Broken cars, burnt trees, soggy insulation: disaster cleanup is expensive, time consuming and unnecessary


By Sybil Derrible, Juyeong Choi and Nazli Yesiller

Communities in the southeast and midwestern United States will for some time assess the damage from the deadly, widespread tornado outbreak from December 10 to 11, 2021. But it’s clear that cleanups will take months, if not decades. years.

Sybille Derible
Juyeong Choi

Dealing with huge amounts of debris and waste is one of the biggest challenges for communities following natural disasters. Often, this task overwhelms local waste managers, leaving the waste untouched for weeks, months or even years.

The most destructive and costly wildfire in California history, Camp Fire, killed 85 people and destroyed nearly 19,000 structures in November 2018. A year later, crews were still picking up and taking away piles of wood, metals, appliances, contaminated soil, toxic household products, chemicals and other debris and waste totaling over 3.2 million metric tonnes, or about the weight of 2 million cars.

Nazli Yesiller

Hurricane Michael, which hit Florida in October 2018, left an estimated 13 million cubic meters of debris. To visualize what that looks like, imagine a stack of 13 million boxes, each the size of a washer and dryer. More than a year later, the teams were still removing the waste.

As researchers who study urban engineering, disaster planning and management, and waste management, we consider this to be a critical and under-researched issue. Disasters will continue to occur and the losses they cause will continue to increase due to climate change, population growth, urbanization, deforestation and aging infrastructure. Societies urgently need better strategies to deal with the waste these events leave behind.

Woman sorts soggy materials in roofless building
In the aftermath of Hurricane Ida, Amy Voisin cleans up a heavily damaged bowling alley in Houma, Louisiana on August 31, 2021. AP Photo / David J. Phillip)

Wreck trails

Climate-related disasters like floods, landslides, storms, forest fires, and extreme heat and cold waves afflict millions of people around the world. These events have multiplied over time, especially over the past few decades, as have the losses they cause.

In 2020, the United States experienced a record 22 natural disasters each causing at least $ 1 billion in damage. For 2021, the tally stood at 18 of these events until early October. The mid-December tornado outbreak will undoubtedly add to this.

Map showing the location of major storms, floods and wildfires in the United States.
Eighteen separate billion dollar weather and climate disasters hit the United States from January through September 2021. (NOAA Map)

Disasters typically produce thousands to millions of tonnes of debris in a single event. For example, hurricane waste includes vegetation, such as trees and shrubs; municipal solid waste, such as household garbage; construction and demolition materials; Vehicles; and household hazardous materials, including paints, cleaning agents, pesticides and pool chemicals.

Forest fire debris largely consists of ash, contaminated soil, metal and concrete, as well as other structural debris and hazardous household items such as paints, cleaners, solvents, oils. , batteries, herbicides and pesticides.

Dangerous and on the way

Collecting and cleaning up debris in the aftermath of a disaster is a slow, expensive and dangerous process. First, crews clear debris from roads used for rescue efforts. They then move the material to temporary storage areas. No one has yet invented a way to easily sort or contain hazardous materials, so that they remain mixed with the mass of debris. This poses major challenges for the reuse and recycling of post-disaster waste.

Beyond the direct health and safety risks, debris also threatens the environment. It can emit air pollutants and contaminate groundwater, surface water and soil. Uncollected debris and waste can hamper rescue and recovery efforts and slow reconstruction efforts.

For example, when Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans in 2005, it left an estimated 75 million cubic meters of trash that hampered and slowed recovery efforts. The debris included nearly 900,000 white goods, such as refrigerators, 350,000 cars and more than 16,000 metric tons of rotten meat. Cleanup costs have been estimated at around $ 4 billion.

Residents of Liberty City, Fla., Complain about dirt and odors from handling debris after Hurricane Irma in 2017.

Towards the reuse of disaster waste

During an expert workshop we organized in 2019, we identified steps to sustainably manage disaster debris and waste. In our view, the key tasks are to (1) identify what is contained in this waste; (2) find better approaches to recycling and reuse; (3) design new technologies to identify hazardous components and sort the different types of waste; and (4) develop markets to promote reuse and recycling.

Today, public officials and planners know little about the amount and types of materials generated in disasters – what they contain, in what proportions, whether they are large and sortable or fine and mixed, and how many can be reused or recycled. The development of new technologies and management approaches that can aid in the characterization, reuse and recycling of debris should be a top priority.

The remains of a mobile home park in Sylmar, Calif., After 480 of the park’s 600 mobile homes were set on fire in the Sayre fire in November 2008. (Photo by FEMA / Wikipedia)

For example, drones and autonomous sensing technologies can be combined with artificial intelligence to estimate the quantities and quality of debris, the types of materials they contain, and how they can be reused quickly. Technologies that allow rapid sorting and separation of mixed materials can also speed up debris management operations.

To reverse the problem, creating new sustainable building materials – especially in disaster-prone areas – will make it easier to reuse debris after disasters.

Finally, new business models can help generate demand for and access to waste and recycled products. With proper sorting, some disaster materials can be used to make new products or materials. For example, whole felled trees can become wood resources for furniture makers. Today, opportunities to match materials with markets are wasted – pun intended.

About this article

This is an updated version of an article originally published on December 10, 2019.The conversation

About the Authors: Sybil Derrible is Associate Professor of Sustainable Infrastructure Systems at the University of Illinois at Chicago; Juyeong Choi is Assistant Professor at Florida A&M University-Florida State University College of Engineering, Florida State University, and Nazli Yesiller is Director of the Global Waste Research Institute at California Polytechnic State University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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