Zero Waste Community Planning
What We Like about the Los Reales Sustainability Campus
The City’s initiative to plant one million trees by 2030 is a bold vision. While local nurseries, wholesalers, seed-starts by citizens, and the Pima County Nursery will all help us meet that goal, a City nursery located at Los Reales would provide a significant boost to the tree planting initiative.
Organics constitute 40%-60%, by weight, of the materials brought to landfills. They also make the biggest contribution to greenhouse gases from the City’s existing municipal waste system. Capturing food waste from the residential and commercial sectors to convert it into rich compost will reduce our net carbon output and provide valuable soil amendments for City properties, businesses, and homeowners.
Recycling businesses development
To the degree that it is practical, hosting “boutique” reuse/recycling businesses at Los Reales would add a valuable waste reduction component to the sustainability campus. At the very least, such businesses could follow the model of Monterey (CA) Regional Waste Management District in California, where hundreds of tons of materials, each year destined for the local landfill, are given a last chance when they are sold at local reusable goods stores.
Landfill gas collection for energy
Landfills are the third largest source of methane pollution, which is one of the main causes of climate change. While there are instances where the use of landfill gas for energy can increase the amount of certain pollutants, the balance of benefits appears to favor using the gas for energy to deal with waste already in the ground. However, it’s important to keep in mind that the best way for addressing the underlying problem of landfill gas emissions is to keep decomposing organic waste out of landfills. Diverting organic materials through separate collection and management should be a top priority for the City.
Elements That Create More Problems Than They Solve
The current plan for the Los Reales Sustainability Campus includes one or more waste-to-energy facilities that would convert plastic, paper, wood and other waste materials into electricity and/or fuel.
“Waste-to-energy” is often presented as a good way to extract energy from resources, but in fact it works against the circular economy, while contributing to climate change.
- Waste incinerators use household garbage as a fuel for generating power, much like other power stations use coal, oil or natural gas. In particular, they need to burn energy-rich materials, such as plastic and paper.
- Building an industrial-sized system to burn these materials to generate energy creates a demand for things to burn, discouraging much needed efforts to conserve resources and reduce waste. We can conserve more energy by composting, recycling, and redesigning products than can be generated through incineration technologies.
- When we burn materials to produce energy, the resources used to make those products and packaging are destroyed. This means we must continue to extract more resources from the Earth to make new products.
- Waste incineration contributes to climate change. When plastics, paper, wood and other materials are burned, the stored carbon is released into the air.
- A UK Environmental Agency study found that burning one ton of municipal waste generates about 0.7 to 1.8 tons of heat-trapping carbon dioxide emissions.
- In 2016, U.S. waste incinerators generated the equivalent of 12 million tons of CO2, more than half of which came from plastics. True sustainability requires getting those carbon molecules back into new products, not burning them.
- Waste incinerations cannot be considered a “green” or low-carbon source of electricity, as the carbon emissions per unit of energy produced are much higher than those of renewables, such as wind, solar and storage technologies.
- Waste incineration is not pollution-free. Burning waste creates a host of pollutants, including particulate matter, volatile organic compounds, heavy metals, dioxins, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, mercury, and furans.
- While air pollution control equipment can reduce some of the toxic emissions from incinerator exhaust, it concentrates them in other byproducts such as ash, which must be landfilled.
Heating plastic waste to make synthetic fuels – via pyrolysis, gasification, or other “advanced recycling” method – is another problematic technology.
- Plastic-to-fuel facilities have had a history of technical and economic problems. A Reuters news investigation found that few facilities are successfully operating on a commercial scale. Problems arise when plastic waste contains too many dissimilar materials or when it is too dirty.
- Most plastic is a petroleum or natural gas-based product. When combusted for energy, it functions as a fossil fuel. Turning plastic into fuel and then burning it releases the carbon in the plastic as CO2.
- Plastic-to-fuel perpetuates overproduction of energy-intensive plastics, which is a growing threat to our climate.
- A 2020 study found that the U.S. plastics industry is responsible for at least 232 million metric tons of GHGs every year, the equivalent of about 116.5 gigawatts in coal plants.
- This number is expected to rise as dozens of plastic facilities are currently under construction across the country. A new report released by Beyond Plastics suggests that plastics could release more GHGs than coal plants in the U.S. by 2030.
Zero Waste Systems are the Preferable Approach
Burning waste materials is not the only path forward. The best way to deal with our waste and reduce GHGs is not to produce so much in the first place.
The “zero waste” alternative aims to eliminate incinerators and cut use of landfills by at least 60%-80%. Some communities, especially San Francisco and Austin, are well on their way.
Zero waste moves our society out of a linear (“take-make-waste”) production model into closed-loop systems.
Key components of the zero waste system include:
- Design products for reuse, repair and recycling
- Develop refillable/reusable product delivery systems
- Adopt policies to reduce the production and consumption of materials that are hard to recover (e.g., bans and fees on single-use packaging)
- Support state and federal mandates for use of recycled-content materials in packaging
change public mindset from recycling to reducing
- Promote low-waste lifestyles, practices and events
- Recognize innovative zero waste businesses in the community
- Expand reuse/repair/resale opportunities
- Prevent food waste at the source and recover edible food for donation and redistribution
- Establish waste prevention policies and practices throughout municipal buildings and operations (“lead-by-example”)
recyclables, compostables, and trash
- Recycle (single or dual stream) → Materials Recovery Facility (MRF)
- Compost → Aerobically compost source separated organic materials (food scraps, yard waste) to return to soils
- Create local composting hubs and a centralized compost facility
- Expand educational programs and enforcement of solid waste codes
- Encourage salvage and reuse of construction/demolition materials
- Adopt a universal recycling ordinance for multi-family and commercial buildings
- Sponsor special events recycling
- Support state and federal legislation that requires brand manufacturers to provide financial support for municipal recycling programs
4. Waste treatment
for remaining discards
- Mixed Waste Processing (mechanically remove additional recyclables that people fail to separate). The mixed waste processing facility would be coupled with the single stream materials recovery facility, as a separate processing stream (“Dirty MRF”)
- Biological Treatment (stabilize any organic residuals remaining in the waste through anerobic digestion prior to landfilling (reduces volume, removes water weight, and avoids gas and odor problems)
Recommendations for Moving Forward
The plan for the Los Reales Sustainability Campus was unfortunately developed with very limited public outreach and engagement. Many community stakeholders only first become aware of the sustainability campus and associated projects via an article that appeared in the Arizona Daily Star on July 11, 2021.
Sustainable Tucson would like to offer several steps for ensuring an open and inclusive planning process going forward. It will take all of us working together to change the existing systems – where we “throw-away” largely everything – into community systems where we reduce waste and maximize opportunities for reuse, repair, recycling and composting.
We recommend that the City Council:
- Create a broad citizens advisory group to assist the City in developing the sustainability campus and zero waste plan.
- The advisory group should include waste haulers, commercial/multi-family property managers, green businesses, zero waste leaders, community groups, educational institutions, labor, faith based/social justice groups, startup development programs and others.
- Postpone further waste-related projects (beyond the construction of the concrete pads) at Los Reales until either a zero waste plan, on its own or embedded with the overall climate action and adaption plan, is completed.