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Waste management.

In "Toward Sustainable Waste Management" (Issues, Fall 1992), Deborah D. Anderson and Laurie Burnham rightly point out the problems with public policies that seek to lay out a rigid scheme for management choices: They stunt development of comprehensive approaches.

Too often, environmental-sounding actions are confused with real environmental or resource benefit. Many low-value, abundant materials are traveling hundreds of miles in the search for a reuse application as we try to remap a reverse distribution network. What is really needed for municipal solid waste (MSW) managers (and product/materials makers as well) is a means to examine equitably the distribution of all the impacts--upon the local and national economy, environment, and upon use of scarce resources--of the various actions we take.

For products, the work on developing life-cycle assessment (LCA) methodologies may offer a means. It is too soon to know. For MSW management, the problem is unfortunately more complex (because it is at once distinct from, but also linked with, the myraid product LCAs), and too much misinformation is dominating the debate. Take the authors' listing of MSW composting as a feasible management option. By failing to note the very real technical and economic limitations of MSW composting as well as the lack of environmental standards for the process and product, the authors risk misleading the reader about its viability as an option for management of MSW today.

Both within and beyond the realm of integrated MSW management, we must recognize that there is no free environmental space. If pollution is avoided in one activity such as landfilling, this does not mean that there will be no pollution with the alternative waste management scheme. And, as the authors rightly point out, minimal packaging even if not recyclable may still be a better environmental choice.

Are there policy ideas that deserve more consideration? Yes, if they utilize incentives--rather than rates, dates, and penalties--and if they are based upon good science and practical economics. Here's a policy statement: a national commitment to efficient management and utilization of energy and materials resources contained in the municipal solid waste stream. The leading principles remain our need to manage the municipal waste stream so that protection and preservation of scarce natural resources are ensured; resources within the waste stream are directed to their highest and best reuse, and human health and the environment are protected. Then, while selection of the most appropriate combination of MSW management techniques is (and would remain) the proper function of local government, national resource conservation policy would support that function.

States have an important role. Each state should prepare an MSW management plan that is responsive to the federal policies and that (1) demonstrates that the plan is affordable to the ratepayers, (2) will result in adequate capacity and a reliable system of solid-waste management for local governments, (3) allocates risks in a manner that is understood and acceptable, and (4) considers the total environmental and resource impacts of the facilities contemplated, including impacts at facilities that process recovered resources, wherever their location. Then, recognizing the clear public purpose of minimizing the amount of MSW that is landfilled, an incentive/reimbursement program could be developed to encourage participation of entities who can cause those reductions to occur through reuse of materials or recovery of energy.

H. LANIER HICKMAN, JR. Executive Director

The Solid Waste Association of North America Silver Spring, Maryland
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Title Annotation:response to Deborah D. Anderson and Laurie Burnham, Issues, Fal 1992
Author:Hickman, H. Lanier, Jr.
Publication:Issues in Science and Technology
Date:Jun 22, 1993
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