Published in BioCycle, March 2005
The author of Getting to Zero Waste is angry at the lack of progress in moving toward what he sees as a readily achievable industrial economy based on zero waste, since he first introduced its theory and practice over 30 years ago. Paul Palmer’s book provides a timely critique of the government and corporate barriers to achieving universal reuse. He presents specific solutions and guidelines for evaluating future actions in the form of concise laws of recycling. Along the way he has constructive criticism for such sacred cows as Michael Moore, Paul Hawken, William McDonough and the grass roots recycling movement for not thinking deeply enough about waste. The Glossary, case studies and the author’s detailed personal experiences as a Ph.D. chemist and chemical recycling entrepreneur, make the book invaluable for professional activists and economists and concerned citizens.
If Palmer’s discussions at a recent meeting with grass roots recycling activists is any indication of the impact (of) his ideas and strategies, we can expect the book to have a deep influence. Palmer suggested to activists who just lost a battle to stop the incineration of highly poisonous sarin gas that they could have augmented their position and won allies by demanding the recycling of the highly valued chemicals that comprise the gas, which would have added wealth to the local economy.
Palmer urges recycling advocates to focus also on industrial chemicals which are far more valuable than material components of the municipal waste stream. “It is not part of the common understanding that chemicals possess one of the most useful properties any material can have – their interconvertabilityÉ.Every single chemical can be converted into a whole class of similar or even remotely related moleculesÉ.A gas can be converted to a solid and vice versaÉA colored compound into a colorless oneÉ.Never lose sight that a toxic war gas can be changed into a useful fertilizer or into a plastic or a drug to cure cancerÉ.Toxicity is not a property that is necessarily preserved when chemicals react.”
Palmer presents five fundamental laws to follow:
- Recycling consists of reusing both materials and function. Universal recycling, as opposed to piecemeal recycling of materials in the waste stream, strives for reuse of function as a top priority, e.g., refill over breaking and remelting glass bottles
- No article of commerce shall be placed on the market for sale, unless and until, the recycling of that article shall have been provided for, including complete funding after its use. Thus, recycling of an article should be built into the original design.
- Large scale recycling cannot succeed until the garbage industry is excluded completely from the recycling industry.
- Recycling will only succeed when no dump receives a subsidy in any form.
- The economics of recycling must be manipulated to insure that recycling is profitable. The more valuable an item is, the more easily it is to recycle. Toxic materials and articles are prime candidates for easy and early recycling.
A critical strategy to complement these laws of universal recycling, is Palmer’s heavy emphasis on research leading to the implementation of a sophisticated infrastructure (chemical brokers, public warehouses and economic incentives) to replace the “unremitting subsidies to waste”. This infrastructure of mission driven entrepreneurs should mimic the subtle, yet critical, natural reuse infrastructure. He offers this illustration of a deer falling in the woods.
“The organic process takes overÉ.The bacteria and fungi begin to break down the flesh, creating odors that waft on the wind Éalerting other animals that decomposing protein is in their areaÉ.Carnivores nearby eat Éthe highly organized protein, fat and other complex moleculesÉin the highest possible manner offered by natureÉ.What flesh remains is further decomposed by microorganisms. Specialized animals, such as vultures may represent the next level of recycling. They have stomachs designed for rotten flesh, that is already partly broken downÉ.As bacteria and fungi continue to work fats and proteins and saccharides are decomposed…into fatty acids, amino acids and simple sugarsÉand then to alchohols, esters and ethers. ÉEach species of organisms specialized at digesting its own separate niche. One kind works on proteins, another on bloodÉ.Months later fur, hides and bones are dried and cracked into smaller pieces by the ultraviolet rays of the sunÉ.Biopolymers are brokenÉinto simpler molecules. Finally, rain, dew and rotting leaves and soil acids act to break down all remaining organic matter to minerals, carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, iron oxide, ammonia and water. The bones take much longer but they too will eventually become calcium and phosphorous compounds in the soil.”
Industrial processes can take guidance from this natural break-down model, but not slavishly follow it. Much of the recycling movement today wants to follow this model exclusively, to the point of elevating biodegradability to a holy grail status, Palmer commented in an interview. “This is an obvious waste of resources.” Industry should be organized as a series of integrated sub-processes by diverting resources to a proper infrastructure to replace the current disposal paradigm.
Grass roots recyclers, I believe, will appreciate the constructive criticism respectfully presented. Palmer’s deep distrust of the US EPA and other regulatory agencies, which permit pollution, instead of eliminating it, will also find favor with recyclers.
Equally, I believe, that Palmer will appreciate the most recent changes in structure and strategies and international alliances within the US recycling movement. The movement is now looking way beyond the waste stream. Extended Producer Responsibility, the Precautionary Principle, market based campaigns against the most egregious polluting and clear cutting corporations, are the base concepts that have changed the movement from recycling to Zero Waste. Zero Waste is defined as clean production, source reduction, maximum recovery and community economic development. Zero wasters should be pleased by Palmer’s attention to chemical recycling as he should be pleased that the recycling movement is moving in the direction he has pointed out 30 years ago, and has articulated in Getting to Zero Waste.