Friday, December 09, 2005

Disgrace at the DEP

There are two expressions that we are extremely fond of, and they both are applicable to the minions toiling so hard over at the city's Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). The first, coined by the sociologist Thorsten Veblen, is "trained incapacity." The phrase refers to the kind of learning that, owing to its narrow focus, makes it difficult for the student to understand anything outsider of the constrained scope of his training. The second, given to us by social philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre is the notion that "bureaucratic expertise is one of the great moral fictions of our time."

In regards to the DEP both outlooks shed light on the agency's obstructionist attitude toward the use of food waste disposers. The trained incapacity prevents mangers from seeing anything outside of their own agency training. Any new and potentially contradictory knowledge ("cognitive dissonance") is resisted mightily. The fact that, for instance, the city of Philadelphia has successfully implemented the use of commercial food waste disposers is studiously ignored, to the extent that no one from the DEP has even bothered to contact the managers in Philly. In addition, the agency's opposition to a pilot highlights how much new ideas and point-of-views aren't even entertained.

The moral fiction of DEP's bureaucratic expertise is underscored by the fact that the two leading researchers on disposers, Dr. Carol Diggelman and Dr. Robert Ham, have studied the impact issues of FWDs and concluded, "Sending food waste through FWDs is an effective way to manage food waste.” This conclusion was reached after an exhaustive comparative study of all of the different methods for disposing of food waste, including composting. After reading the researcher's study it is hard to see why DEP would resist even a pilot program.

The professor's work does tackle one issue that has been the drumbeat focus of DEP's (and some enviros) opposition to FWDs: the impact of nitrogen on the waste water. Talk about fiction! Here's the money quote,
"Adding food waste carbon to a carbon limited waste water system contributes to a net removal of nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus) from effluent, if nutrients are assimilated into a biomass and removed from the system as sludge."
Which is exactly what the NYC system does. The end result is that,
"It [the use of FWDs with a water treatment plant infrastructure] produces the most food waste byproduct in the form of sludge. Food waste going to waste water systems captures residual value in food waste as it produces sludge during treatment, assimilating nitrogen and phosphorus, and it is used as a soil amendment."
This sludge, sold in Wisconsin for around $15 a ton, is in great demand for farmers and the supply isn't nearly enough to keep pace with the demand. In other words, compost is created, the waste is recycled and in the process truck traffic, emissions and rotting food waste is removed from being a hazard to the public health. Bureaucratic expertise indeed!