The Anatomical Solution to Solid Waste Problems

             We choose our local leaders for a variety of reasons, including their brains, their ideas, their experience and their party affiliation.  It’s our collective failure that we too often fail to judge them for their backbone in the face of hot-seat controversies.

             No local issue – including taxes, animal leash laws, annexations and low-income housing – requires more backbone than the myriad of issues known to professionals as “solid waste” but to the complaining public as “trash.”

              From pizza boxes to Kleenex to egg cartons to plastic wrapping for electronic gadgetry, we consume and consume and consume, yet fail miserably to provide for future disposal.  In communities across the state and nation we postpone paying for or planning for disposal options, making disposal increasingly urgent and expensive. 

 Trash Happens

             I was on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus yesterday where the lead article in The Daily Tar Heel was “Trash Happens: Now what do we do with it?”  This one sentence jumped off the page: “[Orange County] Commissioners have ruled out building another landfill in Orange County, but the possibility of sharing one with neighboring counties remains.”

             I don’t think a translation is necessary.  The writer could just as easily and accurately have said “Orange County is more than willing to ship its waste to somebody else’s county, but it doesn’t have the political will to propose a new landfill at home.”  The commonly used euphemism is “I support a regional solution.” But it means the same thing.

             The problem is pervasive.  Cities and counties across the state are running out of landfill space faster than disposal options are considered and approved.  And it takes several years – sometimes decades – to site, approve, permit and construct a municipal solid waste landfill.  Although it’s possible to eliminate most of our currently landfilled waste through recycling, most communities are either unable or unwilling to shoulder the financial and political cost.

             A “policy analyst” might describe these decisions – or indecisions – with such sanitized adjectives as “short-sighted” or “ineffective”.  But I’m not analyzing policy.  I’m analyzing people.  To me a more appropriate adjective for our collective approach is “idiotic.”

State and Federal Impediments

             In the first part of this decade five different private companies, investing millions of their own dollars, found five separate towns or counties – all east of Raleigh – that would approve an intrastate or interstate landfill facility in exchange for substantial annual payments called “host fees”.  The state would have nothing of this private solution and imposed a statewide moratorium on all landfill construction, enacted more stringent regulations, and effectively ended each of these solid waste solutions.

             Three weeks ago I worked out of my firm’s Greenville, S.C. office where I picked up the February 17 edition of The Greenville News.  On the top of page 3A was an article titled “Nuclear Power Gets Big Boost.”  The first sentence proclaimed “More than $8 billion in new federal loan guarantees to build two nuclear reactors in Georgia could be the first step toward a nuclear renaissance in the U.S. three decades after the Three Mile Island nuclear accident halted all nuclear reactor orders.”

             But get this.  On page 2A of the same paper, directly across the open page, was another article titled “State Leaders May Sue over Nuke Dump.”  South Carolina stores substantial amounts of nuclear waste at plants or storage sites and has been expecting for decades to ship that waste to the planned nuclear waste facility at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.  However, the Obama Administration (allegedly to appease Harry Reid) is walking away from the 25 year Yucca Mountain compact to accept the country’s waste and store it in this facility.  No substitute facility is planned, yet nuclear production is being ramped up.

             A policy analyst would say “short-sighted,” but . . .

 As Thomas Friedman says . . .

          Nobody has discussed America’s world competitiveness better than New York Times’ Thomas Friedman.  His March 2nd column ran with the following lead paragraph:

             “I was traveling via Los Angeles International Airport — LAX — last week. Walking through its faded, cramped domestic terminal, I got the feeling of a place that once thought of itself as modern but has had one too many face-lifts and simply can’t hide the wrinkles anymore. In some ways, LAX is us. We are the United States of Deferred Maintenance. China is the People’s Republic of Deferred Gratification. They save, invest and build. We spend, borrow and patch.”

             Or as aptly captured in these classic lyrics by the rock group Queen: “I want it all, I want it all, I want it all, and I want it now!”

             Whether it’s household waste or nuclear waste, we can’t increase our consumption today while sticking our heads in the sand when asked about disposal needs tomorrow.

             Planning for – and even thinking about – solid waste disposal requires a multi-decade view.  It requires looking beyond this year’s budget and this year’s election and making decisions to benefit our grandchildren and great-grandchildren at the expense of a few votes in November. 

             I turned 53 years old today. By statistical fluke, my wife did too.  Fifty-three is still young enough to have a long-term view, yet old enough to feel crotchety about elected leaders who only ponder poll surges, campaign coffers and votes. 

 And the Anatomical Solution?

             It doesn’t take rocket scientists to devise solutions to waste disposal.  All we need are elected officials with more backbone to plan for them.  We need officials who understand that our rights to produce waste must be met equally with responsibilities to provide for adequate disposal, even when it means choosing local options instead of the sham “regional” proposal to ship it to somebody else’s backyard.

             After all, trash – like birthdays – happens.

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