Garbage Research

Over the past month I’ve spent some time on research topics related to garbage.  Or more accurately, energy from waste, sustainable materials management, circular economy issues, reduction and recycling.  To the public, such things may not be as exciting as self-driving cars, but as landfills, oceans, and beaches fill with wastes they are becoming more noticeable and pressing issues.

First, I helped to organize our 5th annual Resource Recovery Partnerships Conference here at Waterloo in late June.  Over two days, we had lots of presentations and networking among academic, industrial and municipal government people discussing various issues related to waste reduction and management.  Shortly after that, I attended the Air & Waste Management Association’s annual conference, held in Hartford CT.  There, I saw a number of interesting presentations on “zero waste”, sustainability, and case studies of projects.  Between these two events I learned a few things that I can summarize below:

  • waste management is a huge problem across the world, not just in specific countries or locations.
  • the full range of treatment technologies are needed to address the problems, including biological (composting, anaerobic digestion) and thermal (incineration, fuels and chemicals recovery)
  • there is a huge amount of food waste.  In a New York study it was estimated that recovering some of the food waste to feed all the hungry would make barely any dent in the volume of waste (aside from the logistical and safety issues).
  • Local bans on plastic items like bags and straws seem like a good idea, but can have unintended consequences.  A more organized and comprehensive approach to the problems is needed at the provincial/state and national levels.
  • Most wastes eventually contribute to climate change impacts in some way.  Approaching the whole problem as a carbon-reuse and recycling issue may provide more comprehensive solutions and paths forward.
  • As long as landfilling remains cheap in Canada (and the U.S.), there is not a lot of motivation to make changes or innovate.  Getting the organics out of landfills is a good first step however.
  • There is no simple solution to plastics recycling.
  • Wastes should be a useful resource, if the right regulatory and economic frameworks exist.

There are lots of indications and reasons to believe that waste management problems will continue to grow in scale and urgency.  This will keep lots of engineers (and many others) busy working on solutions for years to come.

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