On Feb. 28, the Economic and Technology Advancement Advisory Committee (ETAAC) will make its final report to the California Air Resources Board (CARB), giving its ideas on how California can reduce its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. As a 21-person committee comprised primarily of academic and business interests, the ETAAC has been charged to be the “big-picture” think tank on what California people, governments, and businesses need to do to stop the threat of global warming. (Climate change is now no longer au courant; GW is straight up; CC is a weasel word.)
What’s most apparent is that no one has an exact picture of what the future will look like; alternative technologies are gradually coming on-line with little public resistance. Those who have profited from the existing systems (like motor car companies, landfill owners, and investor-owned utilities) are scrambling at least to paint themselves green if they can’t figure out exactly what the consumer wants and how, in fact, to bring innovation on-line.
A bright spot in the elaborate dance to keep your own ox from getting gored has been recycling. Since the United States became a bigger importer than producer of oil in the mid-1990s, the federal government has softly extolled the benefits of recycling materials and products rather than allowing them to flow into landfills and incinerators. Unfortunately, Washington put an embargo on calculating what the energy costs and now GHG costs of our current wasting practices are and it’s only been in the last few years that, as often happens, a few industrious, number-crunching, mavericks have seen that the 42 million tons of materials now flowing into landfills in California (year 2005 data) including a billion aluminum cans, etc. would, if those materials had been recycled, have saved 16.6 million tons of CO2 emissions, an amount equal to one third of all industrial-claimed emissions for California (42 million tons of CO2 air emissions in the base year of 1990) or, expressed differently, just a little less than taking all the diesel trucks off the road in California. Since a lot of these emissions occur out of state, (California imports most of the paper, metals and plastics it “consumes” and is self-sufficient only probably with glass), in truth, nobody seems to know the figures. When it enacted our AB 32, the Legislature wasn’t looking too closely at any of this; they knew that a lot of California’s electrical power comes from coal-fired power plants in Arizona and New Mexico and wanted them in the calculation but conveniently forgot all that paper rolling in by truck and train from Oregon and Canada, the metals from off-shore or the Midwest, and the plastics from Texas and Louisiana petrochemical plants. In truth, California’s pretty much a suburb except for agriculture, some hi-tech, and the ports.
But now, with a little dash at the end, the ETAAC has recycling prominently featured as an old but trustworthy technology for reducing GHGs in CA. Whether the Air Board will find the courage to admit that its sister agency, the so-called Integrated Waste Management Board, that so far has done little to stem the tide of wasting-as-usual in California (44 millions tons of garbage in 1990, declining to 34 million tons in 1994 but gradually creeping back up to 42 million tons in 2005; 50 percent recycling be damned) can be in charge remains to be seen. The Waste Board recently adopted a string of “strategic initiatives” to make the future different from the past but appears to lack the leadership to get in the face of the garbage companies and their compliant minions who prefer wasting to looking at wastes as resources. Since the City of Oakland gets 40 percent of what you pay for garbage services to pay for a public bureaucracy and litter pick-up, illegal dumping elimination programs, etc., the city is compromised in wanting less garbage. Unlike the Public Utilities Code which protects PG&E from losing profit if energy conservation works, nobody’s going to do that for the garbage companies which have become our de facto big recycling firms although the independents in the Bay Area actually move a lot more materials than the curbside programs.
We live in interesting times. Hats off to ETAAC for making a bold statement for recycling; let’s hope CARB doesn’t drop the ball in the face of probable Waste Board pleas to stay out of its turf.
Arthur R. Boone is the education chair of the Northern California Recycling Association, a 25-year veteran of the recycling industry, and an Oakland resident.