The Environmental Protection Commission has entered into a contract for a research project to examine if a wider view should be used to determine how things are thrown away.

The DNR’s Tom Anderson says the law created in 1987 determined the success of what was recycled based on the weight of what went into landfills. “Weight is not necessarily the best measure of environmental impact. And it’s kind of what sustainable material management is looking at,” Anderson says, “”it’s looking at the environmental impacts from raw material extraction through the production, distribution, use and ultimately disposal.”

Anderson says the program created 30 years ago was appropriate for the time. “It was easy because all you needed was the weight — eventually all the landfills had scales — so the weight was an easy number to grasp. And then an easy number to use that and say we landfilled less than we did the previous year, our programs must be working,” according to Anderson. “That very well could be true, but environmentally we still don’t know if the actions we are doing here are better for the environment, or should we be doing alternative actions.”

He says looking beyond how much space something takes in the landfill could show that landfilling isn’t the best way to handle it. “If you look at it more holistically and look at it upstream so to speak — back to that raw material extraction — there may be more impacts to environment by recycling it than disposing it,” Anderson explains.

Anderson says one example that has been studied is coffee containers — which can be metal cans, plastic cans or pouches. The costs for each container from when it was made to when it is thrown away were analyzed. He says you have energy and water and air emissions in the manufacture of the cans or pouches. And then when you look at distribution, the cans are heavier and bigger and the environmental impact is more because it takes more trucking to move them than it does the pouches. He says all the factors showed them something.

“You come to find that overall from start to finish the environmental impact is greater for the metal can than it is if you were to dispose of that pouch,” Anderson says. Anderson says the research project will establish a vision for Iowa waste management that considers environmental impacts and create a detailed plan to engage everyone in carrying out that vision.

The effort will begin December 1st and Anderson says they hope to have it completed by September.