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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Computerized Waste Exchange

Air Date: Week of

Gordon Black looks at an industrial waste exchange network coordinated on computer systems. The network helps companies with industrial "waste" to find other companies which can use that material in their own production process. However, supply of waste products far exceeds demand, and some environmentalists fear that potentially harmful material is simply being moved from place to place rather than disposed of properly.


CURWOOD: Every working day in America, about 25 million tons of industrial waste is created. Something is the wrong color, wrong shape or wrong size, and into the scrap heap it goes. Or a by-product, like sawdust or or used chemicals, is created. Getting rid of this waste can be troublesome and expensive. But more and more, people are forming networks to divert one firm's discards into another firm's new product. Waste exchanges aren't new, but in the increasing drive to recycle, they are finding new life. From Washington State, Gordon Black has our story.

(Sound of computer modem logging on)

BLACK: Sitting at a computer in Spokane, Washington, Bob Smee logs on to a new national network of waste exchanges. Smee directs the Pacific Materials Exchange, and helped establish this computerized network.

SMEE: Whatever would otherwise end up in a landfill or an incinerator, we would like to see put in this exchange network to try to find potential uses for.

BLACK: The computer network ties together the inventories of 32 of the 34 waste exchanges operating in the US and Canada. Most provide the service free of charge. Materials are listed in 17 categories, ranging from corrosive acids to goose feathers.

SMEE: There's just all kinds of strange, unusual things. I see here even fragrance, apple blossom concentrate, 220 gallons. In the Midwest there are a lot of agricultural wastes -- everything from chicken parts to rice hulls. In looking at these materials, it is kinda like going into a flea market or a garage sale.

BLACK: A sale that also includes toxic and hazardous materials you'd rather not have in your garage.

(Sound of mill rollers)

BLACK: Inside a warehouse south of Seattle, heavy rollers ooze a brightly-colored goop into plastic buckets. This is textile printing ink, made in custom colors by the QCM Company. Vice President Ray Wheeldon.

WHEELDON: If we incorrectly tint that color, that could be a case of generating waste. There's a regular waste stream with most plastic companies for this type of bad batch, or old batch, discontinued product.

BLACK: These bad batches are classified as hazardous waste. And it costs QCM up to $1000 a barrel to dispose of them. But in the world of materials exchange, QCM's waste is another company's manna. A listing in the quarterly catalog of the Industrial Materials Exchange, or IMEX, in Seattle, paired QCM with a roofing contractor who took 200 gallons of waste epoxy. On another occasion, QCM supplied a similar kind of waste to a ski-board manufacturer. Bill Lawrence is IMEX program coordinator.

LAWRENCE: The immediate benefit is businesses are saving money, they're saving money on disposal and furnishing the material, a raw material, a feedstock, to another business and probably also making some new business contacts.

BLACK: Lawrence says IMEX has fostered 200 exchanges in four years of operation, and saved business close to a half million dollars. But he says that for now, there are still four times as many companies offering waste as companies looking for reusable materials.

(Sound of Georgia-Pacific mill)

BLACK: Wood-pulp and paper giant Georgia-Pacific is one of the companies that are in the market for waste. Its plant in Bellingham, Washington, uses waste liquids from local chrome-plating shops in making lubricants, or muds, used in oil and gas drilling. Don Wines is the plant manager.

WINES: A single plater may have available 4 or 5 tank trucks of material, which could be 15, 20, 25,000 gallons of material. There is an economic advantage in the cost of this material versus virgin material from chemical suppliers.

BLACK: Wines estimates that Georgia-Pacific now gets 20 percent of its chromic acid through waste exchanges. Although waste exchanges may benefit the environment, environmentalists give them only cautious support. Some worry that they could lead to a shell game of industrial waste, with regulators losing sight of dangerous materials. Others are troubled that exchanges might remove incentives from companies to adopt materials that are not toxic. Carol Dansereau coordinates the Industrial Toxics Project of the Washington Toxics Coalition.

DANSEREAU: The emphasis in our society has been much more at the end of the pipe, and the exchanges are, again, an end-of-the-pipe sort of solution. They are preferable to landfilling and incinerating, no doubt, but they are not promoting alternative substance usage.

BLACK: But Robert Smee of the Pacific Materials Exchange defends the role that exchanges can play in recycling industrial waste.

SMEE: I think that it's somewhat naive to think that we are going to totally shut off materials that are produced that are unwanted.

BLACK: Smee says exchanges fill a niche in waste management. And with increasingly tighter regulation of all garbage, as well as rising costs for disposal, waste exchanges will have a growing role to play. This year alone, more than a dozen new exchanges will open. For Living on Earth, I'm Gordon Black in Seattle.



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