There has been good news and bad news in Tennessee in the last couple of weeks. Some of the bad news is that our dear governor, not content with throwing poor people off Tenncare, has decided to throw poor hospitals off it, too. Under his plan, struggling hospitals like Nashville General, and many rural hospitals, will not be reimbursed more than $10,000 for any Tenncare patient they take care of. Now, I’m not about to defend hospital price schemes, or many hospital practices, for that matter, but overpriced and unintuitive as it is, our current medical regime works hard to save people’s lives and ease their pain. Setting broken bones is setting broken bones, whether you do Reiki on the patient afterwards or not. Hospitals do have a legal and moral obligation to take care of people (and yes I know a lot of horror stories about what has happened when, for insurance reasons, they don’t), and if the state quits reimbursing them for that care, the net result over a few years is going to be fewer hospitals and less medical care for those on the bottom of our societal pyramid.
And, speaking of those on the bottom of the social pyramid, let’s talk some real trash, and more good news/bad news, like, the good news is, Tennessee leads the Southeast in the amount of landfill material we count as recycled….the bad news is that that appears to be the case only because we jigger our statistics, and everybody knows it, and a regional EPA representative who showed up at last week’s Davidson County Solid Waste Board meeting and at the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) review hearing said that our funny accounting makes us “the laughingstock” of the Southeastern solid waste disposal community….a “solid waste disposal community?”…who knew? But I digress….
Tennessee claims a remarkably high percentage of diversion from landfills, which is presumed to be “recycling,” but it seems that our near-70% figure (most states are in the 25% range) has been achieved by creating construction and demolition (C&D) landfills around the state and counting material that ends up in them instead of trash landfills as “diverted from the landfill.” As you may remember, there’s a big quarry out on McCrory Lane that some big operators wanted to fill with C&D trash…right next to the Harpeth River. Well, we kept that mistake from happening, but there are over 80 other C&D landfills in the state, and more bad news–due to Tennessee’s geology, almost all of them leak, as do almost all of our regular landfills.
More bad news–guess who tends to live near landfills? Why, poor people, wouldn’t ya know, rural poor people who get their water from wells and springs that are all too often contaminated by runoff from these landfills…so then they need Tenncare to help cover the sometimes awful consequences of imbibing low levels of serious pollutants, but, gee, the Guv just cut their access to Tenncare….round and round we go….gotta pay for those roads, y’know….
Hey, I’m not just some radical conspiracy theorist making this stuff up. That EPA guy I mentioned, Jon Johnston, called the pattern of dump sites in Tennessee “racist.” It seems to me that if somebody from the government says something is “racist,” that kind of makes it official, doesn’t it? So…all the trash generated by us rich white folks ends up poisoning low-income people of color, just like all the carbon we white folks spew is baking and inundating…dark-complexioned people in third world countries….is there a pattern here?
OK, good news–it looks like TDEC has finally been shamed into closing the C&D loophole….bad news, the C&D dumps that are still open get to stay open, and will keep leaching nasties into the water table. At least the building boom is over.
Some further peculiarities of Tennessee waste disposal law have to do with food waste and its potential as animal feed and compost.
The average grocery store discards about a thousand pounds of unsaleable produce and other over-age food every week. Used to be, farmers could take this and feed it to their animals, no problem. But the garbage haulers looked at this, and they had a problem. They wanted to get paid to haul that “food waste” to their landfills, so they had the state pass a regulation that said that all food waste must be heated to 140 degrees before it could be fed to farm animals. Farmers, by and large, are not equipped to do this, and so the garbage haulers stopped a reasonable recycling program and fattened their own wallets, as well as increasing the load on Tennessee landfills.
They also tweaked the regulations on making compost out of this material, i.e., feeding it to worms, the only kind of livestock exempted from the 140 degree requirement. They wrote the law so that you could bring anything in to your farm, but made it illegal to sell compost, classifying it as “toxic waste.”
The good news is, it looks like a lot of this is about to change. There’s two kinds of green consciousness involved: Greenback consciousness, and green living consciousness.
Greenback consciousness is about all the money it’s costing to bury recyclables in landfills. Bruce Wood, who has devoted decades to advocating for saner solid waste policies, estimates that a quarter of what is “thrown away” in Nashville (and I put that in quotes because there is no “away”), a quarter of Nashville’s solid waste is compostable, and another quarter is paper. Composting and recycling this material, Bruce calculates, would save Nashville thirty thousand dollars a day in hauling and dumping fees, as well as creating useful, valuable compost and paper that doesn’t come from sacrificing trees. Thirty thousand dollars a day…that’s a hundred and fifty thou a week, someplace around seven and a half million dollars a year…like I said, greenback consciousness has a certain leverage.
Let me put this another way to help you understand the scale of this. A thousand tons, two million pounds, of compostable materials enter Nashville’s waste stream every week. Handled properly, this could produce about 330 tons of finished compost per week. Wouldn’t that make this city’s gardens grow!?
More good news. The solid waste folks have confessed that their stringent regulations on composting are based on sewage sludge handling procedures, and that there needs to be a separate, much looser category for “vegetative compost.”
The problem with sewage sludge isn’t from what you’re supposed to put in your toilet, although mixing that with water does make it nastier than it has to be. The problem comes from the myth of “throwing things away,” and all the toxic substances that people “throw away” that end up at the sewage treatment plant.
Out of the toilet and back to “vegetative compost”–it looks like we’re not just talking theory here. Recycling activist Glenn Christman, who has been working to get a municipal composting operation off the ground (well, on the ground, really) for several years, reports that Metro’s Public Works Department has offered him five acres for a pilot program, and that TSU, while still reeling from being used by the Maytown Center gang, is ready to launch a program that will compost all the University’s food waste for use by the school’s ag department.
Meanwhile, Waste Management Incorporated, which has been the bad guy behind the restrictive regulations I have been describing, has realized that there is money to be made in compost, and has become a major investor in “Harvest Power,” a company that is planning to set up and manage municipal composting operations all over North America. I’m not clear why this needs to be done by private, for profit industry, but in a capitalist economy it’s a good sign, as long as the boys from WMI don’t start putting their competitors through the compost choppers….
music: Drive-by Truckers, “Puttin’ People on the Moon”