Given the recent onslaught of storms responsible for flooding Atlanta, killing eight people and causing an estimated $250 million in damages to homes, roads and other infrastructure, it is important to consider the recovery and cleanup that takes place after a storm.
Additionally, with climate change predicted to amplify the intensity and the number of climate events such as hurricanes in the U.S., being prepared for natural disasters only grows more important.
According to the EPA’s “Planning for Natural Disaster Debris” guide, more cities and states in the U.S. need to create “disaster debris management plans” that are tailored to specific regions and their associated natural disasters.
The EPA also notes that, when implemented, emergency plans for dealing with the influx of debris after a storm can help reduce uncertainty about what to do with this disaster-generated mess, provide for a safer cleanup benefitting the environment, as well as human health, and promote a more organized and cost-effective cleanup strategy.
Preparing for the Worst
First and foremost, after a disaster occurs, caring for the people affected by the earthquake, flood, hurricane or tornado is the most important priority. Once people have been provided the necessary shelter, food and water, the focus can then start to shift to the cleanup of affected areas.
According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) “Public Assistance: Debris Management Guide,” debris removal makes up almost one-third (27 percent) of the total costs associated with natural disaster damages.
The destruction left in the wake of a storm can be daunting to municipal and state agencies because the sheer volume of debris can jam up the local landfills, often with perfectly recyclable material.
Therefore, the EPA suggests having multiple waste mitigation strategies in its guide because “relying on only one […] debris management option may not be sufficient to handle the overwhelming amount of debris generated by a disaster.”
The main ways to manage debris after a natural disaster include:
- Regular disposal (sending debris to the landfill)
- Combustion (burning)
- Composting (for vegetative material)
The first two strategies, landfill disposal and burning, are employed frequently after a natural disaster. This is largely in part because existing facilities often make dumping disaster debris in the landfill the fastest way to get rid of material and move the cleanup process along.
Also in its Public Assistance guide, FEMA condones burning as a strategy to reduce the high volume of debris such as vegetative material, because it reduces the volume to be sent to the landfill.
However, burning can have negative effects on the surrounding environment as well as human health, according to the EPA. If materials such as electronics or hazardous household waste are swept up in the burning process on accident, dangerous chemicals can be released into the air or leech into the ground. Burning storm debris can also have negative effects on air quality because it produces particulate matter, which can cause lung problems for people with preexisting health problems as well as young children.
To reduce the high volume of material sent to the landfill and to curb the negative effects of burning, some cities are looking to their municipal composting facilities and recycling services as an alternative to burning.
For example, after a windstorm, the City of Burnsville, Minn., opened the municipal composting facilities up to private residents who could (for a fee) bring in their yard waste produced by the storm. Not only was burning prevented, but efforts such as these help divert precious compostable, carbon-rich material from a mummified life in the landfill.
When it comes to cleaning up after an intense storm or other natural disaster, recycling is the other key strategy that can divert a large portion of disaster debris from going unused.
According to FEMA, “recycling disaster-related debris has financial and environmental advantages.” Because landfills charge tipping fees on a per ton basis to dispose of waste, lessening the amount of debris that arrives there translates into monetary savings for the agencies in charge of cleanup.
In addition, when material is recycled, the “potential end-use products for specific markets may offset the cost of operations even more,” says FEMA.
Barriers to Recycling After a Disaster
It is well understood that recycling is a crucial strategy for mitigating the need to send massive amounts of material to the landfill after a natural disaster. However, when recycling programs do not exist in an affected area, it is often difficult to start from scratch.
In the south and southeastern portion of the U.S. — the area hit hardest by storms each year in the country — existing municipal recycling programs are often lacking, according to a report by Resource Recycling.
To help boost recycling opportunities in the region, the Southeast Recycling Development Council is a non-profit organization that seeks to “unite industry, government and non-government organizations to promote sustainable recycling in the Southeast.” Efforts such as these are important because the South is hit by hurricanes almost every year.
In addition, perceptions about recycling need to change if recycling is to occur more often after a natural disaster. According to Resource Recycling magazine, Department of Environmental Quality official Mark Williams suggested that after Hurricane Katrina hit in late August of 2005, “recycling was perceived to slow everything down” and thus not pursued seriously as a waste mitigation strategy.
What is Recyclable, Anyway?
There are various types of debris generated after a natural disaster. Often, the type of disaster produces specific types of debris., and anticipating this waste can help with management and cleanup.
In general, common types of debris generated from natural disasters that are often recyclable/reusable include:
- Concrete and asphalt (can be crushed and used as a base material for certain road construction products)
- Trees (can be made into wood chips or pellets for fuel)
Electronics, (sometimes known as “brown” goods in some management plans) are a particularly important concern, because they contain hazardous materials. These goods need to be properly disposed of (and recycled where available) according to state laws and should not be sent to a landfill. Some examples include:
- Other electronics
Additionally, “white” goods can typically be salvaged for their metal value and consist of items such as:
Looking Towards the Future
When it comes to recycling debris generated from natural disasters, the potential gains are significant. In our fast-paced, modern world, news stories buzz from one topic to the next at lightening speed. So, when it comes to natural disasters, people may only know about the actual event of the hurricane, tornado, earthquake or flood, but miss the most important aspect when help is most needed, the aftermath and cleanup.
By shifting the focus from the devastation of the natural disaster to the best possible preparation, management and adaptation strategies for dealing with a disaster event, safer and more cost-effective cleanup strategies can be deployed, saving governments time and money, and moving them along the path to reconstruction.