On The Reign of Recycling: Can we do better?

Oct 8, 2015

Everyone agrees that recycling is important, and that more recycling is better, right? In an opinion piece at the New York Times, John Tierney delivers a dismal review of the past ten years’ progress for the recycling industry. In a nutshell: as the price of oil and resources has fallen, labor costs have risen, making recycling an increasingly expensive process for decreasingly valuable end-products. The undermined economics of recycling has forced many recycling centers out of business. At the same time, landfills are still going strong. The author posits that while recycling technology has not progressed as well as expected over the past decade, landfills are making strides with technological achievements such as leachate-preventing lining, and landfill gas capturing systems. With plenty of undeveloped real estate in this country, are we really better off landfilling more garbage? Moreover, is incineration the best technology available to stem the tide of trash flowing into landfills?
The author does concede that methane gas emissions are a strong argument against landfills. Methane is 84 times more damaging as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, and landfills are the largest human-generated source of methane. A 2013 Sierra Club report by Dr. Jim Stewart found that landfill gas-to-energy projects are not effective at reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Landfills and incineration each represent fairly low forms of addressing the waste we generate. As with any other technology, innovation in waste handling and energy recovery has made leaps over the last ten years. Just as most Americans wouldn’t settle for the computer or cell phone of previous decades, we should be pushing for the latest and greatest ways to deal with such an enormous environmental issue.
Unfortunately, unlike the business of manufacturing consumer-grade products, the wheels of progress turn more slowly in industrial applications. Understandably, engineers on large-scale projects are hesitant to spec technology that lacks a long-standing reputation of reliability. New technologies emerge so quickly and frequently, the legislation designed to protect the environment cannot keep up with the changing times. This business and political climate is unfavorable to innovation that seeks to benefit the planet.
Sierra Energy advocates for a shift in the attitudes that govern the legislation and development of waste handling. Zero waste production is a critical goal. In the meantime, however, we need real solutions for the waste we are still creating and the waste we already have. Waste gasification changes the way we see trash, unlocking its highest and best potential.
Some materials are easily recycled. Other materials are handily broken down by anaerobic digestion. But despite all the current prevention and diversion efforts, a portion of the waste we produce is destined to be landfilled. Rather than burying mountains of trash, waste gasification uses garbage to generate valuable end products, including renewable electricity, diesel fuel, and zero-emission hydrogen fuel.
Why would we settle for more landfills and more burning when brand new technologies are ready for commercial deployment? In partnership with recycling, composting, and anaerobic digestion, waste gasification can close the loop on the life cycle of waste destined for landfills, and even one day, eliminate landfills altogether.
To learn more about Sierra Energy’s mission, you can read this article published in the New York Times in 2013, or browse the About page at