Commentary: Déjà Vu On Garbage Incineration

Neil Seldman

Neil Seldman
BioCycle April 2012, Vol. 53, No. 4, p. 58

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, advocates of “waste to energy” (WTE) were riding high, trying to cash in on the dual fears of energy shortages and landfill shortages. But spontaneous protests from citizens, environmentalists, small businesses and progressive officials defeated 300 planned garbage incinerators in every part of the country, and by the late 1980s more incinerators were being canceled than proposed.

By the mid 1990s new construction stopped. Recycling seized its opportunity. In 2010 the country recycled

85 million tons of raw materials from the waste stream, an increase over 15 million tons in l980 and 6 million tons in 1960. Today there are over one million jobs in the recycling sector, and the number could double if current trends continue. However, in the last couple of years, even as more and more of the waste stream has been diverted to composting, recycling and reuse, the WTE industry has gained a new lease on life. They’ve dusted off their technologies and are riding on the tide of desires for energy independence and ‘clean’ energy sources — despite the fact that WTE is neither clean nor renewable.

This resurgence is the result of several developments: 1) The rising volume of plastics, which have a very high energy content per pound since they are essentially oil, and the plastic industry’s woefully low recycling rates, have improved the economics of incineration; 2) Success by the industry in lobbying states to designate garbage burning as renewable energy, providing access to the handsome incentives given to real renewable energy sources such as wind and solar; 3) Similar success with winning federal Brownfield tax credits and commercialization loans and grants.

No incinerator has been built in the U.S. since l995. Will the tide turn? One new mass burn plant is under construction in Palm Beach, Florida, the result of a narrow, 3-2 victory at the County Commission. A gasification facility proposed for Orange County, New York has a federal loan guarantee, but is still seeking long-term commitments for waste. In Mason City, Iowa, a gasification company has offered to build a plant at no cost to the city, just to insure a flow of garbage for a pilot plant that, it hopes, will launch a U.S. “gasification manufacturing” center. It is unclear what will happen with hundreds of other proposals; several have been defeated.

The overall track record of pyrolysis, gasification and plasma arc are not favorable, and the market is inhabited by what may be considered fly by night operations. Cleveland may be the poster child for shoddy planning in this field by cities that can ill-afford misuse of hundreds of millions of dollars. The city’s permit for a gasification plant has just been tabled for lack of data.

Even when garbage incinerators work well, as in Montgomery County, Maryland, the cost is over $100 million to taxpayers, as the revenues from tip fees and electricity sales do not match the costs of operation and debt. The financial burden of garbage incineration plants has been costly in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Camden, New Jersey, Detroit and Duchess County, New York, among other low-income jurisdictions.

Handy Mythbusters

A growing number of groups have emerged to nip the reemergence of garbage incineration in the bud. The next time a developer rides into town selling garbage incineration and starts spinning tall tales, be armed with the facts and share them with your local officials and business community.

Myth 1: Trash burners are needed to reduce landfill disposal.

Fact: Trash burners encourage waste and wasting. Incinerators rely on minimum guaranteed waste flows, often called ‘put-or-pay’ contracts. Communities have to pay whether or not they have trash to burn, and as a result, typically burn large quantities of compostable and recyclable materials. For this reason, the recycling rate in Montgomery County, Maryland has stagnated at 40 percent for the past 10 years as waste is fed to an incinerator. In other jurisdictions diversion has reached 60 and 70 percent.

Myth 2: Trash burners are cost-effective and financially make sense.

Fact: Burning trash is the most expensive solid waste management technology available and is financially risky. Incinerator costs are far higher than costs for similarly sized recycling and composting systems. A 1,500 ton-per-day facility planned for Frederick County is slated to initially cost $600 million, and $1.2 billion over 20 years. A comparably sized recycling facility in Elk Ridge, Maryland, had a capital investment under $20 million. Incinerators require expensive air pollution control technology, which can represent 25 to 30 percent of capital costs. The Montgomery County, Maryland, incinerator could not attract sufficient tonnage, so tip fees were lowered and taxes increased to cover difference.

Myth 3: Modern incinerators do not pollute and have less environmental impact than other sources of electricity.

Fact: Incinerators pollute. All incinerators release pollutants through air and ash emissions that include acid gases, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, metals, dioxins and furans, and at least 190 volatile organic compounds. Waste incinerators emit more chemicals such as benzene and trichloroethylene than do fossil-fueled power plants. A recent public health impacts report found that modern incinerators in Europe are a major source of ultrafine particulate emissions that are bypassing pollution control equipment.

Myth 4: Incinerators are good for the climate.

Fact: Trash incinerators are bad for the climate. According to the US EPA, incinerators emit more CO2 per megawatt-hour than coal-fired, natural-gas-fired, or oil-fired power plants. Incinerators also emit nitrous oxide (N2O), a potent greenhouse gas that is approximately 300 times more effective than CO2 at trapping heat in the atmosphere. Furthermore, burning waste only generates a fraction of the energy that is saved by turning recyclable materials into new products. Organics recovery is the most effective strategy for reducing methane emissions from landfills. Far from benefiting the climate, subsidies to incinerators will encourage wasting, greater demand for energy and more resource consumption.

Myth 5: Communities with the highest levels of recycling have incinerators.

Fact: Incineration is a direct obstacle to maximizing recycling and composting. Communities with the highest levels of recycling — such as San Francisco and Seattle — have opted against incineration and have instead embraced zero waste planning, which includes food waste recovery through composting and anaerobic digestion. The trend in the country is to recycle and compost more waste, and to burn and landfill less of it. Los Angeles rejected five incinerators in l986 and has progressed to 66 percent diversion under a zero waste program.

Myth 6: Trash is renewable.

Fact: Incinerators destroy not conserve resources. Incinerators burn discarded resources and the embodied energy they contain. For every ton of material destroyed by incineration, many more tons of raw materials must be mined, processed or distributed to manufacture a new product to take its place. More trees must be cut down to make paper. More ore must be mined for metal production. More petroleum must be processed into plastics. On the whole, recycling materials versus burning them can save three to five times more energy.

Myth 7: Trash incineration is widely accepted.

Fact: Trash incineration is widely opposed. The dangers of incineration are widely known and have greatly influenced the public’s assessment of municipal solid waste incineration. This is the main reason no new incinerators have been built in the U.S. since the mid-1990s. Massachusetts has had a 20-year moratorium on building new incinerators. Over the last 2 years, as part of updating its solid waste management master plan, the state’s Department of Environmental Protection considered lifting this moratorium. It opted against this and instead issued a draft 2010-2020 Solid Waste Master Plan: A Pathway to Zero Waste, which calls for keeping in place the current moratorium on new municipal waste combustion facilities, expanding recycling and reuse of waste materials, ensuring greater producer responsibility for materials management, and increasing promotion of recycling businesses and green jobs.

Myth 8: Incinerators will create green jobs.

Fact: Incinerators have a very low job creation potential compared to other solid waste management systems. For every 10,000 tons/year going into an incinerator, one job is created. In contrast, sending that material to a composting facility would create four jobs. Recycling sustains 10 times the number of jobs on a per ton basis as incinerator disposal. However, making new products from the old offers the largest economic payoff in the recycling loop. New recycling-based manufacturers employ even more people and at higher wages than does sorting recyclables. For example, hand dismantling 10,000 tons of computers will create just under 300 jobs.

Myth 9: Europe burns its trash and is a good model for the U.S.

Fact: U.S. is not comparable to Europe. Europe has extensive policies in place to reduce packaging, require producer responsibility and product take-back, and eliminate chemicals of high concern in consumer products. Europe uses district heating loops for steam, avoiding cost of generating electricity.

Myth 10: Burning trash helps encourage renewable energy.

Fact: Qualifying waste combustion as a Tier 1 renewable would dilute Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS). Just because we generate more trash than we should does not mean that waste is a renewable resource; it is not. Burning trash competes with legitimate renewable energy such as wind, solar and anaerobic digestion (AD). Combustion also competes with legitimate reduction alternatives such as composting and AD. When incinerators are given renewable energy status, it dilutes the standard so much that it would negate the impact of the RPS in driving the development of renewable energy.

Neil Seldman is President of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR), which he cofounded in 1974. He specializes in approaches to municipal and commercial solid waste management that emphasize environmental quality and create economic development opportunities for small businesses, community organizations, and other targeted populations.

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