Solid Waste & Recycling

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At the Tipping Point

In physics, a tipping point is where the balance of things changes, as in a children's seesaw. In sociology and markets, it's the point at which some trend understood only by a small group of insiders...


In physics, a tipping point is where the balance of things changes, as in a children’s seesaw. In sociology and markets, it’s the point at which some trend understood only by a small group of insiders rapidly gains wide acceptance. Examples of the latter abound in everything from shoe fashions to stock markets. What both types have in common is their sudden nature; small changes multiply without attracting attention, then everything slides over seemingly all at once; what was up is down, what was in is out, or something worn in Manhattan nightclubs is available at Wal-Mart.

It appears we’re at the tipping point with respect to man-made global warming, in both the physical and sociological senses. Let’s look at each in turn, and then consider the implications for the waste and recycling industry.

Some people mistakenly think the concern is that the Earth will gradually warm, and this can be counteracted by gradually ratcheting down fossil-fuel burning. Instead, the scientists worry that atmospheric and oceanic systems can “flip” over very quickly. For instance, paleoclimatologists have discovered that the change between ice ages and interglacials can sometimes be measured in decades. We’re already in a warm interglacial that is expected to last an unusual 40,000 years or more. Today’s challenge is not that we’re headed for another Ice Age; rather, scientists believe that when atmospheric CO2 emissions pass concentrations of 400 parts per million (as they soon will for the first time in millions of years) we’ll push an already warm world into a permanently hotter state, and the changes will be too fast for plants and animals to adapt. Whole ecosystems will collapse along with thousands of species and civilization as we know it.

This isn’t the place to analyze the science in depth, and you can read about the various apocalyptic scenarios elsewhere. The point here is that once a certain line is crossed, the changes will be more sudden and “tipping point”-like than people realize, which is why they’re being urged to make drastic changes now, not ten or twenty years hence. The changes will also be irreversible. CO2 stays in the air for more than a century, but the main reason is nature’s feedback systems: A little warming leads to a little snow and ice melting. This lowers the albino effect (less light is reflected back to space) and exposes more permafrost, which releases methane that leads in turn to more warming, and so on. Like an uncorked genie or a train that has left the station, we won’t be able to stop the feedback loops once they’re set in motion.

Global warming’s sociological tipping point is being crossed as well, the issue finally having gone “prime time” on CNN and other networks that have offered in-depth reports. Within a single month, global warming was the cover story of Time magazine, Vanity Fair and Wired. (Time urged readers to “Be Worried. Very Worried.”) The reincarnation of Al Gore in the new documentary An Inconvenient Truth is having a huge effect, and will go a long way toward counteracting the scientifically nonsensical Waterworld and The Day After Tomorrow flicks. Tim Flannery’s recent book The Weather Makers is a best-seller, and James Lovelock’s fascinating The Revenge of Gaia is making the rounds.

Never mind the moribund Kyoto Accord — this issue is gaining strength with consumers and will return in new policy forms. The crossing of the sociological tipping point will cause people to make personal changes, initially simple things like installing energy-efficient light bulbs, junking the inefficient old beer fridge, turning down the thermostat, shutting off the air conditioner, and so on. The high price of gas is already creating a stealth North American market for diesel cars, which are ubiquitous in Europe. (My friend’s Volkswagen gets 700 to 1000 kilometres on a $40 tank.) Eventually, hybrid cars will perform as advertised, too.

The challenge now for every industry is to figure out the implications of “the tipping point” for its activities. Tipping points create winners and losers. Great fortunes will be made by those who spot opportunities in transforming the current waste management system (including its recycling, composting and product stewardship dimensions) to make it more efficient in terms of energy and greenhouse gas emissions. Laggards will go out of business.

We need to start asking new questions. For example, we’re all familiar with the pollution concerns and siting challenges for waste-to-energy plants. But how they score in terms of climate change will soon become an important evaluation criterion. Because of methane’s greenhouse potency, we know we must capture it from landfills. What kind of emissions trading credits can companies and municipalities gain from that? What about composting? Open-windrow systems usually work well, but will they be acceptable in climate-change terms? I suspect that anaerobic digestion will become the preferred technology, despite bad recent experiences in Canada, because they capture the methane and use it to generate “renewable power.” Managers and consultants need to start measuring what’s released when we recycle fibre, plastics and other materials. The fact that half our plastic and aluminum soft-drink containers end up in landfill is already unacceptable; from a greenhouse perspective, burying all that “embodied energy” will be viewed as downright criminal.

Just a few years ago these were marginal concerns for the waste management industry. As we cross the global warming tipping point, they’ll be front and centre. Be prepared!

Guy Crittenden is editor of this magazine. Contact Guy at gcrittenden@solidwastemag.com


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