News about discussion of the Portage County Solid Waste Management Plan might not seem all that critical to the future of our economy, environment and society, but really, they are. Since the late 1980s Portage County has been on the forefront of solid waste management in the State of Ohio, and Kent was an early adopter of curbside recycling. Reduction in our solid waste, and with it recycling and reuse of our products, is important for many reasons, but most of us seem to live with an “out of sight, out of mind attitude.
Solid waste is a sign that there is something wrong with our economy, and that the costs of consumption are not being accounted for. Waste is after all, something that we don’t need or want, that we wish to be “thrown away”, but of course, last we checked, there is no such thing as “away.”
In recent decades the field of “full cost economic accounting” so many are regularly assessing what the costs of various economic activities really are. Many costs in our economic activities are externalized, including the social and ecological ones. These costs do not regularly show up on the price tag, but need to. Putting a price on waste has begun to happen as we consider recycling, but barely.
Local discussion on recycling and the handling of the solid waste stream often gets bogged down in the management of the waste instead of understanding the true costs and the need to reduce the demand. A great emphasis has been put on source separation and curb side pick up on one side, and on the potential for “after market” separation by trash haulers. In both cases, the demand reduction side is not even in the discussion.
In a document created by the National Solid Waste Management Association, “According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Municipal Solid Waste Generation, Recycling, and Disposal in the United States: Facts and Figures for 2008 (December 2009), Paper and paperboard products are the largest component in the trash we generate (31.0%) followed by yard trimmings (13.2%), food waste (12.7%), plastic (12.0%), metals (8.4%), wood (6.6%), glass (4.9%), rubber/leather/textiles (7.9%) and other materials (3.3%).” As we can see, all of these products can be recycled, some quite easily, yet we are expending vast amounts of energy, polluting the air and water, and despoiling the landscape to landfill them. While we have begun to recycle part of this waste stream, much of it can be reduced through household stewardship activities and better manufacturing and distribution standards.
Perhaps the most critical element of this waste stream is food. Focussing on food waste is an area that can have the most important social and ecological impacts.
It has been calculated that up to 40% of food in America is wasted, at the same time that the incidence of hunger and the demand of food banks are very high. An oft cited paper, The Progressive Increase of Food Waste in America and Its Environmental Impact (Hall, Guo, Dore and Chow of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases) contains some startling statistics about how the “over-supply” of food impacts our wastefulness, our health and our ecological niche.
“The calculated progressive increase of food waste suggests that the US obesity epidemic has been the result of a “push effect” of increased food availability and marketing with Americans being unable to match their food intake with the increased supply of cheap, readily available food. Thus, addressing the oversupply of food energy in the US may help curb the obesity epidemic as well as decrease food waste, which has profound environmental consequences.”
They outline the environmental consequences thusly:
“Assuming that agriculture utilizes about 70% of the freshwater supply , our calculations imply that more than one quarter of total freshwater use is accounted for by wasted food. Furthermore, given that the average farm requires 3 kcal of fossil fuel energy to produce 1 kcal of food (before accounting for energy requirements of food processing and transportation) , wasted food accounts for ~300 million barrels of oil per year representing ~4% of the total US oil consumption in 2003 . In addition to this wasteful consumption of fossil fuels and their direct impact on climate change, food waste rotting in landfills produces substantial quantities of methane  – a gas with 25 fold more potent global warming potential than CO2  which would have been the primary end product had the food been eaten and metabolized by humans.”
What is clear from this is that we have an opportunity on the local level to create a more equitable and convivial society while reducing our carbon footprint. Emphasis on a thriving local food economy and decreasing food waste can have the added benefit of helping our hungry neighbors have a healthier life. Work by the Kent State Community Kitchen and partnerships with local social service agencies are a shining example of the compassion of our people.
One of the most practical, but of course politically difficult things we could do in Portage County is to include more of the costs of waste into our trash bills. In Kent for example, we actually pay to have our recycling taken away, while the cost of trash service is extremely low. Waste services should instead subsidize recycling and therefore provide real market feedback on what our wasteful practices cost. Waste bills could cover the cost of providing every household a compost bin and the training on how to use it. Waste bills could cover the cost of re-use centers, and creation of value added facilities for the waste products that we make in our region. The cost of excess packaging and the disposal thereof could be borne by the retailers, and pushed back to the manufacturers, instead of by the planet.
I am not optimistic about making such changes because we seem to be self-absorbed, caring more about the price to us than the cost to our community and the earth. In order to make progress will require a paradigm shift, from a consumption economy to a conservation economy, as true economics is about conservation rather than consumption. It will require us to understand that “waste is food”, that there is no place like home...and that we are fouling our nest.