Learning From Example

March 29, 2013

The British Empire’s imperial power came from its Navy. British leaders viewed timber as a strategic resource for its naval shipbuilding. Since “John Bull” had not implemented a policy of resource sustainability, British Navy officers eventually found themselves looking out over a deforested British Isles. How did the “Redcoats” respond to this resource deficit? They restricted their colonies from harvesting timber, including white pines, which were especially good for making ship masts. Colonists were incredulous when reading these restrictions and looking out over land “endlessly” filled with trees waiting, they felt, to be used for building houses or stores, trees that could be sold abroad for cash, trees that were waiting, that is, to raise the standard of living of the colonists rather than mercantilists back in England.

This imperial restriction resulted in escapades such as the Pine Tree Riot in April 1772. Forty men led by a lumber mill owner, who was out on bail for the crime of processing white pines, blackened their faces with soot, sneaked into the Pine Tree Tavern (no joke) where the Crown’s officials were staying that night, and lashed the Crown’s sheriff and his deputy with tree switches. Not exactly today’s suicide bombing, but one can only imagine the vulgar images Naval officers back in London conjured when reading reports of this primitive affair.

This story illustrates problems we now see when thinking of sustainability policies. First, today’s developed countries used much of their raw resources to fund their industrial revolutions that elevated their economies into more complex structures. Less-developed countries, meanwhile, wish to implement this same tactic for the same goal: to raise the quality of their economic lives. The developed countries, however, pressure these poorer nations not to cut down their rain forests, deplete their natural resources, and contribute to the pollution of our communal air and water as the developed countries have already done. Developing countries should learn from past mistakes. The developing nations, whose foot has just stepped on the bottom-rung of the ladder to wealth, view these demands as if the developed countries are simply pulling up the financial ladder behind them.

Second, national security needs can drive policies for resource sustainability in a manner far more efficient and immediate than when security interests are not as easily seen. The majority of citizens must believe these security needs as being in the best interest of all and not a few if they are to support the policies. Singapore is a prime example of this second point.

Located at the tip of the Malay Peninsula, Singapore is made up of 63 islands, the largest of which contains a third of its 5.3 million people. At 279 square miles, it is only four times larger than Washington, DC, and, at Singapore’s highest peak, is only 537 feet above the ocean. A bridge connects Singapore to its much bigger but poorer northern neighbor, Malaysia, with 29 million people. South of Singapore sits Indonesia with 242 million people. The Republic of Singapore is small, flat, densely populated, surrounded by 271 million potential enemies, and has no natural resources.

The demographics of Singapore are vastly different that its neighbors. As of 2010, 74% of Singapore is Chinese, 13% Malays, 9% Indian, and the rest made up of people from the UK, USA, and elsewhere. Its official language is English. Politically, linguistically, and demographically, Singapore is separate and distinct from its neighbors.

Feeling insecure, Singapore currently devotes 6% of its gross domestic product (GDP) to its military, which supports its own military manufacturing industry along with an Air Force with 17 squadrons and four air bases, a Navy with eight squadrons and two bases, an Army with mandatory conscription, and which allows the US to reside a small number of its military in the country.

Surrounded and dependent, Singapore set upon a goal of financial and resource sustainability, making it today both one of the wealthiest per capita countries in the world and considered one of the most devoted to sustainable environmental policies. The World Bank and International Monetary Fund, on a per capita basis, consistently rank Singapore in the top five wealthiest countries. Knight Frank and Citi Private Bank predict that Singapore will be number one by 2050.

A report published in the UK’s Guardian newspaper states that Singapore “is the result of a comprehensive matrix of environmental policies that reinforce each other, providing a model of environmental management that is worthy studying in detail.” The importance a government gives to such policy initiatives is often indicated by the positions delegated to develop and manage those policies. In 2008, the Inter-Ministerial Committee on Sustainable Development (IMCSD) formed to devise a national plan. The committee was made up of the Senior Minister of State for Trade and Industry, Minister of Finance, Minister of Transport, Minister for the Environment and Water and Minister for National Development. All of these positions brought a gravitas behind the final result.

The IMCSD committed $1 billion over five years to implement its sustainability plan. “Sustainable development,” the IMCSD’s blue print reads, “means achieving the twin goals of growing the economy and protecting the environment … We pursue growth in order to have the means to improve our lives. We also safeguard our living and natural environment, because we do not want our material well being to come at the expense of our public health or overall quality of life.”

The focus of Singapore’s sustainability plan is economic growth, climate change, and sustainable resource allocation. The country’s disposal infrastructure is made up of four waste-to-energy (WTE) facilities, the first of which opened in 1978 and closed in 2008 with a design-build-own-and-operate WTE facility by Keppel Seghers, a Singapore company, taking its place in 2009. In total, WTEs generate 980 million KWh of electricity per year, representing nearly 3% of Singapore’s electricity demand. Ninety percent of the waste is incinerated reducing its volume by 90%.

Off the coast of Singapore, between two islands, is a landfill engineering marvel called the Semakau Landfill. It took between $360 and $400 million to develop this sea space by constructing a 4.4-mile-long sea wall to keep water out and waste contained. The majority of material going into the landfill is ash from the four WTEs and the rest is material that is not burned or recycled. Approximately 1,400 tonnes of ash and 600 tonnes of non-incinerable waste flow into this landfill each day. Refuse trucks pull up to the Tuas Marine Transfer Station, with its 20 discharge bays, and dump the material onto a tip floor. The waste gets placed into one of six barges pulled and pushed by one of three tugboats to this landfill. The landfill has a dedicated leachate treatment plant and its surrounding water is tested monthly for contamination. The capacity of the landfill is expected to last until 2045.

In 2011, Singapore recycled 4.038 million tonnes of 6.898 million tonnes generated, giving it a 59% recycling rate. Table 1 shows the recycling rate of the specific streams of materials collected in Singapore. It expects to reach 70% by 2030. Table 2 illustrates Singapore’s success in keeping material out of the landfill.

Singapore’s sustainability plan also calls for reducing consumption. By 2030 it aims for a 35% improvement in energy efficiency, a reduction in water consumption by 140 Leaders per person per day, and reduced upstream waste in industries. Tactics to achieve these objectives include pricing energy so that it includes “the environmental impact of energy production,” providing financial incentives for companies to invest in energy efficient technologies, demanding that most existing buildings achieve the Green Mark Certification for energy efficiency, implementing private vehicle usage policies in order to achieve 70% use of public transportation during peak times, and expanding the Singapore Packaging Agreement, whereby private sector signatories voluntarily reduce packaging waste. Singapore also implemented a code on products notifying consumers whether the product meets the goals of sustainability.

Singapore’s Public Utilities Board (PUB) won the 2007 Stockholm Industry Water Award for its work on high-quality and sustainable water. Being dependent on purchasing water from Malaysia, PUB developed a process where it converts Singapore’s sewage through four filtering stages to produce for drinking.

The Singapore Economic Development Board has sponsored the Solar Energy Research Institute of Singapore with a five-year, $90 million budget to investigate photovoltaic, energy-efficient buildings, solar energy systems, and solar dehumidification, not only for use within Singapore but also as a business export to the growing Asian markets that now have half the world’s population and who are energy poor.

Singapore’s sustainability plan is hopeful and growth oriented. Urbanization and population growth and densification are accepted and accounted for in this plan and, in fact, appear to lead to greater security and environmental solutions rather than to more environmental problems.

Luis Bettencourt and Geoffrey West are physicists who see possible hope in this trajectory toward urbanization. They suggest, in their article “Growth, Innovation, Scaling, and the Pace of Life in Cities,” that the concentration of people in large, densely populated megacities and megaregions could diminish resource use and carbon emissions by 15% with each doubling of density. The infrastructure just becomes more efficient. Buildings can become more energy efficient; more public mass transit reduces the number of individual cars on the road; waste and recycling could move more energy and cost efficiently through pneumatic collection systems to central processing facilities, thereby diminishing the dependency on curbside or dumpster collections.

The authors write that “…wealth and knowledge creation require the pace of life to increase with organization size and for individuals and institutions to adapt at a continually accelerating rate to avoid stagnation or potential crises.”

Singapore’s sustainability plan, then, may be the harbinger for 2050, when nearly 10 billion people will roam this planet, more than 7 billion of them living in these densely populated urban sky malls. If urban densification proves environmentally beneficial, however, then America’s addiction to living in sprawling Edward Scissorhands neighborhoods along roads called Bunny Lane and Happy Hop Cul-de-sac could prove fatal. Many US cities were groomed and brushed during a time of cheap energy, being planted anywhere because they could.

Many, however, argue that the economy cannot grow anymore and that we have to change the way we think of economic growth. If we are to have any hope of getting back into harmony with our biosphere, we must, they say, control our desires and lower our wants, work fewer hours during the week, forego the extensive vacation trips, and value quality over quantity. This side of the sustainable battle pits the concept of infinite growth against the resources of a finite planet.

Advocates of this side of the environmental ledger write books with such titles as The Great Disruption: Why the Climate Crisis Will Bring on the End of Shopping and the Birth of a New World, by Paul Gilding, or the succinctly titled The End of Nature, by Bill McKibben. In 2010, the World Watch Institute published Transforming Cultures: From Consumerism to Sustainability. These writers analyzed our harmful emissions and population growth and came up with a solution whereby we turn away from modern consumption habits.

The Ecological Footprint Network began as Mathis Wackernagel’s dissertation under professor William Rees in the 1990s. Formed in 2003 and in 2012, the network won the Blue Planet Prize for outstanding work in scientific research toward global environmental issues and the Kenneth E. Boulding Memorial Prize for the Environment from the International Society for Ecological Economics.

Centered in Oakland, CA, the Network maintains an environmental accounting ledger that adds up the amount of natural resources our planet produces and compares it to how much our global society consumes these resources each year. The footprint tries to show us our natural resource bank account. This bank account, unfortunately, is running in the red. Currently, the network’s analysis states that our global society is using the equivalent of 1.6 Earths of natural resources each year. This means we consume 18 months of resources every 12 months.

This level of withdrawal will deplete our environmental bank account, resulting in a global crisis of too many people competing for scarce resources.

Critics say that the network’s estimates for the destruction caused by emissions is overestimated and does not take into account the ramifications of intensive technological change. But even critics, such as Nathan Fiala believe the network’s “footprint offers, a simple and intuitive estimate of the production inputs for a given consumption level….” The network’s footprint metaphor resonates with policymakers and consumers.

The Ecological Footprint Network falls in line with a long history of respected environmental Henny Pennies such as Thomas Malthus, who, in 1798, calculated the exponential growth of population and predicted mass poverty because of it. In 1972, the Club of Rome produced a computer simulation using societal variables of food production, industrial and population growth, pollution, and the constraints of the ecosystem under three scenarios, two of which predicted major Malthusian problems for the world in the latter half of the 21st century.

In 2008, a comparison of Club of Rome’s assumptions for the previous 30 years was made against what actually had occurred. The analysis found that the reality aligned well with the two scenarios predicting societal and economic upheaval in the mid-to-latter portion of the 21st Century.

In time for the 2012 Christmas holiday rush, the Club of Rome produced Bankrupting Nature, written by two Swedish authors, one a scientist, the other a politician. The authors follow the familiar theme where we are over-consuming our natural resources. They say causes for this are population growth and private credit volume, which allows for more people to over-consume. The availability of sizable credit has allowed the 1 billion in the developed world to consume over 30 times the amount of resources used by the 5 billion people in the developing world. In the US, a household spends on average 6% of its annual income for food. In Kenya, by contrast, that expenditure climbs to 45%. When 45% of ones income is for food there is little left for discretionary purchases such as an Xbox 360 or anyone of the useful products in SkYMall.

The authors suggest that we move to a circular economy “that decouples wealth and welfare from resource consumption, and assigns a value to natural capital, so the depreciation of earth’s resources and the loss of biodiversity are taken into account in national budgets.” Value to natural capital provides importance for recycling and reuse to develop an efficient industrial system that maintains the goal of eliminating waste.

In the United States, waste management is struggling to find its balance when it comes to the term “sustainability.” The American University’s director of the Center for Environmental Policy and former USEPA official, Daniel Fiorni, recently wrote, “[n]ationally, the concept of sustainability has drawn little interest…”

Currently, public administration programs, Fiorni says, start with politics/governance then move into economic management. The programs, he believes, should add sustainability as a third conceptual analytical tool: “By elevating environmental issues to the level of economic and political/social ones, the [public administration] field expands to incorporate the third system on which our collective survival depends.”

He defines sustainability as including “human health and well being” (e.g., safe drinking water, clean air, food safety, radiation, and chemical control), “ecosystem vitality” (e.g., protecting habitats, preserving biodiversity), resource allocation, (e.g. managing energy, water, and materials and how they are used).

The executive director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute, Steve Cohen, laments that public management schools do not incorporate sustainability into curricula. “Sustainability managers,” he writes, “do not care about ecosystems because they love nature, but because they need it.” This prototype of this new kind of public administrator is not a Luddite tree hugger, but an executive who sees a jurisdiction’s financial and political security tied with the management of natural and material resources. Raising sustainability to one of the three core analytical trainings for new public administrators has the potential of drawing a new kind of leadership to public MSW management.

Where is the US on sustainability issues? Dean Kubani is the director of one of the oldest municipal offices of sustainability in the country, located in Santa Monica, CA. The office began in 1988 as the Environmental Programs Division and then in 2007 as the Office of Sustainability and the Environment. Kubani has been the director from the beginning. Over the years, Kubani has seen interest in sustainability move from the fringe to the mainstream and from solely environmental to social/economic/environmental.

“Corporations like Nike,” he says, “and hundreds of municipalities are leading the way on these issues.” The US cities involved in these issues have joined to create the Urban Sustainability Directors Network, which currently represents approximately 50 million people living in jurisdictions with sustainability plans or working toward such policies.

“The federal government,” Kubani says, “is not doing much at all in sustainability in terms of leadership.” Kubani’s view toward the federal government is echoed around the world. In 2012, for example, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation held a meeting on population planning, where countries as well as private donors obligated $4.6 billion but the US federal government donated nothing. The 2012 presidential campaign was silent on what other countries believe is a world crisis, sustainability.

Samantha MacBride, in her 2012 book, Recycling Reconsidered: The Present Failure and Future Promise of Environmental Action in the United States, writes that “cynicism about the federal role is more than deserved, given its almost forty years of retrenchment and ineptitude after a brief flourishing in the early 1970s.” The federal government should follow the lead of other developed nations in solid waste, she believes, providing national targets for diversion and collecting and publicizing import/export information “and domestic production in terms of mass” for possible legislation and fee and tax incentives to motivate the materials resource economy. One could add to her suggestions a single definition and calculation for diversion that all states would have to use, as well as implementing economic and legal incentives for local post-consumer manufacturing recycling and developing a new diversion rate based on life cycle analysis as opposed simply to weight.

Singapore’s drive toward sustainability derives from its security needs. US municipalities are competing to attract people and businesses to their communities, and these cities are learning about and implementing sustainability policies because of this pressing need. In September 2013, SWANA will be holding another WASTECON, this time to celebrate its past and to discuss its next 50 years in municipal solid waste management. Sustainability will no doubt be part of that discussion. Will the federal government listen to these discussions or even be in the room to hear them? On this issue, the federal government reminds one of Joseph Heller’s character Major Major Major in Catch-22, who gave orders to his sergeant to let people in to talk with him only when he was not there. 
About the Author

Chace Anderson

Writer Chace Anderson is vice president of Gershman, Brickner & Bratton Inc.

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