Trash-Talking The Garbage Disposal: Examination Of A Not So Green US Export
Know how companies will sometimes advertise a product as "recyclable," even if it seldom gets fully recycled because of some small design issue, or because recycling centers see disassembly as too labor intensive?
An analogous situation has emerged with InSinkErator, famed US maker of under-the-kitchen-sink garbage disposals. The company, moving in on European markets with claims of garbage disposals being "green," indicates that 'use of garbage disposals beneficially cancels the need to haul organic trash to the dump' - here we go with the carbon footprint posing - and points out that garbage disposal use makes it possible for wastewater treatment plants to generate more bio-gas fueled electricity.
Only a very small fraction of sewered kitchens in North America or Europe discharge to wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs) with operating, full scale, bio-gas capture facilities. And, we see no evidence of a strong movement toward municipalities installing bio-gas fired generators on central wastewater treatment plants.Conversely, there is a very strong movement toward capture of landfill-produced bio-gas in North America. Hence, a case can be made for sending more kitchen waste to the tip, at least in the US.
The Wall Street Journal story on this topic slightly glosses over the very serious prospective water quality and taxpayer impacts of widely increased garbage disposal use. Here's what we mean.
All existing wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs) were designed based on a locally representative daily average, per-capita loading of biological oxygen demand (BOD). Adding a large component of new garbage disposals means a much higher BOD load - and increased capital and operating expense. Most large communities and all cities are served by publicly owned treatment works - all built at taxpayer expense.
Rapid market penetration of garbage disposals in European cities would overwhelm existing treatment plants, possibly causing them to violate their discharge permits and have adverse impacts on effluent receiving waters.
We could elaborate on unfair tax impacts on citizens who choose not to go the under-sink disposal route; and, on 'water quality limited' stream segments which are vital for survival of salmon. But...we think you see the Effluent In The Room.
After struggling for decades to get a foothold outside of the U.S., the lowly garbage disposal is picking up some new fans: environmental engineers and local government planners. InSinkErator, a Racine, Wis., unit of Emerson Electric Co., has been lobbying local governments in Europe and in parts of Asia in the hope of altering the perception that garbage disposals are a water-guzzling convenience that can clog pipes and overtax sewage-treatment plants.
...The green strategy has helped InSinkErator to nearly double its world-wide sales in the past decade to close to $500 million annually, say people familiar with the situation. The company, which still accounts for a small fraction of Emerson Electric's yearly revenue of about $22 billion, now sells more than 100,000 disposals in Europe each year.
Fortunately, clever Swedes and Londoners seem to have found a prospective solution and are pushing ahead with prototypes.
In Malmö, Sweden, a government-sponsored project designed to be environmentally sustainable includes more than 200 disposals in apartment buildings. The disposals aren't linked to sewer lines, but to a separate system for turning food scraps into methane, which is then burned to produce power. A similar system is under consideration for a proposed 2,000-home development in London.
Fair notice: This writer owns a small garbage disposal which came with the house, and enjoys having it, if only for the service it provides in the three coldest months of the year, when backyard composting is infeasible.
In past years, when all organic waste was put on the frozen-solid compost heap, it attracted rats. This was not acceptable for us; nor was it good for our neighbors.
This experience led to the insight that the marketing of garbage disposals should not be viewed as a good versus bad (green vs greed) issue.
Our household manages winter-season organic waste by putting the bulk of it in the trash, using the small InSinkErator for the few food bits that get by our pick up after peeling and chopping. After mid-April, it all gets diverted to the compost heap until the first hard frost of fall arrives.
As a general matter, wastewater treatment plants serving cities in temperate climates have the least difficulty handling organic materials in the coldest months of the year. So we are not so worried about our water quality impact.
Back to a higher level issue view:
We all need to recognize that, in the USA, WWTPs were built with the financial aid packages overseen by states, but largely stemming from Congressional appropriations authorized in concert with Clean Water Act requirements of the mid-1970's. That's ancient environmental history!
These aged WWTPs almost all are in need of major upgrades, as they are approaching the ends of their respective design lives. In some cases, municipal population growth has greatly outraced treatment capacity, and things are being held together with paper clips. Now is the time to decide, then. In the USA:
Kitchen garbage disposals: good; or bad?
Necessary WWTP upgrades: should Congress or US states offer incentives, or disincentives, for garbage disposals?
Wonder if InSinkErator Corp is willing to ally with NGO's to lobby the US Congress for the necessary appropriations to upgrade municipal WWTPs.
Europe and Asia, we'll wait to hear from you.