WHITHER WASTE? Treating trash as a valuable municipal resource

CITY sanitation chiefs rarely talk to city economic developers. They should. Soaring sanitation costs now threaten the health and vitality of local economies. They will continue to do so until governments stop treating garbage as only a disposal problem and begin to see it as an economic development opportunity. Rising disposal costs are depleting municipal treasuries. In 1980 a city of 100,000 paid approximately $1 million a year to dump its garbage, about what it spent on libraries. Today it may spend $10 million, more than for police or firefighters. This August the closure of a landfill in northern New Jersey increased Newark's disposal costs by almost 500 percent. The impact on its budget was nearly equal to the loss of federal revenue from all the cuts of the Reagan years.

Cost increases like these have led some cities to burn their garbage. Incinerators can earn money by selling energy. But for every 100 tons of garbage burned, 30 tons of toxic ash are produced, and ash disposal is turning out to be even more expensive than garbage disposal. Philadelphia, for example, paid $400 a ton to dispose of ash, more than four times its cost of garbage disposal. But the contractor's barge, originally destined for the Bahamas, was rejected throughout the Caribbean and by at least one West African nation. It is still on the high seas.

Sanitation is big business. It demands big bucks. Whatever new disposal system cities create will cost more than a convention center or a domed sports stadium or a downtown office building. Yet rarely will this expenditure be viewed as an economic development investment. Such an attitude is tragically shortsighted.

A Canadian study, for example, found that recycling creates six times as many jobs as landfilling does. A similar ratio probably holds true for recycling versus incineration. Thus Newark (pop., 350,000) would create 1,300 jobs by recycling its garbage, but only about 200 if it burned or dumped it.

Recycling is only the first step in a development process. Cities that recover their materials avoid paying disposal costs. But the real benefit to the local economy comes from converting scrap into useful products: processing aluminum into ingots and paper into pulp, for example, as well as making ingots into bicycles and pulp back into paper. How far a city can move in this direction is a function of its size and density, industrial mix, and political will.

Consider the case of scrap tires, a small but troublesome waste item. Every American throws away the equivalent of one 20-pound tire a year. The current disposal cost is about 10 cents per pound. A city the size of Newark or Toledo, Ohio, or Tucson, Ariz., pays about $700,000 simply to bury scrap tires. This assumes landfills accept them. Many won't. Tires have a nasty habit of resurfacing years later. Some states, like Minnesota, ban land disposal of tires. Tires can be shredded and burned. But at today's depressed oil prices, this is economical only at about a penny a pound. Tires shredded into finer pieces can be added to road asphalt and earn a few pennies more. But the real benefit comes when the scrap is converted into a valuable final product.

Enter Fred Stark, a chemical engineer and president of the Minneapolis-based Rubber Research Elastomerics (RRE). Mr. Stark's patented liquid polymer, when added to pulverized tires, enables the material, called TireCycle, to compete both with virgin rubber and with plastics.

RRE's first plant opened in the northern Minnesota city of Babbitt in March 1987. Its primary customers are thermoplastic molders. Adding two parts TireCycle to one part polypropylene can ``improve performance while retaining the easy molding characteristics of plastics,'' declares chief operating officer John Stark III. For this purpose, TireCycle sells for about 50 cents a pound. The rubber/plastic compound is used in car door panels and plastic garbage cans.

Babbitt's economy was strengthened even more when one manufacturer moved from Ohio to be near its raw material supplier. Whirlair Rubber Products uses TireCycle to make rubber mats for home and business.

Imagine that a city like Newark or Toledo or Tucson built a facility like Babbitt's and local companies processed the material into final products. The local economy would avoid most of the $700,000 a year it now pays for tire disposal and would add several million dollars in new, largely export-oriented activity to the local economy.

Waste handling is this nation's fastest-growing industry. A $100 billion market may exist for solid waste handling technology alone. The city that acts on this knowledge stands to prosper in many ways. Processing scrap may not sound as jazzy as building a convention center or a soaring office building. But it promises to have a more profound impact on the local economy. Whether that impact will be negative or positive depends on whether sanitation and economic development departments start talking to each other now.

Dr. Seldman is director of waste utilization at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Washington.

David Morris is co-director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

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