Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Rethinking Waste to Energy

Cut your garbage bill in half and reinvest in solar.

“Waste to Energy” is another word for incinerator, which is the quickest way to flood an impromptu neighborhood potluck with activists. Waste to Energy could also mean spending less on garbage and more on community solar, for one example.

Our monthly garbage bill is a rough 25 dollars. The savings offered by a smaller bin isn’t much of an incentive. However, sharing a trashcan with a neighbor would cut our bill in half. Since we don’t use but a quarter of our 25-dollar throwing capacity, theoretically we could join forces with three other households and reduce our bill to less than ten dollars a month. This should be possible in a city that leaves its residents to hiring private contractors instead of providing a mandatory municipal service. Nevertheless, any city could choose to invest millions in renewable energy with savings afforded by a simple garbage reduction strategy.

As long as we’re playing loose with the numbers, let’s consider that there are 3000 single-family households in the Merriam Park and Lex-Ham neighborhoods. On average each household splitting a garbage bill with a neighbor would save $12.50 a month. This is a collective savings of $39,000, or $450,000 a year. Invest that savings into neighborhood solar arrays, and we have honest Waste to Energy. The tangible benefits of such an effort would be all around us: solar arrays along the freeway, on the rooftops of businesses and public buildings, and in the parks. It’s a huge payoff for a small effort.

Rethinking our mundane habits can be a challenge that makes me feel downright impatient with the attachment we can have to conventions that are no longer serving us well. Voluntarily pooling resources on a scale that can visibly benefit our neighborhood is also challenging. But even with a 2 percent participation rate, the neighborhood could divert almost 10 thousand dollars annually from waste to clean energy. Sixty households would be enough for a convincing demonstration.

Obviously, sharing a garbage bill means reducing our garbage output. It means reusing, repairing, reselling, repurposing, and recycling and otherwise diverting stuff from the waste stream. Composting would practically be a requirement. Whatever our fears about that, placing a few carrot peels on compost heap is a small price to pay for the added bonus of a neighborhood that is resilient and dotted with solar arrays.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Zero-waste Events

I was about to call it a night when Matt Damon caught my attention. He was on Letterman promoting True Grit. He was also promoting Damon’s pitch reminded me of meeting Sarah Holzgraf who said that bottled water in public offices is especially egregious because our government is supposed to ensure safe drinking water in the first place. Nevertheless, when former Minnesota State Representative Paul Gardner introduced a bill that packaged cost-savings and feel-good environmentalism in a tidy couple of sentences that discouraged state offices from providing bottled water, it didn't sell.

Sarah works for Corporate Accountability International, an organization that has taken on the absurdity of porting water in a country where it is piped directly into our homes and businesses, a luxury we completely take for granted while the poor elsewhere in the world literally walk miles and stand in line all day just to meet basic needs. I am embarrassed to say that when I met Sarah I was sipping on raspberry-flavored water, probably a Coca-Cola product. To compound the irony, I was perusing the exhibits at an event hosted by the Alliance for Sustainability where Richard Heinberg was speaking on climate change. In my defense, I got the water at a pre-event lunch with Heinberg. Besides coffee it was the only beverage available and my thirst overpowered my proclivity to protest.

Getting together a pitcher of water and a few glasses is not a challenge particular to the Alliance, which did put on a very nice event. Years before a similar scenario played itself out at a conference hosted by the DFL Progressive Caucus, which I chaired at the time. A nicely organized event was marred by the appearance of fun-size bottles of water that wouldn’t have satisfied a sparrow. Worse, lunch was packed in non-recyclable plastic shells, many of which went completely untouched and were presumably tossed out.

We must do better. The push for good public policy must come from somewhere and it can’t come from groups that do not take themselves seriously.

The annual Energy Fair of the Midwestern Renewable Energy Association is a shining example of what’s possible. The three-day event that attracts thousands of visitors essentially achieves zero-waste. All of the food vendor dishware is compostable if not durable and refillable. This could be the standard.

Let's begin by putting bottled water in its place and favoring our public water infrastructure that does not require expensive post-consumer management. It, not the Beverage Association, has made kings of us all and is worthy of our protection.