Waste Not, Want Not

Waste Exchanges Save Energy and Landfill Space

Ancient wisdom teaches that one person's trash is another person's gold. The pundits never predicted, however, that the “gold” would take names like “diphenylacetonitrile” and “Povidone K-30 BP/EP.” There's no magic alchemy involved—just a growing business called waste exchange. Waste exchanges, also known as materials exchanges, are services that helps industrial companies find buyers for leftover goods and byproducts that would otherwise be discarded. Corporate toxins are never given a chance to enter the environment, landfill growth is slowed, energy is saved by reuse instead of creation, and the companies reduce expenses for purchasing, disposal and transportation.

”[Companies] are saving a lot of money and keeping materials out of landfills,” says Mark Toussaint, assistant director of WasteCap, which maintains the New Hampshire Materials Exchange (NHME). “There are times when we're exchanging 50,000 pounds a month, and we're a small exchange.” WasteCap began in 1991, founded by the Business and Industry Association of New Hampshire. Since then, state and federal funding, plus corporate sponsorships, have kept NHME and the country's other nonprofit materials exchanges afloat.

Like personals listings, the exchanges are primarily information services, linking suppliers with buyers. The listings usually include materials wanted and materials available, subdivided into categories (like batteries). The sales and transportation are worked out by the companies involved without the exchange's involvement. Typically, an exchange operates in a small region, such as a city or a county, and serves local industries. As Gene Jones, executive director of the Southern Waste Information Exchange (SWIX), points out, “If you're in Pensacola it makes more sense to work with somebody in Mississippi or Alabama than in, for example, Miami.” Waste exchange is most successful, Jones says, when the two companies are within 250 miles of each other.

There are more than 70 regional exchanges around the U.S. Jones estimates that six of these are for-profit ventures, which speculate and buy materials from companies to sell them for a small margin. The for-profit exchanges either take a cut from their deals, or actually repackage the materials to sell them. These exchanges deal only with materials they can profit from, making them less valuable for saving landfill space. Nonprofit waste exchanges usually charge nothing for their services and deal with anything sent their way. “The value of nonprofits in saving landfill space can be considerable,” Jones says, “because you're diverting materials that typically have a low market value from the landfill.”

The “waste” category can include all sorts of surprises. One British site lists more than 14 tons of chocolate drink powder in 44-pound bags. Chocophobes might want to consider the 1.6 million pounds of seed corn available in Iowa. SWIX currently offers, among its acids and slag, 300 movie theater seats. American exchanges offer mostly non-hazardous supplies, such as used wood, rubber, corrugated containers and paper. Foreign waste exchanges often include vats of hazardous chemicals.

Waste exchange as an environmental consideration began in Europe in the early 1970s; the first exchange in America opened in 1973. Though the exchanges had considerable early success, government spending cutbacks on waste management funding in the 1980s made business near-inoperable, forcing many exchanges to close. Changes to the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) also put a greater burden on companies delivering hazardous wastes, reducing their ability or resolve to use exchange services.

The recent boom in computer technology has revived the waste exchange movement. Internet waste exchanges are now popping up, scattered all over the world. WasteCap went online in 1997. “It's been great for us,” Toussaint says. “We get twice as much activity from the Internet than through mail or fax now.” E-mailed information requests, according to Jones, have become SWIX's primary source of traffic, growing from two percent of the total requests in 1996, to 34 percent in 1997, 58 percent in 1998, and an estimated 65 percent in 1999. Internet-accessed national databases are now emerging, such as the Chicago Board of Trade's Recyclables Exchange.

According to Pat Pesacreta, an Environmental Protection Agency economist, the federal government does not currently fund waste exchanges but does promote their use. Corporate sponsorships are a far greater source of funding, and with good cause. SWIX statistics show that each dollar invested in their operations saved waste generators $30 in disposal costs. Such results work both ways: Kansas City's surplus exchange, for example, reports having provided $375,000 worth of equipment to 1,700 non-profit organizations.

The results by weight of waste exchange operations are impressive. Since 1992, CALMEX, the California Materials Exchange, has diverted over 650,000 tons of materials from landfills and saved companies over $5.5 million in disposal costs. The Iowa Waste Exchange claims to have diverted 293,860 tons and saved its companies $6.7 million. Texas' Resource Exchange Network for Eliminating Waste (RENEW) was founded in 1988 and since has exchanged over 712 million pounds of material. RENEW reports having saved participating firms over $6 million in avoided disposal costs, while bringing the organization almost $6 million from the materials' sale. The New England Materials Exchange claims to have diverted over 2,245 tons just last year.

Mara Neville, a spokeswoman for the anti-litter group Keep America Beautiful, says, “Waste Exchanges are fantastic. What's not to like about them?” Waste exchanges have grown quickly from high-minded concept to profitable businesses, a sure sign that they're here to stay.