Better Than Recycling

Waste Into Energy

I have to applaud the City of Santa Barbara for its efforts in environmental stewardship. I have had the honor of personally working with the city to develop and employ new environmental programs including the elimination of toxic pesticides in our city parks. But last year I participated in the Plan Santa Barbara workshop at Faulkner Gallery and I came away wanting the city to take the idea of sustainability to a whole new level by transforming the practice of “recycling” and adopting what I call “The Practical Management of Water and Renewable Energy.”

Catchy title, right? But it boils down to this: Instead of labeling discarded materials either as waste for disposal or fodder for recycling, we convert these materials into usable water and energy, to meet our current needs and our increased needs in the future.

Wikipedia defines sustainability as “a means of configuring civilization and human activity so that society, its members and its economies are able to meet their needs and express their greatest potential in the present, while preserving biodiversity and natural ecosystems; planning and acting for the ability to maintain these ideals in the very long term.”

Plans and actions are guided by how a word or concept is defined. The conventional definition of “recycling” means the act of sorting materials including paper and plastic for reprocessing into consumer goods and packaging (sometimes after they’ve been shipped all the way to China). However, this “recycling” process takes a lot of energy. These materials could instead be converted directly into energy for the community in the fuel, such as biodiesel, and electricity.

“Recycling” as we presently practice it also allows toxic sewage water to be discharged into the ocean, and it promotes the derelict practice of labeling and land applying sludge as a form of fertilizer. Ultimately, these policies and practices are polluting our environment.

Imagine a sewage treatment plant converting sewage sludge into fuel and on-site power as an alternative to labeling it as “bio-solids” for application as fertilizer. Imagine converting discarded plastics, tires, cardboard and other solid waste locally into biodiesel and electricity to power our cars, buses, homes—and sewage treatment plants. Think of all the waste-to-energy units we could generate!

Imagine sewage treatment plants producing clean water for reuse in irrigation, as an alternative to toxic ocean discharges. This would also allow us to keep another seven billion gallons of water a year stored in Lake Cachuma for the future; enough water for 144 million people. In Sweden for example a wastewater treatment plant is converting sewage into clean water and methane; it has been producing a net income for 10 years.

Instead of “recycling” and hauling away sewage sludge and solids, I urge the City of Santa Barbara to install gasification and other waste-to-energy technology. The Salsipuedes Street sorting facility could also convert much of what it is recycling into fuel and electricity for the city.

And instead of discharging seven billion gallons of toxic sewage water into our ocean as a way to transfer sewage, employ people and treatment systems to better treat and reuse this water for irrigation. This practice will protect the ocean and marine life from further harm caused by sewage effluent containing high levels of phosphorous and chlorine compounds.

“Recycling” as we presently know it is not particularly practical or sustainable. The Practical Management of Water and Renewable Energy should be the new definition and model for sustainability.

James Smallwood recently launched, with partners, a water treatment and wind energy company in Costa Rica. He has been involved in water issues for the past 12 years (among other things installing a wastewater treatment system in Joe’s Plating) following a career as a counselor in Santa Barbara. Among his other environmental efforts, he helped start the Wilderness Youth Project.


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