Thursday, May 11, 2006

If You Can’t Measure It, You Can’t Manage It

Deliberate waste directly depletes our earth’s resources. It eventually results in many forms of loss through a degradation of our planet. Improved inventories of what we discard will stimulate a greater understanding of how we can best manage waste. There is a critical connection between waste and prosperity. Our living standards have provoked increased consumption. However, such resource mismanagement taps our limited energy and materials. Better tracking of the entire material generation cycle and material use flows can provide us with a more holistic approach to “best use” of our scarce resources.

Over six billion people now live on this earth. In the next 30 years, another 2.5 billion people are estimated to increase our ranks, making the world’s population estimate in 2030 around 8.5 billion. How we determine to best measure, manage and sustain our current resources has crucial future implications.

Each year Americans use, discard and recycle more than 17.3 billion tons of waste including non-sewage wastewater[1]. The total volume of non-waste water is 4.9 billion tons per year[2]. Just in America’s households, we generate 1.6 million tons of hazardous waste including, paints, cleaners, oils, batteries, and pesticides that contain corrosive, toxic, ignitable and reactive ingredients. Improved feedback as to just what we discard can stimulate a greater understanding as to how we can either minimize and/or recover this waste. We have made great progress with municipal waste but not with the larger and potentially more dangerous waste streams.

For example, the recent U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) report tracked the amount of toxic chemicals released into the environment for facilities operating during the 2004 calendar year. Roughly 23,600 industrial and government facilities account for 4.24 billion pounds of some 90,000 chemical forms. While this inventory showed a four percent decrease in chemicals released compared to 2003, the EPA has changed the rules for reporting releases that distinctly favor industry. The Public Interest Research Group stated that toxic releases to U.S. waterways increased by 10 percent between 2003 and 2004.[3]

Waste generators in the U.S. include: special waste (mining, oil and gas et at 2.3 billion tons per year): nuclear waste (1.2 billion tons per year); agricultural (789 million tons per year); construction and demolition (350 million tons per year): forestry (280 million tons per year;) and what most people think is ordinary waste-municipal waste is estimated at 232 million tons per year[4][4]. Industrial non-hazardous, hazardous, used oil and medical waste combine to add another 226 million tons per year.[5] Wastewater generation is huge at over 12.5 billions tons per year.[6]

Our increased standard of living results in accelerated resource consumption and triggers two serious questions: Can our environment absorb the continued waste stream from our energy- and material-intensive lifestyles? Does the earth have the capacity to sustain this over-exploitation while these resources are dwindling? Better tracking of the entire material cycle can provide us with a more holistic approach to management of our limited resources.

Upfront pollution prevention is critical and yet a challenge, since our waste may be transformed into other forms such as solid, liquid and gas. Even though we have made major advances in cleaning up our air, water and land, we must refine our focus to concentrate on material flows in all areas of the environment. Some of the key issues facing us are:

· How to lessen global warming. We are 5% of the world’s population producing 22% of the climate altering CO2 (carbon dioxide) added to the atmosphere. EPA recently estimated that greenhouse gases increased 1.7 percent in 2004.[7] Roughly 1.54 billion pounds are US emissions (7 billion is the global number.)

· How to sustain water quantity. Americans use three times more water each day than Europeans, and that’s not for purposes of cleanliness. Each day we use 137 billion gallons of water for irrigation. On the east coast in the summer months, one-third of our water goes to watering our lawns. Agriculture has been cited as the largest water user worldwide. U.S. Power plants consume 131 billion gallons of water each day. Industry demands another 25 billion gallons per day. In addition the U.S. withdraws 339 billion gallons of each day from both underground and river sources. EPA estimates that roughly 40% of our nation’s streams are impaired. This includes over 20,000 individual river segments; 300,000 river and shoreline miles; and five million acres of lakes. According to the U.S. National Research Council, initial clean-up of contaminated groundwater at 300,000 sites in the United States could cost up to $1 trillion over the next 30 years.

· How to safely dispose of our radioactive waste. Each year in the United States, 2,000 tons of spent fuel is generated by the nation’s 103 operating nuclear power plants that provide 20% of America’s electricity. Roughly 40,000 tons of waste has been generated by America’s commercial nuclear plants. Re-use of radioactive waste and final disposal is a challenging matter. Some estimates put the cost to reprocess spent fuel waste by separating the highly radioactive components from the low-level components using chemical processes as high as $400 billion. The cost to decommission the plutonium-manufacturing plant in Hanford, Washington is estimated to be $40 billion. Used plutonium lasts for 250,000 years, and the contaminated nickel in the core of nuclear reactors lasts 3 million years. Finally, providing adequate security for this type of waste presents additional problems for the world population. Only two pounds of plutonium is required to make a nuclear weapon.

· How to manage used oil and gas wastes. Each year 3 billion tons of oil and gas wastes are generated by oil and gas exploration and production in America. However this data is old and was supplied by the American Petroleum Institute We consume more than 250 billion gallons of oil on an annual basis. On the back-end consumers waste hundreds of millions of gallons of used oil and anti-freeze along with hundreds millions of used oil filters that are improperly disposed of by millions of Americans who change their own oil (do-it-yourselfers). In addition to this, we use 2.2 billion pounds of pesticides in the U.S. per year.

· How to better manage our natural resources including our forests, minerals, water, and land. Building and road construction has a significant impact on the environment, accounting for one of sixth of the world’s freshwater withdrawal, one-quarter of its wood harvest, and two-fifths of its materials and energy flow. Each year we lose 136 million tons of construction and demolition (C&D) waste from building and 200 million tons for roads (about 50% if concrete is recycled). Estimates for building and roads is 300 million tons per year[8]. Buildings consume 40% of the raw stone, gravel and sand used globally each year. Each year 2 billion tons of topsoil is lost through erosion, and this in part due to new construction. An average of nearly 17 tons of soil is lost per acre of cropland per year. There are estimates that cropland, pasture and rangeland contribute more than 50% of the sediments discharged to surface water.

· How to improve the manner in which we dispose of municipal solid waste. Each year millions of tons of garbage is going into landfills, some of which may be recovered and reused. Landfills are one of the largest sources of methane released in the United States, and this can be converted into useable energy. Roughly one-half of our solid waste is organic. Besides paper, yard and vegetative waste, over 96 billion pounds of food a year-- or one quarter of America’s food-- is lost. Compost both generates new soil, improves existing soil and controls erosion

· How we can compost and better manage our excrement. More than 16,000 sewage treatment facilities serving 190 million Americans generate biosolids or sludge. These facilities also serve thousands of industrial and commercial establishments. Approximately eight million dry metric tons of biosolids are produced annually--that's about 70 pounds per person per year. About 54% of these biosolids are land applied. Another 500 million tons of manure is produced yearly by agricultural animals.

· How to reform our regulatory process to stimulate environmental improvements rather then increase litigation and/or questionable studies. Each year we spend tens of billions of dollars on various programs at 54 regulatory agencies. We are just beginning to collaborate and understand the effects of these complicated rules and laws, especially since state governments are currently in the worst shape since World War II, and local governments have to act as gate-keepers. Does this expenditure effectively translate into the protection of public health and environment while creating new forms of commerce?

The challenge for the United States is to determine how all facets of materials flow-- waste generation; reduction, reuse, recycling, composting, energy recovery, treatment, storage, and disposal-- interact and affect our lives. Source reduction, improved land use planning, better product design and manufacturing, green purchasing, and numerous types of re-use and recycling can be used to reduce our waste inventory and provide a better system to manage our resources. New ventures such as “green building”, re-use of landfill methane and the recovery of electronics, mercury-bearing products and oil, are various ventures blazing a trail towards conservation and better resource management at the individual level. Just the simple act of leaving your grass cutting on your lawn makes a difference.

We have another type of homeland security challenge, to understand the impact of our consumption and disposal. Protecting all Americans from the by-products we produce can lessen potential exposure caused by possible releases. Fundamental to this process is how we engage people to become part of the solution instead of part of the problem. There are millions of environmental acts of terror that Americans foolishly commit. How can we use our wealth to improve our environment rather than diminish it?

We must take better inventory of our entire waste cycle and material flows to become more efficient and productive in using and conserving our dwindling resources. Such an effort can better identify important factors such as energy, economic and environmental impacts so that we can better set aside resources for the world’s future generations.

Without comprehensive environmental management and integrated planning of the entire materials-flow and by-products cycle, we will be ineffective in transforming our liabilities into assets. Such new ventures can chart a course of action and conservation. Fundamental to this process is a need to engage people to become part of the solution instead of part of the problem. We have an essential challenge: we must seek answers to clearly understand the impact of our consumption. Let’s re-examine how we can make our world better by using less. Can we as a nation afford to waste? If we cannot measure what we discard, we will be in the dark as to how we best manage the impacts of this waste.

[1]David Cozzie,”Waste Generation in the US*, Office of Solid Waste, June 4, 2003, pg 23
[2] Ibid
[3] Bruce Geiselman, “Toxic Drop,” Waste News, 4/24/06, p 23
[4] David Cozzie, ”Waste Generation in the US*, Office of Solid Waste, June 4, 2003, pg 12
[5] Ibid
[6] Ibid pg 11
[8] Ibid pg 22

Exploring Our Oil By-products

A few weeks ago I was talking with a friend who had hired me 25 years ago to build and manage a used oil recycling facility in the Washington DC region. My friend commented how remarkable it is that we have made such few improvements. Interestingly, in the early 1990’s, this friend and his partner in the oil recycling company founded another company that revolutionized the golf industry. Their company, Softspikes Golf Cleats, created a tipping point when they championed a ban on metal spikes, thus forever preserving golf greens around the world. You would think we could show similar innovation with used oil. Tragically, Americans have learned little regarding the price for our vast wasteful consumption of petroleum. We need a car fluid recovery tipping point!

How we can collectively better manage oil has global significance. Years ago there was a Pogo cartoon with a picture of an oil tanker in a backyard, and the caption read, “We have met the enemy and it is us.” At George Washington University in 1977 one of my environmental science text books alerted me to oil polluting my local watershed of Little Falls in Bethesda, Maryland, which ends into a major drinking water reservoir for the nation’s capital. Since then I have promoted the recovery of do-it-yourself automotive fluids from every possible angle. I began this effort in Montgomery County, Maryland and started DC’s used oil recycling efforts. In the last few years I have twice updated Virginia’s consumer used oil collection program.

Each year we use hundreds of billion of gallons of the world’s petroleum supplies. We spend more than $200,000 every minute overseas in our yearly consumption of over 7 billion barrels of oil products. Since the USA constitutes 5% of the world’s population, uses over 25 % of the world’s oil, and produces 22% of climate-altering CO2, we have a tremendous responsibility to better conserve our oil.

On the front end, there is the one trillion gallons of oil-field waste we inject into deep wells in addition to the 3 billion tons of oil and gas wastes we generate yearly by our oil and gas exploration and production in the USA. This does not even account for the price of foreign oil to come to us. Closer to home, Washington DC area motorists dispose of 11.2 million gallons of oil, equivalent to the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill, every few years. The improper disposal of used oil, oil filters, oil bottles and antifreeze by those who perform their own automobile maintenance is a ubiquitous environmental concern. These do-it-yourself motorists who change their own oil and antifreeze account for roughly 45% of those owning passenger cars, and conservatively less than a third of used oil is believed to be recovered (and the figure is much lower for other materials.) Even the disposal of discarded oil filters, plastic containers and antifreeze reveals an amount of toxins that is alarming.

The current sampling method to evaluate the toxicity of oil, Toxicity Characteristic Leaching Procedure (TCLP) is not the best test since it was designed for municipal landfills. I ask you to simply reflect on the fact that one gallon of used oil improperly disposed of can contaminate one million gallons of fresh water or ruin the water supply for 50 people for a year.Each year, the United States generates approximately 1.351 billion gallons of used oil; only 57 percent of this used oil is accounted for through recycling. The roughly 45 million people who change their own oil, the so-called do-it-yourselfers (DIYs), are a major source of improperly disposed used oil. Upwards of 300 million gallons of used oil are released into the environment each year in this manner. This does not include the loss of home heating oil from leaking from old tanks at peoples’ homes.

There are other harmful household chemicals. Each year according to EPA, Americans generate 1.6 million tons of hazardous household waste (HHW) including paints, cleaners, batteries, and pesticides. Also there are many small businesses and farms generating hazardous waste and exempt from managing their stuff if it is less than 100 pounds per year of harmful materials. There is limited information on how many tons of these materials impact our health and natural resources. Presently it is believed that a small percent of this toxic material is recovered, and the cost to do so can be expensive. Improper disposal of this non-point pollution threatens public health and the environment in many ways that must awaken us to this real terror in our homes.

We use numerous types of harmful petroleum-based chemicals that are dangerous in their disposition. An EPA study documents that many petroleum-derived products pose an elevated cancer risk to two-thirds of Americans. Roughly 200 million people are regularly exposed to some 32 toxic chemicals. We the people are fighting a different type of war on terrorism—one in which we are our own worst enemy. We must exercise both prudence and wise purchasing decisions so that we do not poison ourselves.
Did you know that roughly in every 16 oil filters there is one gallon of used oil?
Clearly we can minimize pollution by design. One innovative approach would be to promote reusable oil filters that are compatible with engines that use the one-piece sealed spin-on filter. No modifications or tools are required to install these filters on any engine that uses a spin-on filter, and they allow for the recovery of all used motor oil. The assembly housing is reused; only the paper element is replaced, and this can be easily recycled or burned for energy. Widespread adoption of these reusable filter systems would virtually eliminate used oil being trapped in filters and prevent steel filters entering landfills. If produced in volume, this filter could be manufactured for under a dollar per unit. At the point of final sale, the filter would cost somewhat less than the current spin-on filter. Reusable filters were popular up to the early 1960s and are still widely used in the racing industry.

In 1998 there were 450 million light-duty oil filters sold in the United States, while 778 million filters were purchased in 2002. You can estimate by this that possibly over a billion oil filters for cars will be sold this year. Seven years ago an average used light-duty oil filter contained on average six to eight ounces of oil, but this amount may be higher since American vehicles are much larger now

Another automotive fluid lost is antifreeze--a clear, colorless, sweet-tasting liquid that is attractive to small children and pets. This is the same material we make water bottles out of. If swallowed, it will cause depression, followed by respiratory and cardiac failure, and finally renal and brain damage. Annually, 200 million gallons of antifreeze are sold in the USA. It is not known how much of this is recovered. Various paths may be used for the recycling and disposal of antifreeze. Some major collectors may take antifreeze to be disposed of in approved water treatment plants. The end-user market for antifreeze is twofold. Antifreeze may be either recycled on-site for reuse in vehicles or taken off-site where it is recycled and sold as new antifreeze.
Finally, another residual product of the car repair sector is oil bottles. It has been estimated that every year we generate between 2 to 3.5 billion used motor oil bottles, each containing 1 to 1.25 ounces of oil: taken together roughly the equivalent of 1.5 to 3.5 times the amount generated by the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

The good news is in the last quarter century the number of consumers recycling their used oil has more than doubled, however the vast majority is still lost in our environment. Also if these oil products go to an energy recovery facility or new landfill there is an increased comfort level.

We as consumers of harmful petroleum products must safeguard the health of our families and communities. There is no more critical timeframe to begin to protect our earth and ensure future hope. We are the source of the problem and the solution. We must create a culture where we reduce, reuse and recycle not just petroleum-based products but all our resources. We must become trail blazers and make the "oil can" mightier than the sword. We will profit from preventing pollution. Our country’s freedom warrants us to safely manage our black gold since it is interconnected to our future prosperity. Can you create a tipping point by exploring where your auto fluids go and ensure that they become a valuable resource instead of a hazardous waste?