President Joe Biden's Build Back Better plan has proposed an American transformation — repairing crumbling roads and broken bridges, boosting clean energy, and re-energizing social infrastructure to unleash our human potential. Learning how to do this while changing how we manage the materials we use is key to reaching a more sustainable future, because our use of things underlies our lifestyles and defines our footprint on the planet. Incorporating sustainable materials management into the infrastructure bill will create even more jobs, result in even greater environmental benefits, and further address environmental justice inequities.
Standard infrastructure is all about steel, concrete and asphalt. We usually take our old concrete and reuse it. Most American steel is from recycled metal, and almost all old asphalt gets reused. Good! But we can do a lot better, by adopting innovations in asphalt binders and cementing, and updating steel production. When we need new concrete and asphalt we need to implement better options than using sand, because mining sand threatens our Long Island drinking water aquifers, and around the world is destroying habitats, especially rivers. Substituting wastes like coal ash in place of cement and sand reduces impacts from these wastes and avoids extracting raw materials, solving several problems at once.
On Long Island we landfill more than 1,000 pounds per person per year of materials from remodeling and construction — several million tons in total, a number sure to grow under the infrastructure plan. We need to incentivize new job site management so that fixtures, wood, bricks, wallboard and roofing materials can be salvaged, not dumped in the landfill. It requires more work, and skilled, high-paying crafts jobs, but produces useful resources and greatly reduces waste.
Americans use and discard a lot of stuff, about 5 pounds of garbage per person per day on Long Island, about half of which could be recycled but isn’t. Waste facilities like landfills, incinerators and transfer stations (called LULUs for "locally undesirable land uses") go where land is cheap — often in minority or economically-disadvantaged communities, an environmental injustice. Institutions (like senior centers, day care centers, schools and even our own university) typically have inferior recycling programs and so produce more than their fair share of waste; changing that culture and providing equipment and training to foster recovery will reduce our need for inequitable disposal processes.
Most Long Island recycling programs separate about 30% of our wastes, and we expect those recyclables to be recovered into new products. But for decades we exported them to China and other countries where low-cost labor and disposal meant poorly sorted materials were only sometimes being reused, sometimes ending up in the ocean — including lots of our plastics. We can upgrade our recycling facilities using robotics and sorting machinery, resulting in higher-grade, more usable product streams, suitable for American industries. This will also allow us to target other materials to expand recovery. We can bend our extract-make-use-dispose, one-way linear economy toward one that is make-use-reuse — circular. A circular materials economy doesn’t mean having fewer things — it means finding ways that old materials can be regenerated and revitalized. It means elevating the virtue of old-fashioned thrift, using irreplaceable natural resources more sparingly but repeatedly.
Build Back Better, indeed.
This guest essay reflects the views of David Tonjes, director of the Waste Data & Analysis Center at Stony Brook University, and Jessica Gurevitch, professor of ecology and evolution at Stony Brook University.