Friday, April 4, 2014

China and the Coming Urban Waste Crisis

China is currently undertaking an unprecedented effort to repopulate 250 million people from rural to urban areas, with the goal of creating a “more sustainable” economy driven by urban consumerism rather than large-scale state investments.  Beyond the scale and state-orchestrated nature of this urbanization program, the plan is not particularly surprising: the world’s wealthiest countries are all primarily urban with economies that are driven by domestic consumption.

For the first time in human history, the majority of us live in cities.  One hundred years ago, 2 out of 10 people lived in cities, as of 2010 just over 5 of 10 people live in cities, and it is projected that 7 out of 10 people will live in cities by 2050.  One could say both positive and negative things about this development, but regardless of what you think of urban life, it is undoubtedly here to stay for the near future.

The process of urbanization has largely been caused by the transition from agriculture-based economies to modern economies based on manufacturing, technology, and services.  As farms have become largely mechanized and consolidated into large-scale operations, farmers without work have moved to cities to find new jobs.  This process has repeated itself in developed countries throughout the world.

From an ecological point of view, the urbanization of society presents a real dilemma. Humans need a fair amount of basic resources to survive: adequate food, fresh water, and homes with basic heating and sanitation.  At a Western standard of living, these needs greatly multiply.  Urban areas consist of great concentrations of people living in small geographic spaces.  These concentrations of people cannot produce the resources they need to live from within the area where they live, so they must be brought in from outside of the city. All of these needs must be met with resources and once used all of these resources produce waste.
As people urbanize, their standard of living, consumption, and waste creation dramatically increases, with studies showing that around the world urban residents produce about twice as much waste as their rural counterparts.  The ecological dilemma created by urban living and a constant-consumption economy is what to do with all of the waste?

What a Waste: A Global Review of Solid Waste Management, World Bank

As China pushes towards a scale of urbanization not seen before, driving projections that by 2030 China will produce twice as much waste as the US, it is worthwhile to reflect on our waste problem in the US and how we might address them in order to offer a way forward for other countries around the world following in our footsteps.

We produce a great deal of waste in the US: 80 percent of US products are used once, then thrown away (as designed to be by manufacturers) which largely drives the fact that even though the US makes up 4% of the global population, we produce 30% of total waste.

These statistics are a punch in the gut to anyone that believes we should move our food system towards greater sustainability.  Even more so for a sustainable farmer, whose practices are based on a straight-forward ecological model: there’s no such thing as waste and all un-used resources should be returned to the system to replenish it for the next round of growth.  Most simply we use compost and animal manure to fertilize the soil to grow new crops and any food leftovers are fed to animals or turned into compost and added back to the soil to support the next round of growth.  Repeat the cycle ad infinitum.

This failure to recover organic materials from being discarded is not only a lost opportunity to produce compost, but adding insult to injury, organic materials decomposing in the oxygen-starved environment of a landfill produces methane gases which make landfills the third largest source of methane nationally, which has 20 times more global warming potential than carbon dioxide.

The one-directional urban model of consumption, with resources flowing into the city from all corners of the earth and resulting waste largely discarded in landfills or incinerators, produces a massive ecological problem with far-reaching consequences into the future.

A failure to return organic materials waste generated in cities to the source from which they were produced is to create a metabolic rift. The concept of metabolic rift discusses ruptures in natural nutrient cycles that pose a grave threat to system sustainability:

With the transition to capitalism, a new division of labor between town and country took shape—on a world scale and within regions—whereby the products of the countryside (especially, but not only in the peripheries) flowed into the cities, which were under no obligation to return the waste products to the point of production. Nutrients were pumped out of one ecosystem in the periphery and transferred to another in the core. In essence, the land was progressively mined until its relative exhaustion fettered profitability. (J. W. Moore, 2000)

An urban world organized around consumption as the main economic activity produces a metabolic rift at a global scale.  The result of this rift – the failure to return waste to its source to contribute to the next stage of production – has devastating implications to sustaining this way of living: in the unnecessary depletion of resources (such as productive soil) that endanger the viability of future generations, in the inability to practice sustainable farming using organic fertilizers instead of chemical fertilizers at a large enough scale, and at the unpredictable peril of failing to bring our ways of living into better balance with the constraints of the natural world.

Yet, we cannot expect to return to a bucolic past; an urban future lies undoubtedly ahead for more and more of us.  How can we begin to address our waste problem? 

As with almost any problem, answers range from direct individual action to policy changes at the highest levels.  If we are to respond at the scale necessary to meet the nature of the problem, we will need both people and politicians to take action within their own spheres of control.  Often, policy changes should be guided by the goal of making positive life-style changes at the individual level easier to take.

At the individual level, every one of us can begin to remove organic materials from the waste stream by composting food scraps and yard debris and participating earnestly in recycling programs.  Often the greatest barrier to individual composting is that most people don’t know how to compost or live in homes without the space or materials to properly compost.  To help address these barriers, on our farm we run a “compost collective”, collecting the food scraps of our CSA members and composting them to be returned to the soil from which the food was grown.  It is our very small way of healing the metabolic rift that occurs in modern food production and distribution.

People living in cities that want to remove organic materials from the waste stream will need public programs that provide the opportunity to do so.  Forward-thinking cities have already begun enacting curb-side composting programs that can be used as models for other cities, including San-Francisco, Seattle, Portland, OR., and San-Antonio. 

Closer to home, New York City recently passed legislation to introduce a pilot residential composting program that has the potential to reach a scale that would provide a replicable model for other fast-growing global mega-cities. With food waste and other organic materials accounting for almost a third of all residential trash in New York City, the pilot program aims to reach 100,000 households by 2014 and expand to the whole city by 2015 or 2016.  Early results are positive, with more than 50% voluntary participation rates, demonstrating that many people want to contribute to reducing organic waste.

Large-scale Composting Facility, Edmonton, Canada

At the state level, two neighboring New England states have become national trendsetters in creating policy to divert organic materials from the waste stream.  In 2011, Connecticut became the first state to ban organic materials from landfills with the passage of Public Act 11-217.  In 2012 Vermont passed Act No. 148, which initially requires large producers of organic waste (such as hospitals, schools, and restaurants) to divert organic materials from the waste stream starting July, 2014 and expands to all Vermont households by July, 2020.  A year later, Connecticut amended their law to follow the Vermont law model.  Both laws only kick in if a composting facility is located within 20 miles of where the organic waste is produced, which incentivizes the creation of a new composting industry that will create jobs that contribute to promoting sustainability.

America largely created the consumption-based life-style and it has been exported around the world as the best way to become a modern, developed society.  But as other countries with far greater populations embrace our way of life, we must acknowledge its dark side: growing waste and the incremental resource mining that must inevitably rob the land of its ability to sustain us. 

So imagine, 250 million new Chinese urban consumers, creating mountains of waste without a plan to divert organic materials from the waste stream.  China must learn from our mistakes.  If they can conjure new cities from thin air, they can also use this opportunity to create a model for a more sustainable urban life with a much lighter environmental footprint.

Here’s how you can take action to help start addressing the waste problem:

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