Is It Time For A National Trash Presort Policy?

I was pretty floored when I moved to Detroit and we didn’t even have recycling in my building. Recycling was limited to single-family homes. So, more than half of the city’s building stock. And the famous incinerator was less than a half mile away from my old place, filling the air with the faint aroma of rancid paint when the westwardly winds did blow. Six years later, we still don’t really have recycling. Most recycling collected curbside is contaminated with things like plastic bags. People don’t understand how it works, it’s not part of the culture here, and the city has made no effort to educate citizens. If you want your recycling perhaps a bit more responsibly managed, the solution today is the same as it was six years ago– take it to Recycle Here. But what if we looked at a recycling or trash presort option? Like. Nationally. National trash presort!

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Trash as infrastructure?

The Biden infrastructure bill raised a lot of questions about what infrastructure is and what it isn’t. Critics argue– quite credibly- that you can’t just call something “infrastructure” because it’s important. Broadband? Sure. Roads, highways, airports, ports of entry? Yeah, definitely. Railroads and transit? Duh. But like. Higher education? Healthcare? The way I see it, we should be spending a lot of money on these things. But they’re not infrastructure.

Trash, on the other hand, is kind of a weird thing. The Detroit incinerator even went so far as to classify it as a “renewable resource.” SimCity 3000 (1999) was the first game in the storied series to feature waste management. It’s included next to water and power! I mean, those are all fairly infrastructural, right?! After all, most waste management systems are organized at a municipal level, even if some giant conglomerate is doing the hauling. Here in the D, for example, we use GFL, which took over a rebranded operation after a famous scandal involving a Rizzo (ironically not the first municipal crime topic you find when you google “Rizzo scandal”). In contrast, some barbaric tribes of the East– like in New York City- just dump their trash bags on the street overnight.

Incineration As District Heating

There’s definitely a case to be made for “trash-incineration-as-district-heating.” This is most certainly infrastructure, even if garbage collection is perhaps blurry. Detroit Thermal and Detroit “Renewables” made this case for the incinerator. Indeed, Detroit’s central Woodward Corridor is all connected by steam heat, and virtually anyone can affordably connect to the system! Unfortunately, with the prevalence of idiot developers in Midtown building 2×4 stick framing with MagicPaks, there wasn’t much interest in connecting to steam heat. So the value proposition is largely lost in this case.

Landfills

Landfills might make for great ski slopes, but they’re not fantastic, environmentally. Even if, you know, stuff biodegrades eventually, it takes forever. It also produces methane, and most of this methane ends up being discharged into the atmosphere as one of The Worst Greenhouse Gases Around. But if we break this down a bit more, no pun intended, most of that methane isn’t coming from plastic or metal. It’s coming from biodegradable components. These could be industrially composted– much faster than a backyard setup. And industrial composting can produce, well, combustible gas! Consumers Energy referred to this in this week’s presentation to a new state workgroup on decarbonization. They don’t see complete electrification as a pragmatic option as much as they do a combination of electrification and replacing natural gas extracted from the ground– with recaptured natural gas, for example, from landfills or biogas digestion.

My Chinese Legos from AliExpress feature a smiling municipal worker who picks up any of four separate bins of waste. These are then deposited into one of four separate bins on the truck.
Presort: A Sensible Alternative To Landfills

Trash presort is a thing that they do in, well, civilized societies. Yes, it costs some additional money. But fortunately, it doesn’t actually require much additional space, because it’s possible to “subdivide” trash cans inside the home, and use smaller trash bins than the gigantic, normal ones outside the home. This has always been an interesting thing to me, since our house takes two weeks of heavy usage to fill up an entire black trash bin (what we call the “Courville Container” in Detroit, owing, I believe, to the street of the same name on which the distributing facility is located), but we routinely fill up both recycling bins every two weeks if not faster. Other houses put out overflowing black bins every week, plus even curbside bulk waste, which the city picks up every fortnight. (I previously raised the question of how we’re supposed to address personal responsibility in this situation).

Reducing contamination and carbon footprint

Single-stream has some advantages. It greatly increases the rate of recycling. But it also increases the rate of contamination, as I mentioned in the beginning. While presort might cost more money and take more time, it allows us to drastically reduce the amount of stuff that ends up in a landfill. It also effectively eliminates contamination in the waste stream. But another problem still is that most of the contamination isn’t coming from perhaps the biggest baddie, which is, of course, plastic. Plastic has a lower marginal carbon footprint than glass to produce, perhaps. But it’s also rarely recycled. This makes “plastic recycling” a poor starting point for thinking about reducing carbon footprint in municipal waste. While there’s a lot of literature around carbon footprint of waste, materials processing, and recycling, I haven’t been able to find a lot of great information about the comparisons between different systems– especially around questions of reducing systemic carbon footprint and improving overall reliability and efficiency.

And finally, it’s hard to make a case for trash presort unless we integrate multiple systems of management to reduce waste overall and incentivize reuse. POCACITO’s last trip in March 2020 checked out, for example, a reusable, standardized coffee mug. The COVID lockdowns sparked new conversations about reusable takeout containers, which have been going on for a few years. Ultimately, we’re going to have to curb our plastics consumption– but trash presort would be a good way to get started in helping us realize how this process can become a thing.

This article is part of an ongoing series on infrastructure. Remember to support independent journalism!

Nat M. Zorach

Nat M. Zorach, AICP, MBA, is a city planner and energy professional based in Detroit, where he writes about infrastructure, sustainability, tech, and more. A native of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, he attended Grinnell College in Iowa, the Kogod School of Business at American University, the POCACITO transatlantic program, the SISE program at the University of Illinois Chicago, and he is also a StartingBloc Social Innovation Fellow. He enjoys long walks through historic, disinvested Rust Belt neighborhoods at sunset. (Nat's views and opinions are his own and do not represent those of his employer).

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