Reducing waste

Technical solutions to help cities achieve their environmental goals

Waste reduction work

Sandia develops and applies innovative engineering techniques to reduce waste and its harmful, costly side effects.

For example, Sandia can help cities implement multiple resilience strategies to achieve zero-waste-to-landfill goals (defined as less than 10% of municipal solid waste going to landfills). A city's goal may include converting municipal solid waste to electricity and transportation fuel.

Landfills and the accumulation of municipal solid waste cause water and soil contamination, emit greenhouse gasses that contribute to climate change, are aesthetically unpleasing, and can be hazardous to human and animal populations. As cities grow larger, landfills are typically moved further away from population centers, resulting in increased economic costs from transporting waste long distances. Some cities and countries also dispose of waste in the ocean, causing significant environmental damage and contributing to species extinction, as well as creating a hazardous food supply for people.

Multiple resilience strategies can be put in place at the city level to reduce these impacts. For example, municipal solid waste can be converted into energy for use in other sectors, including conversion to electricity, transportation fuel, and other forms.

Increasingly, cities are establishing zero-waste-to-landfill strategic plans that use multi-pronged approaches to reduce the amount of waste taken to landfills. Specific approaches may include:

  • Food use and preservation: Organic food waste is diverted from landfills for composting, and cities implement plans and educational campaigns to reduce the amount of food wasted by their citizens.
  • Sustainable acquisition and procurements: Companies are encouraged to manufacture goods and packaging that are recyclable or reusable and made out of recyclable materials. In turn, cities and their constituents aim to buy sustainable goods.
  • Recycling (including hazardous fluids, batteries, and electronics): Recycling reduces the need to cut down trees for paper and mine for metals. It keeps hazardous materials out of landfills and thus out of soil and water supplies. It also promises economic benefits; for example, recycling metal components from electronics is much more cost-effective than mining new materials from the earth.
  • Reuse: It is a standard practice in many countries to return glass bottles to stores for reuse. Donating old clothes and household goods is another example of reuse. Looking for more ways to reuse goods rather than throwing them away will help cities become more sustainable.
  • Repurpose: Furniture or floors made from reclaimed wood is a basic example of repurposing. Materials made out of vinyl, rubber, and steel can also be repurposed; examples include using old roofing pavers for landscaping, conveyor belt strips for landscaping and fences, and 50-gallon drums for rainwater capture. Countless repurposing actions are possible.

More companies are also implementing "cradle-to-cradle" design, meaning products are designed to maximize sustainability in both the materials used and the manufacturing process, and to allow for easy recycling, reuse, and repurposing. Cities can encourage this type of design by offering incentives or by purchasing these types of goods for their own use.

Changing human behavior is the greatest challenge to decreasing municipal waste. When waste is hauled away and not visible to the people creating it, it's easy to ignore. Historically, developed countries have even put their municipal waste on barges to ship oversees to less-developed countries. Current infrastructure allows people to dispose of waste without giving it a second thought. Changing behavior requires substantial education of the public, redesigning infrastructure, and changes in policy.

There are also monetary challenges. Implementing technology to convert municipal solid waste to energy, for example, requires up-front investment capital for the conversion facility and for distribution of the resulting energy. Similarly, implementing comprehensive recycling and composting programs in cities requires capital to develop the end-to-end infrastructure.

Cities with municipal waste problems can start with a waste audit or waste characterization study. Waste characterization studies are essential to understanding waste composition. The studies allow cities to design both zero-waste-to-landfill and municipal-waste-to-energy programs and facilities based on the unique composition of their municipal solid waste.

Improved quality of life: The clearest opportunity and incentive for finding more resilient methods of dealing with municipal waste is improvement in quality of life in the short and long term. Closing landfills near residential areas reduces the risk of water contamination and does away with general unpleasantness. Some city residents, such as those in Milpitas, California, deal with the constant odor of decomposing trash and release of methane gas. Adopting zero-waste-to-landfill plans also allows cities to become sustainable and resilient and gives future residents a better place to live.

Economic drivers: Reclaiming materials such as gold, lead, cadmium, mercury, and silver from electronics and other products is significantly more cost-effective than mining those materials.

Renewable energy: The ability to turn municipal solid waste into a renewable energy source presents cities with an enormous opportunity to become more sustainable and resilient by ridding themselves of municipal waste problems while providing a new source of clean, affordable energy.

Municipal solid waste-to-energy: Comprehensive examination of a community's energy policies and energy and waste goals can help identify the best use of its solid waste. Sandia's proprietary models quantify potential reductions in landfilled municipal solid waste and alternative uses for that waste. For example, turning waste into transportation fuel or electricity may contribute to a city's renewable energy goals.

Sandia's models also calculate life-cycle greenhouse-gas emissions and life-cycle monetary costs for each municipal solid waste use-case scenario over time. For example, if a community wants to reduce the rate at which waste is sent to landfills while also reducing greenhouse gas emissions, this model calculates the metrics for each waste-to-energy option of interest. Waste may be converted to electricity via direct combustion (which is common in some European countries) or by gasification technologies, or waste may be converted to liquid fuel via fermentation or gasification. These changes require monetary investment, but over time the net reductions in greenhouse gases are significant and may help communities reach their environmental quality goals.

Planning and prioritization: Sandia can guide cities in the steps required to analyze, design, plan, and implement zero-waste-to-landfill programs in their cities. Sandia can also help cities design and implement educational programs for city constituents to help drive behavioral change.