hadden: It's a combination. We can push to a certain point and then it's got to make business sense for businesses. So, Rockwell Collins, I think they have the right ethic to do so and they've kind of made the way to lead. But small businesses may not have the resources and they're going to make decisions out of convenience and cost. But it's going to be both. It's going to take some legislation too.

Paul Yeager: There was a piece of legislation that for some in Iowa came out of the bottle bill but it's been talked about. We have the bottle bill in place, there was a possible expansion. Governor Culver talked about it. What type of impact would the bottle bill have had on waste that Iowans throw out?

Tom Hadden: I think the bottle bill is one of the best examples you can have of product stewardship. It happened in 1978 because it was a litter issue and if you go to a convenience store in 1978, which there weren't as many, you'll find sodas and beer and things like that and now you go to that same convenience store and there's a plethora of bottles and water bottles. Who thought we were going to be buying water bottles? But that was great sustainability, it's been a challenge to modernize it or to get it updated because that's a perfect example, there's a number of issues that if we could work together and say how can we -- if the stores don't want it in the stores let's get it somewhere where it can be recycled.

Paul Yeager: Is that something that you were involved with, maybe not you personally, but your organization on a lobbying effort or a calling of representatives and Senators to say this is why this would be a benefit not just for our company but for everyone?

Tom Hadden: Yes, actually we'd be reducing our revenue stream so I guess I should say do away with the bottle bill because they'll throw away more things.

Paul Yeager: But you're an environmental steward.

Tom Hadden: Exactly. We were but obviously we didn't do a good enough job this year because it's the same. But I think there's just been a stalemate and I think we have to, people have to be willing to improve it. And just a quick statistic -- in non-bottle bill states where they have the curbside recycling like we do you only get 40% of those bottles and cans back through recycling. And in our state we're at 90% plus. So, if we got those plastic bottles included and others we'd be even higher so with the fuel and all the energy it takes to produce plastics I think it's really a smart thing to do. We've just got to find a better way to do it.

Paul Yeager: Tom had brought this up a little bit but let's say the federal government would come to Rockwell next week and say, alright, the products that you sell after they're done, to whoever buys the product they want you to return that product and dispose of it properly. What type of impact would that have on business and industry? It's a model that they're talking about in Europe where there is a product they want you to take care of it on the inside. What would that mean for business if a law like that became reality?

Tom Gentner: Well, there's obviously economic considerations. Who is going to pay for it? You've got to ship the product back and then someone has to dismantle that, recycle it or do whatever needs to be done to recover and reclaim those materials and unfortunately probably dispose of some of it you can't. It's an idea that is advancing. I think they have struggled with this model a little bit in Germany but they are finding a way to make it work where the producer is actually obligated to take it back. So, all the businesses are really going to have to struggle with a concept like that. We have thought about it at Rockwell Collins because we have had customers in the European Union ask us about that and would we do that. So, I think that dialogue is going to continue until the right partnership approach is really come upon to find out how to make that work.

Paul Yeager: You talked about who would pay for it because it could be difficult if you tack on ten percent at the beginning of the product. Say the product lasts 50 years that would by no means take care of disposal in 50 years. So, that price model is that you think going to be one of the biggest hurdles to try to get that moving forward?

Tom Gentner: I think that's one of them but I think the economics will have to deal with it on a when the product has outlived its useful life and it's more difficult for a Rockwell Collins to think about that because our products do last 50 years. We've got radios that through refurbishing and upgrading of the technology are still working, functioning well in its intended purpose in aircraft. In the consumer world it's a lot different. Like you say, computers last two or three years now. Where do all those computers go? The advancement of technology outdates other technology and I think that's advancing and accelerating this pace of stuff and what do we do with it.

Paul Yeager: So, what if Sharp or Sony or anybody else who makes a TV or a VCR calls you tomorrow and says, alright, we want to pay you to bring those things back. What are your thoughts on an idea like that?

Tom Hadden: Some way it has to be approached liked that. For example, one of the other issues is there is hazardous waste components in these and if it could be manufactured, and I'd have to ask somebody who does that, manufacture these products in a way that those components can easily be taken out that would be helpful. For example, appliances, that's working pretty good with like refrigerators with a lot of metal and that's market driven. They take out the bad, the mercury or whatever elements are that are hazardous, but there's enough value in the metal now where it's almost become a point where the cost of the disposal has been pretty low and almost knocked to zero because they take the scrap. So, that is market driven. Now, the computers and the cell phones and those are more challenging.

Tom Gentner: There are valuable materials in them but it takes much more labor to disassemble it and get those materials back out.

Paul Yeager: And, again, it's who is paying for it. If you're Best Buy, which I think experimented with a program with consumer technology and consumer electronics, I'm not sure where that program is right now but at least it's out there. Is it going to be more market driven?

Tom Hadden: I think it's got to be, again, I hate to sound like a broken record but consumers first have to start kind of demanding on their side and then when companies get rewarded for doing those things I think that helps and then if you come in with a legislative issue or federal that also helps businesses that want to be mandated, they've got to be competitive, there's a lot of issues. But another issue is state versus federal. If we do it unilaterally in this state our businesses may say, well, why are doing that to us? That's kind of the bottle bill argument quite frankly. If it's nation wide and it's a more even playing field that seems to be more acceptable sometimes.

Paul Yeager: Let's spend the last few minutes talking about the flood and some of the debris that we have left behind. Tom, you live in the Cedar Rapids area, work in the Cedar Rapids area, you've seen the piles that we've seen, everybody has seen the pictures of debris and garbage. Describe what that looks like. And from your sense of an environmental put that hat on when you think about what is going to happen. Mount Trashmore has been reopened in Cedar Rapids, that's the nickname for it. When you see that what are your thoughts and impressions of all of that trash?

Tom Gentner: The devastation is just mind-boggling, it's not like anything I've ever seen before. I was in one of the flooded neighborhoods trying to help a retired couple kind of deal with this after the floodwaters went down and the water literally had come up to within six inches of the ceiling of their house. So, think about everything they had in their house including the walls from the siding to the plaster or the drywall inside and it all has to come out, doors, wood trim, curtains, windows, all the furnishings, kitchen cabinets and the stuff just piles up to the sky and it was like a tunnel going out in the streets. Leaving it there was the worst thing that we could do so we had to do something with it. So, I think to the local response authority's credit in Cedar Rapids and in other communities they devised a plan to at least get it out of there and sequester it somewhere else quickly. And I think their response has been tremendous given the magnitude of the task that they undertook.

Paul Yeager: Did you get some waste in Des Moines from there?

Tom Hadden: Some but nothing of the magnitude of Cedar Rapids.

Paul Yeager: But when you think of what Tom is describing there's some I want it gone now and there's some we have to consider what is in these piles. How do you juggle those two?

Tom Hadden: Well, first of all, you try to have some kind of plan in place so people understand that you separate hazardous waste or potentially hazardous waste from appliances, from material that should go to the landfill. But, as you say, in an emergency situation like that, Paul, people just want to get the heck off the street and get it out. And so you try to do the best you can and then you get it disposed of properly so it doesn't cause an environmental or health and safety issues.

Tom Gentner: I think the Cedar Rapids response authorities did that because they gave very clear guidance that everyone knew is you put your hazardous materials here, put metal here, electronics and appliances here, put wood here and they tried to pick it up in discreet allotments so that they didn't co-mingle all this waste together and so they could try to recycle or reuse or at least make sure we weren't making the problem worse by co-mingling this and not managing it properly. So, hats off to them.

Paul Yeager: We're going to take 30 seconds and just what is the future of waste in the state? Where are we going to go? How are we going to get there? And what do we need to do in the next decade?

Tom Hadden: I think you're going to see increased recycling, markets of things in the world, paper, plastic, metal will still increase so that will help drive that. I think the other side of it, though, we've got to learn how to consume differently or not in so much packaging and work on manufacturers and how to bring those back full circle.

Paul Yeager: Same question.

Tom Gentner: I'll speak for Rockwell Collins. I know what we're going to do, we're not going to sleep until we eliminate all waste. We're that passionate about it.

Tom Hadden: You'll put us out of business. But that's okay.

Tom Gentner: Actually not, if you're in the recycling business we will always have recyclable materials. We won't quit until we've gotten there. We've done a lot of great things so far. We just consider that a good start.


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