Minimizing And Managing Waste

Minimizing And Managing Waste

By Diane Calabrese / Published March 2024

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Burn buffalo chips, prairie patties, and cow flops. Use whalebones for corsets (stays in general) and animal skins for shoes and coats. See kindling in household waste.

The history of reducing waste by using it for another purpose is far longer than the first paragraph. Yet we get the idea. For decades the admonishment to reduce-reuse-recycle has been a favorite among environmentalists. It makes sense.

Not generating waste (reduce) eliminates the problem of disposal. Reuse of would-be waste (e.g., glass bottles) does the same. And recycling rescues the dross of economic activity to serve as raw material (instead of tapping the earth for new material).

Despite the three Rs recommended to banish waste, there is still plenty of it. (Let’s just leave batteries aside because they seem to have an exponential growth curve and require their own evaluation and solution.)

In our industry, there are three major components to cleaning waste: soils/ contaminants removed, chemicals/ soaps, and water. Separating them makes it easier to deal with each one.

Interclean, which is headquartered in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, takes a broad scope view to cleaning and hygiene, offering professionals across all industries opportunities to meet in real-world and online forums. The organization puts a significant focus on managing waste from cleaning.

Aligned with Interclean is the Zero Waste Foundation, which collects information on strategies that work. The foundation envisions much more segmentation of waste streams. That’s where companies will head in their efforts to minimize the discards of human activity.

Long before there were self-described environmentalists, people knew that potable water and wastewater should not be mixed. While the Bennet sisters were fretting over men and marriage as they walked and talked in Pride and Prejudice, there would also have been individuals whose task it was to scoop misdirected human feces from surface waters.

Although the Clean Water Act (CWA) of 1972 is credited with putting an emphasis on surface waters, the act was really a much-amended outgrowth of the Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1948, which President Truman amplified with an executive order. The 1948 Act had as least as much to do with reducing the incidence of polio as did the vaccines that came a few years later because it reduced the human sewage in bodies of freshwater, sewage that was contributing to viral transmission.

The Golden State leads others in environmental efforts, including waste reduction. The California Integrated Waste Management Act of 1989 set high targets for waste reduction (e.g., 50 percent by the year 2000). “Divert,” however, not “eliminate” is the word the Act and the rules that follow from it use.

Emphasis on diversion acknowledges that the activities of the world generate waste. By diverting waste— for example, grass clippings to a compost pile instead of a landfill (or worse, a storm drain)—there is definitely less consolidated waste. Similarly, reclaiming wood or metal from demolished buildings and queueing it for reuse is better than consolidating it at a landfill.

Where are we now? More and more communities mandate that residents separate trash at curbside. Days rarely pass when there is not a concern expressed somewhere in the country about access to clean water. And so on. Awareness is high. Efforts keep multiplying. But waste continues to be produced.

The approach of separating waste into more types (streams) and handling each stream separately has gained favor. (There are curmudgeons who wonder whether it would not be more efficient to build huge underground incinerators to burn all or most waste and use the heat as an energy resource, such as to heat steam to turn turbines?)

Our industry has done an enormous amount to reduce waste by doing more with less water and chemicals. There is also success in every direction with capturing wastewater, treating it on-site for immediate reuse, or sending it to a waste stream that allows it to be used for other purposes (e.g., watering gardens and golf courses). Again, in California, reuse of water has become so sophisticated that color-coded pipes distinguish potable from non-potable water.


The National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) leaves most of the planning regarding water with waste in it to municipalities and other authorities in charge of water supplies—i.e., operating publicly owned treatment works (POTWs). States have goals to meet and pollution limits not to exceed, and the water authorities report pollutant tallies to them.

Contractors with much experience in the industry combine a philosophical outlook (things change) with a practical perspective (keep up and forge ahead). John Cloud, president of Gorilla Kleen in Sarasota, FL, is one of them.

For one, says Cloud, rules may vary according to where wastewater heads. In a single municipality, using expended wash water on-site to irrigate may be acceptable, but collecting the water in a tank to haul it away to a disposal area may require a license for waste hauling. That’s the practical nature of it all, a reality that requires knowledge of and compliance with rules.

Then, there’s the philosophical side to everything. “I can’t think of a single thing we have done that lessens the impact of our cleaning,” says Cloud. “People make a mess, like spilled food grease and oils in the alley behind a restaurant, and we have to clean it up,” explains Cloud. “You can flush it down the storm drain, or down the sanitary sewer, or flush it out into the grass, but no matter what you do with it, it remains ‘waste’ nonetheless. We have nothing to make it any less ‘waste.’”

Indeed, oil and grease separators in the end yield material that must be either stored or used. It’s a complicated cycle.

“We clean a huge waste transfer station for the city each year,” says Cloud. “It is beyond gross—garbage trucks dump waste on the floor and machines push it across the floor into waiting hopper trucks for the trip to the dump. There is garbage literally everywhere. We clean the walls, floors, and everything else, but nothing changes. There is nothing we do to lessen the amount of garbage; it all still goes to the dump.”

One infamous landfill (dump), Fish Kill on Staten Island, NY, stopped accepting waste in 2001 and is now officially closed. Much reclamation work remains to be done across the original 2200 acres. A park rising on part of the site has become the place for a demonstration of the use of composted human feces (from solar toilets) as fertilizer.

The composting effort brings us to the reality that the most philosophical among us see: There will always be waste.

“I can’t say that I have seen a single thing that is lessening the amount of waste,” says Cloud, surveilling the current state of things. “Even if you are now working for a super environmental company, and they demand all water be recovered, it still has the same waste in it.”

Cloud gives us an example we can all appreciate: “Sort of like, ‘How do I wash my car and have less dirt when I am finished?’—Simple, clean your car when it is less dirty.”

The maximum-sorting approach to waste is itself not a waste-free endeavor. Receptacles for the separate sorts get dirty. They must be cleaned. And so on. It may not be a vicious cycle, but it is a bit of a tangle. Remove a vexing knot here, and another one appears there.

No one is giving up, however. The emphasis is on doing what’s possible, incrementally if not in quantum leaps.

The Pure Water Southern California program, a partnership between the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and the Los Angeles County Sanitation District, wants to take water used at homes, businesses, and industries and truly recycle it. That is, purify it so that it can be returned to ground water spaces and eventually purify it sufficiently so that it can enter the potable water supply.

Wastewater from some cleaning activities poses more management challenges than wastewater from familiar uses, such as cleaning structures, light vehicles, etc. Interior cleaning of tank containers (on trucks, rail cars, barges, ships) may fall under special EPA guidelines, such as Metal Products and Machinery Effluent. And there are specific EPA guidelines and standards for Transportation Equipment Cleaning.

Other spheres in which wastewater draws additional scrutiny from regulators include boiler cleaning (waste may include iron, copper, chromium, magnesium, nickel, and zinc) and healthcare facilities. Both spheres almost always involve contractors specialized in handling or working around hazardous wastes or materials.

Zero waste is a laudable goal. Is it possible? No (not unless the laws of thermodynamics are proven wrong), but we get the idea: Use the smallest amount necessary. Collect and reuse excess amounts. Find a use for waste—whether dirt, spent chemicals, or metallic residue.

And put the emphasis on doing more and more with less and less. That is, be as efficient as possible.

Cleaning waste can’t be taken to zero. But it can be minimized and managed.

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