An editor of The New York Times asked Neil Seldman to respond to the Times article by Elizabeth Rosenthal, (Europe Finds Clean Energy in Trash, but U.S. Lags)
The comment was published in the Times discussion forum, Room for Debate.
Environmental questions are not the primary concerns of many in the U.S. who oppose garbage incineration. While environmental concerns usually wake people up, the economic and financial issues are paramount. Cities and counties cannot afford the cost of building waste-to-energy plants, which typically cost $650 million per plant. With 20 years of bond payments this would amount to $1.3 billion, plus operating costs.
The difference between Denmark and the U.S. is that we have landfills giving us time to carry out more recycling and composting that are 10 percent the cost of incineration. Plus the raw materials returned to industry and agriculture, create jobs, (about 5 to 10 more jobs vs. incineration in just processing, and much more in manufacturing).
Oakland for example has created 1,000 jobs in the past 10 years by investing in recycling and composting instead of incineration. Their tax base has expanded through these jobs and small businesses. Jobs are created as value is added to the raw materials.
The country’s modest 33 percent recycling rate supports over 1 million jobs. Another 1 million jobs are waiting if the country doubles its current diversion rate. This is easily doable in the next 5 years, simply by adopting and adapting the best state-of-the-art practices.
That is why cities and counties are building resource recovery parks to keep materials local. Half the materials in the waste stream, if properly processed, have active markets within a 50-mile radius of cities that generate the materials.
In World War II the country had to make do with local materials or do without. There are 500 million tons of municipal solid waste (MSW) and construction and demolition debris that we cannot waste without severe economic pain. Los Angeles, for example, recovers 94 percent of its construction and demolition materials. New rules, economic incentives and equipment used there and in other cities and counties could be applied throughout the U.S.
If the incineration industry does not tie up waste streams for 20 years it cannot survive. But recycling, composting and anaerobic digestion are emerging so quickly, and are so much more economical than both incineration and landfilling, that the industry is desperate. Hence the investment of millions by the industry in donations to Congress, state legislatures and local councils and commissions to gain subsidies and exemptions from pollution regulations. But it won’t work to overcome the huge costs to build and operate incinerators. Every local community that has investigated the issue is saying no to new incinerators.
Even when a facility works, as in Montgomery County, Md., it needs $40 million a year in subsidies to cover costs above revenue from energy sales and tip fees. Citizens pay a surcharge of from $200 to $400 per household.
We should – given the space, time and budgets we have – make the transition from waste management to resource management.
Neil Seldman is co-founder and president of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. He is the author of “The U.S. Recycling Movement 1945-95,” and “Wasting and Recycling in the United States 2000.”