Throwing stuff away” is an activity that the U.S. population engages with in a borderline institutional regimen. As Humes (2012) frames the issue, “It turns out our contemporary economy, not to mention the current incarnation of the American Dream, is inextricably linked to an endless, accelerating accumulation of trash. The purchases that drive the markets, the products that prove the dream, all come packaged in instant trash…and what’s inside…rapidly becoming trash, too.”
Producing 2.58 kg of municipal solid waste (MSW) per capita every day, the U.S. is among the top 5 waste producers among high-income countries. Comparatively, other high-income nations are able to maintain significantly lower levels—for example, Sweden produces only 1.61 kg of MSW per capita per day.
For densely populated areas or apartment buildings in the U.S., the typical system of waste disposal involves communal or individual trash cans (with recycling and compost cans, depending on municipality) that are serviced regularly by locally-funded collection vehicles. From here, the waste is transported to the appropriate facility, such as a landfill, materials recovery facility (MRF), or waste-to-energy (incineration) plant.
Despite the dependency we have on being able to toss the detritus of daily life into trash cans, the process of throwing out trash can be confusing, frustrating, and admittedly, downright unsightly in an urban area. Unlabeled bins or poor signage are a detriment to facilitating correct sorting of waste among those that have no prior knowledge. Even for committed sorters, a lack of local recycling or composting services can be a roadblock to engaging in more sustainable behavior. Furthermore, the presence of standing waste (and the smell or mess that can result) in bins and dumpsters might be enough for anyone to prefer tossing anything and everything into the nearest bin and escaping the vicinity as quickly as possible.
When waste is sorted optimally from the start, it decreases the risk of contamination further down the processing line. Contamination in waste streams essentially refers to the mixing of different materials that are not dealt with in the same way. For example, food waste contaminates plastic—if plastic packaging has too much food on it, it cannot be recycled. Contamination such as this was one of the main issues that led China to close its doors to importing foreign paper and plastic for recycling in January 2018.
Beyond just decreasing the amount of resources that can be recycled, contamination also can lead to huge losses in efficiency for machinery. For example, representatives from Stockholm Exergi, the company that provides most of Stockholm with combined heat and power services, state that around the holiday season it becomes a huge problem when residents don’t sort out the aluminum casings of tea light candles. This is because when the cases melt, they coat the inside of the incinerator, requiring the operation to be shut down for a period so that the residual aluminum can be cleared from the machinery.
This is an example of a huge loss in efficiency and power production that could be avoided if there was more education and… As the urban population of the world grows day by day, and the growth of urban waste per capita outpaces it, the need to institute an efficient, comprehensive waste disposal and collection system that local residents can successfully participate in is of paramount importance.
Luckily there are emerging infrastructural developments working towards making citizen sorting of waste streams more intuitive and accessible.
In Stockholm’s Royal Seaport neighborhood, described as “…one of the biggest and most complex urban development areas in Stockholm,” waste disposal and sorting is purposely made intuitive and accessible for residents. The region has implemented a uniform automated waste collection system of above-ground stations that are linked to a subterranean network of pipes. After residents use a key to unlock the receptacle opening and dispose of their waste, it is placed into a hold below the station, where it remains until controlled collection ensues. The bagged waste is then transported via vacuum-powered pipes to a collection facility, where it will be sorted based on material type (such as biowaste, paper, plastics, or general garbage).
Depending on the city’s waste infrastructure, the waste will be sent to different destinations. In cities such as Stockholm, where trash is incinerated to generate district heating and electricity, the general waste will be sent to a combined heat and power plant, and recyclables will be sent to appropriate facilities.
This increases efficiency of collection, compared to the dominant US model of large trucks that pickup from individual homes and buildings. Tradeoffs also include reduced greenhouse gas emissions from trucks, eliminating complex service schedules, and savings on fleets of collection staff.
The intent of this pipe infrastructure is also to enable citizens to make optimal choices—by clearly labeling each receptacle with the accepted materials (such as paper, plastics, and other waste), and making this system standard throughout the entire development, the hope is that local knowledge, awareness, and sorting will be supported.
Furthermore, the fact that garbage is inaccessible after the initial disposal means that the possibility of mess, lingering smells, and pest attraction is nearly eradicated—in line with the Swedish tendency towards “hidden infrastructure,” or keeping utility infrastructure out of sight. This can make it less of an undesirable task to “take out the trash,” and can allow residents to more consciously make decisions regarding what materials they are putting where.
Knowing the appeal of this style of waste collection that is being pioneered in developments like Royal Seaport, it is interesting to consider if it could be replicated in U.S. cities.
It’s obvious that this style of waste collection would require a massive underground infrastructure implementation. It is easier to implement the system of pipes in new developments like Royal Seaport because other infrastructure is simultaneously being placed. It would be much harder in cities that don’t necessarily have underground construction being done to align the implementation of collection pipes with.
An additional caveat to keep in mind is that many large cities in the U.S. are landfill dependent. If this technology were to function holistically, it would have to be under the premise that after collection, non-recyclable or compostable waste was being dealt with in a more sustainable, efficient manner than just burying it in landfills (and in effect releasing tonnes of greenhouse gases by the day). While this technology may streamline collection and sorting, it is not a cure to the underlying issue of waste existing in the first place.
Despite all of these factors that would make the implementation of automated waste collection systems like this difficult, it is something worth keeping in mind as inspiration for the future in U.S. cities. Addressing the confusion around waste sorting through strategic, clean design has the potential to significantly impact how many materials can be preserved for recycling or composting.
As urban populations skyrocket, the demand for new residential developments in popular U.S. cities grows as well. While improving waste infrastructure in the country as a whole is a daunting task, perhaps looking to individual, growing neighborhoods is a good place to start.