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The Aleinikoff Transcript

by Alex Aleinikoff
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interviews

The Zero Waste Project

by Kirstie Pecci
January 25, 2019

Kirstie Pecci is the director of the Zero Waste Project at the Conservation Law Foundation.

We use the law, science, and the market to create solutions that preserve our natural resources, build healthy communities, and sustain a vibrant economy. That's right from our materials. What that really means to me is, whatever tools we need to make sure people are safe. We work throughout New England, all six New England states, on environmental issues. This organization's been around since about 1966. We're one of the first nonprofit legal organizations in the country.

Would you tell me about the Zero Waste Project? I’m curious to discuss law and policy because I think it’s critical. We hear a lot about consumer responsibility but your approach is much more top-down which feels imperative. What do you think about the dichotomy between those two routes?

That's a great question. First of all, the principle to the Zero Waste projects are based on the Zero Waste International Alliance definition of what zero waste is, because the term is sometimes co-opted by producers, or by the waste industry to mean something other than what zero waste was originally meant to mean.

Sometimes incineration will be determined to be part of a zero waste solution, and that's not correct.

Zero waste means decreasing toxicity, and handling our materials in such a way that we can create a circular economy.

At the end of our use of materials, those materials should be ready to become the beginning of our production cycle again.

Instead of using raw materials, we should be able to take the materials we've just used and have them be the input for our industrial systems. So that we are, instead of mining, and cutting down forests, and using virgin petroleum products, taking what we have already to reuse and recycle, and repurpose those materials so we don't have to be going back to the Earth for raw materials.

The hierarchy under the ZWIA, the Zero Waste International Alliance, starts with reduction, which is really key. If we don't use it, that's the best way to save money and to not have as much of an impact on the Earth's resources, and to use the least amount of energy. After that it's reuse, and recycling, and redesign over, and over, and over again. Composting of course is a type of recycling. That way we're creating that circular economy, that vision of not throwing things away, but using those materials again. That set of principles is really important and central to what we do.

It has to be understood that we don't want to be having a disparate impact, a different type of an impact on environmental justice communities. A negative impact on those communities. What I mean by environmental justice communities, we use the policy definitions in Massachusetts, a policy which includes people who are impoverished, it includes people of color, it also includes people who don't have skills in English to have as much political power as they would otherwise. That's really important to me too, and central to our vision of what the Zero Waste Project is doing.

Finally, our theory of change is that we want to push back against polluting facilities, like landfills and incinerators, and make sure that we're instead encouraging good zero waste programs, and working to define what good programs are, and also support those good programs, and help those good programs to happen, and educate folks so that they can be part of the zero waste solution. That's in a nutshell what we're doing.

That's a lot.

Well, that's why we're just doing it in New England. I figure I can't do the whole world all at once.

Circular Economies continues to come up. In every interview we do. How feasible is it, particularly in a world where our trade and economies are global? Who would be responsible, in your eyes and by law, to implement a circular economy?

I think with that kind of a question the impulse is to give a simple answer and make it seem like it's going to just work. And then a person who's actually in a given industry pushes back because they know how their industry works and they say to themselves, "Well, that won't work well for what I do." I think it's important to remember that for different materials, different schemes are appropriate. Plastics under a circular economy sounds very difficult. Other materials, like textiles, textiles are 97% recyclable. This has started to happen in Massachusetts for instance, we're collecting the textiles, we are selling or granting those textiles to people who need to get those clothes and reusing those clothes. The clothes that are not reusable, get recycled into other materials very easily, like rags, stuffing in automobiles, and a lot of other things.

If we had a better collection system, there's an incentive and it makes sense for textiles to become part of a circular economy. It's a lot harder with a material like plastic. It's easy to say circular economy but it means different things. This is one of the reasons I like Zero Waste and circular economies, because they're supposed to be flexible solutions. They're not supposed to be like, everybody in the world, whether you're in a city or a rural area, you're going to do the same thing. That doesn't make sense. They're supposed to be flexible but it makes it hard to get your arms around them.

Can you expand on your work with landfills and incinerators?

A lot of the good plastics material that I've seen, a lot of the good journalism around this issue concludes with the fact that we need more infrastructure, disposable infrastructure.

There's a misunderstanding, a lack of information, or just outright lies, about the safety of these facilities. That's something that really should be driving this conversation.

I've been working the last 10 years to stop the expansion of landfills in Massachusetts and incinerators in Massachusetts, and now we're trying to do this throughout New England. The reason is because all landfills and incinerators, and it doesn't matter if the incinerators call themselves waste to energy or plasma arc or gasification, whichever type of incinerator you're dealing with, all high heat technologies and all landfills are horribly polluting.

And plastics underscore the worst elements of that pollution.  

In the United States we have what are called subtitle D landfills, it's the federal regulations that regulate how landfills are constructed in the United States. All of those landfills, at best, have a plastic liner system within another plastic liner system. Two liners and groundwater monitoring around them and a leachate collection system. Landfill cells are open for years – it rains, it snows, water comes into the system, and it makes what I call, landfill coffee. That's leachate. That's really one of the key pieces of knowledge. If you buy a birthday card and it plays a song when you open it, it's got electronics in it, and it's got a little battery in it. That ends up in the landfill. And all of those pieces, all of the municipal, industrial, and commercial waste end up in our landfills and incinerators.

About 15% of what we're seeing in our Massachusetts waste stream and New England waste streams are plastics.

The leachate from the landfill therefore has all those contaminants in it. It breaks down into the leachate and some of the leachate is collected and ends up in wastewater treatment plants.

Wastewater treatment plants don't have the capacity, in the United States, to clean that water.

The contaminants that are in the leachate, collected at the landfill, those millions of gallons of leachate go into our wastewater treatment plants and they emerge pretty much the same as they went in. Some of the contaminants may go into the air, some of them may adhere to the sewer sludge, and some of them may end up going right into the river, but it's not cleaning out the contaminants.  

As you know, when plastics break down, they don't rot the way that food waste does, they just become tiny pieces of plastic – those microplastics are in that leachate and end up in our rivers. Similarly, the leachate leaks from the landfill which is inevitable and there's no way for them to repair any leaks underground, that plastic liner's going to break down, and that landfill leachate is going to leak out of the landfill. That gets into our groundwater system. What's happened in central Massachusetts where I live, is that the groundwater is contaminated by a large landfill here. That happens anywhere you're near a large landfill, you're going to have contaminated groundwater sooner or later.

On top of that, because there are organics in the landfill like food scraps and textiles, paper and cardboard, methane is created when they put the daily cover on – there's no air going into that system. As a result of the water and lack of air, methane's created and it drags out contaminants with it. Landfill gas is also very toxic and if you live near a landfill, you're going to be breathing that landfill gas. A lot of times they'll try to burn some of it to make energy, but a lot of it escapes over the life of a landfill. And the landfill never stops making landfill gas or leachate, it's just a matter of the cycles it goes through.

Because the cap and the liners are made of plastic and break down, they're always going to break down, they're always going to allow water into the system and there's always going to be methane and leachate you have to worry about.

Landfill companies are only responsible for the landfill 30 years after they close. So, very literally, this goes on forever.

Landfills are just horribly dangerous. Incinerators are also terribly dangerous because all those contaminants that are in municipal solid waste, industrial, commercial and household waste, all of those contaminants are being burned in an incinerator at high heat. They mix and match in lots of different ways when you expose them to that high heat. Certain plastics create dioxin, D-I-O-X-I-N. Which is one of the most dangerous contaminates known to man when they're burned.

Plastics burned mean dioxin. And as I said, 15% of our waste stream right now is plastics.

In the United States we do not require continuous monitoring of dioxin. The incinerator companies are required to be tested, I think once a year. They know the days that they're tested, they make sure that day's going to look pretty good. When they started doing continuous monitoring of that chemical from the incinerator stacks in Europe they found out they were actually emitting a lot more dioxin than they thought they were. That's probably happening in the United States. Dioxin, as well as other heavy metals and dangerous contaminants, are being emitted by every incinerator that operates. And remember, large landfills and incinerators are usually in environmental justice communities. Six of the seven incinerators in Massachusetts are in an environmental justice community.

On top of that all incinerators create ash. That ash is a weight, it's about 25% of the weight of the original amount of MSW that was burned. If you burned 400 tons of MSW, you end up with 100 tons of ash. That ash needs to be landfilled and those landfills, while they don't have the methane problem, do have the leachate problem. Because, again, it's going to rain on a landfill while it's open. The water gets into it and then the leachate that emerges from the leaks is full of contaminants. Landfilling is always unsafe whether it's an ash or an MSW landfill. Incineration is always unsafe.

When we talk about new infrastructure to protect people from plastics, it's actually just another way for the contamination that disposable plastics create, to be dispersed throughout the world.

I'm not saying that if I live in a place where we didn't have good collection systems I would want plastic to be littering the streets or the beaches, but it's not a solution.

What a nightmare.

It's a literal nightmare, yeah.

What does your progress look like over the last 10 years?

It's interesting because a lot of folks literally don't know about this. They think landfills and incinerators must be safe or they wouldn't be allowed. There's an acknowledgement by the federal and state governments that they're not safe and they couldn't be safe. In Massachusetts the standard is that the board of health in a given town can only deny a permit to build a landfill if the board of health can prove that it's going to be a potential danger to public health safety and the environment.

The companies don't have to prove that they're safe because they cannot prove that they're safe.

What we end up having are federal regulations that acknowledge these things cannot be made safe. Then the states take on the actual job of monitoring these facilities. When the states find, for instance, that the groundwater monitoring around the landfill shows there's contamination leaking from the landfill, there's no automatic trigger to clean that up or to actually close the facility. They just keep on operating because the states have no money to clean up the facilities or remediate the contamination in any way. The federal government never gave them a pot of money to deal with the problem after it was created. What we see is state governments that are well meaning, not actually able, because they don't have the resources or the political will to actually reform the system.

They are monitoring it and trying to keep things at bay but they're also responsible for finding a place to put the waste. These agencies can only permit the proposals that come to them. You can make a lot of money landfilling or incinerating waste in the United States. In Massachusetts communities are paying around $100 a ton to dispose of their waste. There will always be investors in those technologies, even though those technologies don't work and are very polluting and make people sick. It's a lot harder to set up a business that requires the actual sorting of materials and make that work. One of the reasons we're pushing back at the expansion of landfills and incinerators is because we want to level that playing field a little bit.

When we talk about plastic specifically, plastic recycling doesn't make financial sense because of the subsidized fracked gas that plastics are now being made of.

There is no reason for someone who's creating something out of plastic to use recycled content because it's going to be the same or more expensive. Unless we create a system that requires that, we're not going to get there. So, when you ask, “what’s the solution and who's going to be taking care of this problem?" I see the solution as being we, as consumers. As you said, there's a big push to say, "Oh, consumers need to fix this problem."

Consumers need to fix this problem in such that they need to demand solutions from their local, state, and federal government.

Not false solutions where companies are going to make a lot of money but not protect the environment or create a better economic situation for them.

That's the role of consumers in my mind. Yes, you should recycle and you should compost if you have access to a system, and you should ask for access to those systems. But, if you don't have those services, you don't have the option of being a good actor. That's unfair. If I live in an apartment building in Massachusetts, it's likely I don't have recycling in my building. And I can't force my landlord to put a recycling system in place. The government has to do that. The government will only do that if we also put the right economic drivers in place. So, this solution needs to be people putting political pressure on this system and then also requiring good solutions from our local and state government. Solutions will create the market incentive to make this happen.

You have to create laws that incentivize and give them a push. Especially with plastics because they are such a dangerous material in so many ways. The way we've laid this out at CLF, in our planning, is that we feel strongly looking at the evidence that if a plastic cannot be recycled, due to either the type of material it's made of or it's shape or how it's used, then it should be banned. For instance, styrofoam, polystyrene, should be banned because it's not truly recyclable. Straws should be only offered on request. Plastic grocery bags should be banned because of the filminess of the plastic, they're not going to get recycled. So, that means ban 'em.

If we are using a plastic it should be required that it be 100% recycled and recyclable. 

In New England, we have a very strong municipal system, most of the times it's cities and towns that are handling their waste and recycling and composting systems, and our cities and towns are getting hammered by the cost of recycling. For a long time the waste companies were sending mixed plastics to China, where a lot of it was not getting recycled, but it was something that didn't cost the cities and towns much money.

Now that the single stream systems are all in place and everyone's gotten used to sending everything to China, the waste companies that are trying to process the recycled plastics and sort it out are finding it's an impossible job because you have seven different resin numbers and triangles and it's very difficult for, not only consumers, but the actual facilities to sort the plastic.

That system is not going to work. We have to be realistic about that, and that cost shouldn't be put on the taxpayers. Cities and towns should not be paying for a system that the waste companies set up and pretty much ensured was unworkable by creating single stream systems. Now cities and towns are paying $75 a ton for their recycling, sometimes more. That cost should be paid by the producers. For that, we're recommending extended producer responsibility systems. You look at the material and say, "Is this recyclable or not?" And create a fee based on that and get that money distributed through the states to the municipalities that are participating.

It sounds to Americans, including myself, to be revolutionary. But 10 states have bottle bills or deposit/return systems, that's the system of EPR, extended producer responsibility. Ontario has a great system, British Columbia has a good system. It works.

15% of the waste stream is plastic, only half of that is probably actually recyclable right now in the United States. We've set up a system that doesn't work from end to beginning. If I'm making something out of plastic, I'm going to use virgin gas because it's cheaper because of fracking. There's the first place that doesn't work. Then, I'm allowed to do whatever the heck I want and make anything out of whatever plastic I want to. Styrofoam is not safe to drink out of, but those Solo cups are made of styrofoam. In New England, Dunkin Donuts styrofoam cups are still everywhere, it's not safe. We shouldn't be drinking out of that stuff. And because we have such a variety of different plastics it's impossible for a consumer to know how to sort through recycling and put everything in a single stream system and not have contamination. They're doing the best they can and the state is doing the best job it can to try and educate consumers about that. But, we really need to be requiring that the producers not use stuff that doesn't work. It's not recyclable.

In some countries, beverages are only allowed to be made out of two plastics, and when that happens you know that everything that's plastic is one of those two plastics. End of story. Then you can sort your recycling and it actually gets separated in a way where it can be recycled.

How do you feel about petrochemical companies re-upping their investment in plastic? And why now when there’s such high levels of awareness about the dangers of plastic?

It really has picked up. The awareness of the problem stems from, number one the difficulty of disposing of plastics. That's definitely made it much more public. I also think social media has made awareness of the dangers of plastic visible.

Why, suddenly, are they willing to re-up and spend even more money on this?

I think the answer is that they're realizing that pretty soon our cars, our homes, and our factories are going to be fueled by solar and wind power. They're not going to be able to sell their product to us anymore. They're saying, "Wow, okay, we gotta transition. We need to find a new market. We have to poison people in a whole different way." It's frightening to me. But they are responsible. You have to expect the company to act like a company. Whether it's a landfill company, an incineration company, or an oil company, they are responsible for showing a certain amount of growth and profit, period. That's their only job. It doesn't matter whether that means there are people who are sick, or rivers that are choked with plastic, or plastic in the oceans. It doesn't matter. That part of it is not part of their job. It's not even on their radar.

That's why it's happening and they most definitely are planning to build these huge refineries and plastic factories in low income communities in the country – because if you have political power in this country, you are not going to live next door to one of these places. That's what's going to happen if we don't push back and stop it.

That's why when I read articles about plastic pollution and the answer at the end is we need more plastic infrastructure, meaning we've gotta burn it, bury it, or recycle it, that answer is entirely unacceptable. It's not going to work. We need to actually turn off this plastic spigot, I think it may have been Break Free From Plastic that said that, and I love that. We need to stop using plastics when we don't need to use plastics. Which is most of the plastic use, honestly.

If you remember how we used to operate, in the 1970s, 95% of the bottles that we used for say, beer, were reused bottles. And now we've flipped it. Now it's only like 5% that we're reusing bottles and everything else is getting disposed of and some of it's getting recycled. We need to flip it back to a system of reuse, which will save us a lot of money, save us a lot of energy, and end up with a much, much cleaner environment – and we'll be a lot less sick. Which, to me, is what it always comes back to.

How do you stay focused on the work and stay optimistic about the outcomes?

Well, I keep doing it. A couple keys to my success in being able to sustain this kind of work. The first is having a clear set of principles, and a clear idea to where we should be going. Understanding things aren't going to be perfect, but that doesn't mean I have to compromise on those big principles. I will always be opposed to any high heat facility. I will always be opposed to processing waste streams with toxics. You've got to solve the whole problem and get to the root of the problem, so that you don't have false solutions. That makes my job easier because I don't stay up at night and worry about whether a solution is perfect or not. I check it against these guidelines that I've set for the program and then I move on.

The other thing that makes my job easier is that all the solutions I'm in favor of saves money for cities and towns and consumers. They may lose money for the plastic companies and the petrochemical companies and the oil companies, they may lose money for the incinerator or landfill companies, but I'm not worried about that. They've made a killing for a long time, literally, and they could find other ways of doing business that are cleaner.

A lot of people who do this work, we have a little bit of a know it all streak to us, we like being right, so there's always that, the intellectual part of it. But, really the most important and sustaining piece of this work is that the people who do this work, the people at CLF are incredibly supportive. Even if I walk into a room and it's filled with lobbyists from the American Chemistry Council or from the Solid Waste Alliance of North America, or other organizations that have been set up just to support these horribly polluting practices, even if I'm in a room with all those people, I know that the citizens I work with locally, in Saugus and Revere and Lynn, for instance, or the citizens I've worked with in Southbridge and Charlton, they have my back. They care about me, they know I'm doing this work for them. The same with all my coworkers, they're on my team and they've got my back, and they're just really nice people.