I spent the better part of a week at last month’s SWANApalooza, in which the association stitched together a trio of its symposia-Road to Zero Waste, Landfill, and Landfill Gas-into an event proving to my complete satisfaction that the sum is more and better than its parts. There was an energy level exceeding any that I’ve felt in individual symposia of the past, largely the result of a shared expectation-of most if not all the attendees-that changes not just in our handling of wastes but in all our societal institutions were imminent. But as for what these changes might be, or how we should implement them, or whether we’ll be willing to meet the challenge…ah, there’s the rub.
Why? Because I find myself more confused than at any time in the past as to what it is we’re trying to accomplish, and, even more to the point, whether the path we seem embarked upon is headed in the right direction.
My discontent began to take shape at CONEXPO-CON/AGG 2014 earlier last month, where, while the focus of the hemisphere’s largest construction event was on technology, just beneath this surface lay the recognition that unless we address our long-neglected infrastructure immediately and resolutely, we were destined to become a bystander in a world moving positively into the future.
You don’t have to leave your own city limits to find ample proof supporting this concern. Potholes that once posed a threat to nothing larger than VW Beetles, now can swallow SUVs and break axles of Class 8 collection trucks. Water and sewer treatment and conveyance systems, typically put in service before we began our headlong dash to urbanization, are in dire need of repair or replacement, as are our overlooked electric and gas utility systems. Not only do these all house serious health and safety consequences, but in aggregate they leave us ill prepared to apply effective corrective action.
Over the last half-century, we have undergone a transition from a rural to an urban society, a trend that is accelerating, taxing our ability to provide new transportation, power, and water delivery and discharge systems, while undeniably overwhelming those already in existence. We’ve heard estimates for the repair, replacement, and upgrade of our existing water infrastructure between now and midcentury ranging from $15 trillion to $30 trillion…figures, mind you, predicated on fighting rear-guard actions. The electric grid, road repairs, right-of-way demands, and new highway construction could add another 50% to the total.
It’s one thing to screw up your courage enough to ask where such amounts of money might come from, but quite another to question our society’s ability to actually mobilize itself to utilize such an investment. Despite the huge investment that’s occurred in higher education in the last several decades, the skillsets required to maintain, much less to advance, our infrastructural capacities have not received the attention they require, raising the question that even if we can find the funds, could we actually deploy them in a meaningful way?
So where in the midst of all of these challenges does the need to mandate an overhaul of MSW management lie?
While you and I might believe there are better ways to manage our waste infrastructure, can you possibly compare its need for change to the dire straits into which our water, power, or transportation systems have drifted? I think not, yet here we are being propelled by bureaucratic directives and -political proscriptions to adopt costly changes that may or may not achieve their stated goals of environmental stewardship, much less address far more immediate concerns.We can debate waste management strategies as vigorously as we wish, but no longer have we the luxury of allowing unquestionably critical institutions to fall victim to irresolute action or superfluous demands. Instead we need assess not only the infrastructural challenges themselves but also the costs involved in their redress. Costs, I would add, in which the critical accounting measure is not so much the dollar values we might assign, but the willingness of the public to make the sacrifices necessary to regain our leadership position. Included in these sacrifices is the public’s willingness to pursue the first and second levels of the waste management hierarchy, reduction, and reuse, the combination of which will do more to address diversion than our current practice of outsourcing recovered materials to an unknown fate.