Yale Working Papers on Solid Waste Policy

Yale Working Papers on Solid Waste Policy

Reid Lifset, Series Editor

By strategically commissioning papers from experts on topics that have been neglected in the discussion about solid waste policy, the Program on Solid Waste Policy seeks to stimulate and disseminate scholarly research useful for a deeper understanding of solid waste management. The papers are edited and reviewed by the Yale Program.

The Program on Solid Waste Policy is a research and teaching unit of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, the oldest school in the United States devoted to graduate training in natural resource and environmental management. The Yale Working Paper Series on Solid Waste Policy is supported with grants from the Office of Solid Waste of the US Environmental Protection Agency and The Pew Charitable Trusts. The views expressed by the authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of the funders or of Yale University.

Working Papers:

#1Does the Solid Waste Management Hierarchy Make Sense? A Technical, Economic & Environmental Justification for the Priority of Source Reduction and Recycling
John Schall
October, 1992
#2Less Waste on the Loading Dock: Competitive Strategy & the Reduction of Logistical Packaging Wastes
Diana Twede
September, 1995
#3What Won't Get Harvested, Where and When: The Effects of Paper Recycling on Timber Harvests
Peter Ince
September, 1995
#4No Time to Waste: Time Use and the Generation of Residential Solid Waste
Geoffrey Godbey
August, 1996
#5Back to Basics? The Viability of Plastics Recycling By Tertiary Processes
T. Randall Curlee and Sujit Das
September, 1996

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Program on Solid Waste Policy

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203/432-3253 fax: 203/432-5912

email: pswp@yale.edu

Working Paper #1

Does the Solid Waste Management Hierarchy Make Sense?

A Technical, Economic and Environmental Justification for the Priority of Source Reduction and Recycling


John Schall


This paper examines the technical, economic and environmental justification for the solid waste management hierarchy. The hierarchy ranks waste management methods, prescribing that it is best to reduce the generation of waste at the source, then to recycle and compost what cannot be reduced, and finally to incinerate or landfill the remainder. While the hierarchy has received widespread support from environmentalists, industry groups and elected officials, over the past two years critics have attacked its extensive reliance on source reduction and recycling as misguided and expensive. This paper provides conceptual grounding and systematic empirical support for the priority of reduction and recycling and argues against several claims by the hierarchy's critics.

Managing waste has effects on both the solid waste system and the production system (i.e., industries that extract raw materials and manufacture products and packages). This paper identifies a series of solid waste and production system questions that must be addressed to determine the validity of the solid waste hierarchy. It uses several major research studies conducted by the Tellus Institute as well as industry data and reports to answer the questions posed. A key component of this research is the development and application of a methodology for estimating the monetary value of the environmental impacts of various types of pollution that occur in both production and waste management. By combining what would otherwise be "unpriced" environmental impacts with the conventional costs of collecting, processing and disposing of waste, a full cost comparison of options is made possible.

The paper argues that following the hierarchy is a technically feasible, cost-effective and environmentally desirable approach to managing solid waste. It shows that source reduction produces significant cost savings for the solid waste management system. Using data from the tri-state metropolitan New York City region, an area that includes 8% of the U.S. population and 10% of the U.S. municipal waste stream, the cost savings are shown to be approximately $100/ton of waste prevented, or 70% of the average cost of managing a ton of waste in the region's solid waste system. Further, the environmental impacts avoided by preventing the generation of waste through source reduction activities a real most twice as large as the conventional cost savings.

Recycling (and composting) up to 50% of the remaining waste is shown to be the next most beneficial waste management method. The findings show that, in the region studied, it is technically feasible to recover this quantity of waste in recycling and composting programs at a cost no greater than the cost to operate a disposal-only solid waste system. Further, the environmental impacts of the recycling-intensive approach are no greater (but no less) than the disposal-only approach when the solid waste management portion of the system is examined.

The greatest benefit from pursuing a reduction- and recycling-intensive waste management strategy, however, occurs in the production system. Using materials recovered from the waste stream instead of virgin resources as raw materials in manufacturing has significant environmental benefits. The utilization of 50% of the waste stream as raw materials is technically feasible and would reduce environmental impacts from materials production by nearly $1 billion per year in the study region. The paper also suggests, from as yet incomplete data, that the economic cost of increasing the utilization of recycled content in production processes is not prohibitive.

Thus, managing waste according to the hierarchy reduces costs and environmental impacts in the solid waste system. Further, it significantly reduces the environmental impacts arising from production. The paper concludes by examining the applicability of these results for the United States as a whole and argues for the need to address solid waste management as part of larger national resource policy in order to implement the hierarchy successfully.

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Working Paper#2

Less Waste on the Loading Dock:

Competitive Strategy and the Reduction of Logistical Packaging Waste

Diana Twede

Michigan State University


This paper assesses the potential for the reduction of logistical packaging waste by examining the competitive structure of the industries that make, use and dispose of this packaging. Logistical packaging is packaging used for transport, handling and storage, including corrugated boxes, plastic wraps, polystyrene foam inserts and pallets. The opportunities and incentives for reduction of logistical packaging are increasing because of changes in the competitive structure of the relevant industries. First, transportation deregulation has reduced barriers to using new packaging materials and new distribution methods that can reduce waste. Second, government mandates, rising disposal costs and new technology have increased the market threat from substitute materials that are lighter weight and less bulky. Finally, the relative bargaining power of packaging suppliers, product manufacturers and retailers has shifted away from suppliers and toward the retailer interested in reducing disposal costs.

Arguing that the reduction of packaging waste can be a source of competitive advantage, the paper concludes by evaluating the policy implications for four constituencies. Firms and organizations at the end of the transport packaging supply chain, including retailers and government agencies, have leverage to negotiate waste reduction in proportion to their size and the strength of the relationship with the manufacturers from whom they buy. Manufacturers who buy packaging are best positioned to negotiate for waste-reduced packaging by establishing performance specifications to exploit substitutes for traditional materials and distribution systems. Packaging producers can promote waste reduction by using recycled materials and facilitating recycling of their products. Lastly, policy makers can take advantage of market forces by incorporating the environmental costs of solid waste in the price of disposal through taxation.

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Working Paper #3

What Won't Get Harvested, Where and When:

The Effects Of Increased Paper Recycling On Timber Harvest

Peter J. Ince

USDA Forest Service


Pulp and paper production and paper recycling have increased in recent decades to unprecedented levels throughout the world. This paper presents a review and comparison of regional trends in timber harvest, pulp and paper production, waste paper recovery and waste paper utilization. On a worldwide basis, increased recycling will have the greatest effects on potential timber harvest in North America and Europe as a result of the large magnitude of pulp and paper production and potential for increased recycling in those regions. Recycling will likely have less of an effect on timber harvests in South America, Africa, Oceania, and Asia because of established patterns of wood use or relatively small volumes of pulpwood obtained from native forests. The worldwide demand for wood fiber will continue to grow, and overall pulpwood consumption is not likely to diminish substantially in any region. Projected effects of recycling on timber harvest in North America were developed by comparing projections of pulpwood harvest with and without expected increases in paper recycling. The results show that increased recycling will have great effects on softwood pulpwood harvest, mainly in the western and southern United States, and on hardwood pulpwood harvest in the South; increased recycling will have a more modest effect on pulpwood harvest in Canada and the northern United States.

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Working Paper #4

No Time to Waste:

Time Use and the Generation of Residential Solid Waste

Geoffrey Godbey

Pennsylvania State University


Debates over the "throwaway society" frequently focus on the increasing generation of municipal solid waste (MSW). Critics of disposable goods and packages see such things as the cause of rising waste generation and as indicative of a profligate use of resources. Defenders of these products dispute this analysis, in part by pointing to changing demographics and the resulting need for time-saving (convenience) products. . Thus, an understanding of waste generation requires an examination of time use in American society. The increasing pace of life reflects a desire to increase the yield on time both in work and leisure by combining activities with an exponentially increasing array of material goods. This leads, in turn, to increases in discarded goods and packaging. Shifts in the perception of available time and resulting changes in consumption decisions, as well as growing household debt, draw growing numbers of women into the labor force. Time spent in homemaking chores has declined (despite the growing spaciousness of homes) and males participate more in such tasks. The net loss in time spent in household chores and the generally less skilled and less interested participation of males, combined with increased feelings of being rushed, suggest consumption patterns which are more likely to generate household waste and a decreased likelihood of voluntary recycling, particularly if such recycling is time-intensive. Empirical evidence for such a line of reasoning, however, is inconclusive. In spite of this, many inferences can be drawn, such as that more meals eaten in restaurants probably mean more solid waste generated than if they were eaten at home, and that strategies to decrease the generation and increase the recycling of household waste must consider temporal rewards and penalties as well as monetary ones. A more basic conclusion is that both use of time and attitudes toward time are critical variables in any attempt to understand changes in the generation of MSW from household sources. Such changes during the last few decades appear to have increased the amount of MSW from households independent of other factors.

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Working Paper #5

Back to Basics? The Viability of Plastics Recycling By Tertiary Processes

T. Randall Curlee and Sujit Das

Oak Ridge National Laboratory


This paper examines the viability of tertiary recycling as an alternative to secondary recycling (i.e., mechanical recycling), quaternary recycling (i.e., incineration with heat recovery) and disposal by landfilling. A life cycle approach, which addresses both financial and environmental costs and benefits, is adopted to compare the alternatives. The discussion focuses not only on the full cost and benefits of the competing approaches, but also the perspectives of the parties that incur these costs and benefits.

Tertiary processes vary significantly in terms of specific processes, required inputs, and outputs. At one extreme are depolymerization processes, which include hydrolysis, glycolysis, and methanolysis. These processes require clean waste materials and produce relatively high-valued products. At the other extreme are tertiary processes that can utilize significantly contaminated plastic waste streams as substitutes for crude oil in refinery operations. Other tertiary processes, such as pyrolysis, utilize plastics wastes with contamination levels in between those suited for depolymerization and refinery recycling to produce basic chemicals, such as distillate naphtha, olefins, aromatics, and organic gases. Each of these tertiary processes allows closed-loop recycling in the sense of either reducing the polymer to a monomer from which new polymers can be produced or producing more basic chemicals from which new polymers can be manufactured.

The viability of current and developmental tertiary processes to recycle plastic wastes will be determined by the abilities of those processes to either (1) displace current plastics recycling technologies and approaches, or (2) extend plastics recycling to new segments of the plastics waste stream that are currently being landfilled or incinerated.

The limited information currently available suggests that depolymerization is not a particularly attractive approach from a financial perspective. Current secondary recycling technologies that utilize clean PET and HDPE appear to be superior in this regard. In addition, depolymerization processes do not appear to hold significant environmental advantages over currently available secondary processes. Although data on the environmental implications of depolymerization and secondary processes targeted at clean waste (i.e., depolymerization's closest competitor) are limited, there is no strong evidence that depolymerization results in lower overall emissions or damages. This position is supported by the fact that both secondary recycling and depolymerization displace virgin resins. From an energy balance perspective, tertiary recycling appears to hold no particular advantage. Finally, tertiary recycling currently holds no advantage over secondary recycling in terms of conservation of materials once again because tertiary and secondary recycling of clean, single-resin waste streams both displace virgin polymers. And there is no evidence to suggest that additional secondary recycling of clean plastic waste is limited by potential market size.

Technical and cost improvements in tertiary technologies offer the potential for significant expansion of plastics recycling, in that plastic waste streams currently landfilled or incinerated might be recycled. However, whether this transition is advisable for society must await further research on the financial and environmental character of these technologies.

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Forthcoming Papers

Papers on international trade and materials management and on life cycle implications of compost use are under development. In addition, a companion paper to What Won't Get Harvested When and Where: the Effects of Paper Recycling on Timber Harvests, addressing the environmental impact of the changes in timber harvest is in preparation. For further information, contact Reid Lifset at pswp@yale.edu or at 203-432-5912 (fax), or(203) 432-3253 (tel).

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Created January 23, 1996 by Steve Dunn

Last updated August 3, 1998

Program on Solid Waste Policy

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