It's Easy Being Green: The Fourth R

By: Christopher M. Begg. CFA, Conservation Council member

RecycleThe Trustees of Reservations have always been dedicated to the preservation of the great places of Massachusetts, but a great part of preservation includes the caretaking of natural resources, beginning in your community. Thanks to an abundance of new technology and information readily available on the internet, living a “green” life has never been easier. This column has been dedicated to the wide variety of environmental efforts that can be undertaken, and in this issue I will highlight the fourth R, Recover, which accompanies the more well known three R's of: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.

Much has been written about the "three R's." As individuals, we can own it and thus are fully in control to reduce our own carbon footprint. Every effort in this regard has exponential benefits as we all feel the groundswell effect that the environmental revolution is having on all of us. Whenever I think of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, I think of the children's song that Jack Johnson wrote for the “Curious George” movie soundtrack, aptly named the three R's. This song is the finale of the Kokua Festival where Jack Johnson and friends support environmental education in the schools and communities of Hawaii. While not enough can be sang, written or proposed to develop habits that support the 3 R's, there is a fourth R that deserves an important stage, RECOVER.

The average citizen here in the US generates 1 ton of waste per year after recycling. That equates to an approximate total of 300 million tons of waste per year that has to be processed by our land fills. Land fills take up valuable land resources here in Massachusetts and across the country. Currently, over 50% of the United States waste is disposed of in landfills annually. At the present rate in the U.S. alone, 3,500 acres (13.7 square kilometers, equivalent to four NYC Central Parks) are lost annually to landfills, and this number will continue to rise to keep pace with our ever-increasing production of trash. Landfills are also one of greatest sources of greenhouse gases as waste decomposes to produce methane gas. Twenty percent of all green house gases that contribute to global warming come from methane gas. Methane gas is 20 times more damaging than carbon dioxide.

Therefore, if we can deal more effectively with all of our waste, after all our reduction, reusing and recycling efforts are made, we will do a better job at protecting our land resources and help reduce the irreversible impacts of climate change.

This is where the concept of "Recover" comes in. The technology around recovering energy from waste (EfW) is something that has been with us for decades. However, over the last five years, the technology and advancements in scale solutions have the potential to make a meaningfully positive impact toward the issues of preserving land and reducing greenhouse gases. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 confirmed energy from waste was renewable. The Global Roundtable on Climate Change sustainability statement also recommends “efforts to reduce global emissions of methane from landfills should be expanded, including increased use of waste-to-energy facilities where appropriate and cost effective." Presently, 25% of the total renewable resources here in the U.S. are generated through waste to energy technologies. They have the added benefit of being able to be operate near where our trash is generated and run 24 hours 7 days a week compared to other sources of renewables like wind and solar which can be constrained in those areas.

Three companies here in the U.S. control about 75% of U.S. waste services with the majority of the remaining market share being administered ineffectively by local municipalities. The leaders include Waste Management, Republic Services, and Covanta. If you visit anyone of their web sites you will be pleasantly surprised by their efforts around Recycling, Energy from Waste, and other "recover" efforts.

While grassroots efforts around Reducing, Reusing, and Recycling are very important, as they are areas we can control as individuals, I feel it is important to address the need to RECOVER the remaining waste. Education around the importance of promoting ways to deal with excess waste that is buried in our open spaces, which emits the most damaging of greenhouse gases, is an "elephant in the room" that can be addressed first through awareness/education and secondly through demand (residential, municipal, commercial, and political). (Jack Johnson Video with kids singing the 3 R's)