Why are garbage incinerators such a bad deal for communities?
In this episode of the Local Energy Rules podcast, host John Farrell speaks with Marie Donahue, ILSR researcher, and Neil Seldman, Director of ILSR’s Waste to Wealth Initiative, about the harmful impacts of burning trash to generate electricity. The three spoke for a recent episode of the Institute’s Building Local Power podcast, reproduced here.
The conversation dives into ILSR’s late-2018 report Waste Incineration: A Dirty Secret in How States Define Renewable Energy, highlights the harmful impacts of burning trash to generate electricity, and outlines what steps cities like Baltimore are taking to shut down these dirty facilities and build a healthier, local clean energy future.
Interested in listening to more discussions that dig into the ways local communities can build power and break the hold of corporate monopolies across sectors?
Subscribe to the Institute’s Building Local Power podcast for the original release of this episode and for many more thought-provoking conversations.
A transcript and summary of the reproduced episode follow.
|Marie Donahue:||Why are garbage incinerators such a bad deal for communities? In this episode of Local Energy Rules, John Farrell, director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance’s Energy Democracy Initiative, is joined by me, Marie Donahue, and Neil Seldman, co-founder of ILSR and director of the Waste to Wealth Initiative, to discuss why designating garbage burning as a renewable energy resource is so problematic. The three sat down for a recent episode of the Institute’s Building Local Power podcast, which we have reproduced here to highlight the harmful impacts of burning trash to generate electricity and what steps cities like Baltimore are taking to shut down these dirty facilities and build a healthier, local clean energy future.
This is Local Energy Rules. A podcast sharing powerful stories about local, renewable energy.
|John Farrell:||I’m John Farrell, Co-director of the Institute for Local Self reliance with me this week are Marie Donahue, ILSR researcher and author of ” Waste Incineration: A Dirty Secret in How States Define Renewable Energy.” Welcome Marie.|
|Marie Donahue:||Thanks for having me. John.|
|John Farrell:||Also with me is Neil Seldman, ILSR co-founder, director of our Waste to Wealth initiative and the death knell to dozens of garbage incinerators across the country. Welcome Neil.|
|Neil Seldman:||Pleasure to be here with both you and Marie.|
|John Farrell:||Today, I’m excited to talk to the two of you about how communities can save money, have healthier kids, and create more jobs by shutting down garbage incinerators. And I’d like to start with something very recent. Neil, I was hoping you could explain how recent city council decision in Baltimore will impact the Wheelabrater Incinerator that’s responsible for so much of the city’s industrial pollution.|
|Neil Seldman:||About two weeks ago now, the city council voted unanimously 14 to zero with one, uh, absent person at one city council member absent who would have voted for the act as well. But the Baltimore Clean Air Act sets new standards for both burning garbage and burning a hospital and hazardous waste in the city of Baltimore. It requires that the both incinerators meet the state of the art best practices in pollution control equipment. It requires a constant monitoring coming out of the incinerator, uh, which is a technologically possible, and it also requires that the information on the constant monitoring constant monitoring, be made public on a webpage as is being done in Montgomery County, Maryland, uh, just to the south of Baltimore, Maryland. Um, the, um, uh, the situation in Baltimore is slightly different from Montgomery County, which we can get into. But in Baltimore, the Wheelabrater company owns a facility called Briscoe, B, R, E, S, C, O.
And that facility is about 35 to 40 years old. The city sends its nonrecycled waste to that incinerator in downtown Baltimore. Um, it, most of the materials generated in Baltimore go there because the city has a very low recycling rate estimated between 14 and 19%. By comparison, the national average is 34 and of course, some cities are at 50, 60, and 70%. Um, so if the city stopped sending its garbage there. In theory, because it’s a privately owned facility, that facility can import garbage from anywhere they want to. Baltimore County in New York City to fill in for the garbage that is not delivered by the city. However, with the passage of this law — it is not signed yet, Mayor Pugh has said she was going to sign it — It has not happened yet. It will become law if she doesn’t sign it in about five or six days. [Editorial note: The Baltimore Clear Air Act, mentioned here was signed by the Mayor shortly after we recorded this interview on March 7, 2019. More information about the policy can be found in the show notes.]
It will become law, the importance of the law. It will require any facility, private or public to meet these new standards. Um, and um, it will therefore prevent the incinerator from continuing to operate with private sector trash of public trash if it does not make the adjustments to pollution control, uh, that will, um, allow it to meet best available control technology. Vice president of the Wheelabrater Corporation already mentioned that if this law came to pass, they will probably, actually, he said certainly you have to shut the incinerator because the cost of putting on new pollution control equipment is about $70 million. And that pollution control equipment will require about $11 million a year of operating expenses. These expenses for the corporation are just too much for it to continue operating this plant. Um, in theory it could knock down the plant and build another, uh, a more modern plant. But that is highly unlikely. The legislation can be used in at least 11 other states according to Mike Ewall, who wrote the bill, he works for the energy justice network and, there are about 11 other states where this strategy can be used. That would include at least a eight other existing old incinerators, Detroit, Annapolis among those eight other cities that have existing plants.
|John Farrell:||Great. Well let’s plan to come back to that too because I want to talk about at the end, sort of a big wrap up with some of the findings in Marie’s report as well as this, Neil, of what is it that cities can do? You know, I want to talk a little bit about why Baltimore, took this direction in terms of the incinerator and was hoping, Marie, that you could give us some of like big picture here in your report, about incineration and renewable energy. You talk about three reasons that incinerators in general are a bad deal for communities. And I was hoping that you could just kind of walk us through those reasons so we can understand why it is a community like Baltimore is having such an issue with this particular facility.|
|Marie Donahue:||In this report we released in December late last year, we overview these three reasons that are, that we found in the literature and in our reporting about why municipal solid waste incinerators are such a bad deal. The first being that the economics of these facilities really don’t add up. That incinerators are risky investments for the local governments and utilities that are helping support and subsidize them, particularly as energy prices decline. And that there are these more price competitive alternatives, which we’ll get into a little bit more as well. A growing number of these plants are unable to cover their operating costs or the substantial investments needed to really maintain — or as Neil was talking about — implement new pollution controls. So, they’re costly to operate and maintain, to remain competitive. And so we’ve seen recent examples in California and in Minnesota where existing facilities are not able to offer contracts for electricity at a competitive rate. In that case in California for example, that helps lead to the closure of, yeah, one of the states remaining facilities.
Related to this economics point, the tip fees or what waste haulers pay to dispose of waste at incinerators are often quite a bit more costly than alternatives. So we see two to three times higher rates of tip fee disposal than comparable recycling or composting costs, which again, I’m here, I’m with Neil and our expert, so he can perhaps touch on some of that too as he gets more into the waste side of the equation. We also see that jobs, local jobs which are generated at incinerators are quite a bit less than other alternatives. So we see four, four times the number of jobs per unit of waste in composting sites, for example. So really there are better alternatives that exist when you look at these plants through an economics lens.
We also see with the impacts on public health and that was a big motivator for it sounds like the, the Baltimore case, certainly, but incinerators are these classic cases of environmental injustice. In the communities that they’ve been located in, they are often sited in neighborhoods that are predominantly made up of people with lower incomes and people of color, as the Energy Justice Network has illustrated in some really great maps that we feature in the report. And so Neil had mentioned them — they’ve done some great work documenting again, that the harmful, costly and avoidable public health risks that these incinerators present to, to the local communities that are living nearby. We also talk a little bit, I think, more about that dynamic with partners from EJN or Energy Justice Network, and then also another great organization, GAIA, who’s done more work, in a webinar that we hosted about the report in January. So, we can point folks more to that resource.
And then, finally we, especially in looking at this through our Energy Democracy lens and the impacts that incinerators have on the energy sector, we argue the third point being that renewable trash, which these incinerators are often being classified under is really a legal oxymoron. It doesn’t really make sense that burning garbage would be considered a renewable resource, but it is in the majority of states where incinerators are located. We have 52 plants operating in states that do classify trash burning as a renewable resource of energy. So, these are three reasons that we definitely see communities pushing back against this dirty practice, and we highlight those three in our report.
|John Farrell:||Marie thank you. I want to jump back and ask Neil, specifically, about how some of these large scale issues apply in the case of Baltimore. Just very quickly though, is Maryland one of those states that counts burning trash as renewable energy?|
|Marie Donahue:||Exactly, yes. It is one of those states.|
|Neil Seldman:||In fact, it’s the only one in the country that gives garbage incinerators a tier one status within the renewable portfolios standard system, which allows it to get even more money that we think should be going to wind and solar, and truly renewable sources of energy.|
|John Farrell:||So, Neil, Marie also talked about the health and pollution problems from the incinerators, in general, being a big issue; the environmental justice implications. It seems like that’s a pretty fair description of what was going on in Baltimore. So, I’m just curious was that true, in the work that you’ve done there, that the pollution was having that disproportionate impact on people of color and low income residents? And is it true as well that the city could save money with other waste processing options?|
|Neil Seldman:||Both are true. The institute did a report in 2017 detailing the potential cost reductions, and money savings for the city if it were to transition away from the incinerator. I’ve been fighting garbage incinerators for over 45 years now, and it’s fascinating that people get aroused because of the fear of pollution impacting their health and the environment. Ultimately it’s the economics that moves people to make the decision. In Baltimore, it was a healthy combination of both. In terms of the pollution I’ll point out that John you mentioned 50%. The Bresco incinerator accounts for about for exactly 36% of the industrial pollution in the city as measured by the US EPA. And these health costs are very significant. Dante Swinton, an organizer for Energy Justice Network in Baltimore, did the numbers, and he estimated that the cost to the city annually, that is the city, the businesses, and the people in the city, is about 153 million dollars a year. And that comprised of absentee workers who are sick with asthma, and other ailments, school children that miss school, and also have to go to an emergency room for asthmatic conditions. That’s quite a hefty bill that the government, businesses, and citizens have to pay. And the stimulus for trying to shut down an existing incinerator came from Curtis Bay, which is an industrially zoned community at the southern tip of Baltimore, and about four years ago the private industry was planning a 4000 ton per day garbage incinerator in the middle of Curtis Bay, which is already the heaviest polluted zip code in Baltimore.
And this triggered simmering discontent in the community, which is low income, mixed white people, Black people, Latino people and Asian people, they were absolutely fed up when this 4,000 ton per day incinerator was announced, the plan for it. And through incredibly well organized citizens, led by united workers, and their staff all live in the community and went to Ben Franklin High School, these adults and young people … also adults, but just out of high school and in college, came up with incredible tactics, videos, small meetings, many, many small meetings, which mobilized the city. Among their best tactics was a video produced by the young people in the community that was sent around to the museums, the school systems in the city and the region that had pledged to buy electricity from this planned garbage incinerator. And the video made it clear that this was dirty electricity. And one by one these institutions withdrew their offers to buy electricity from this source. That was a major accomplishment, and it led to lawyers, and doctors, and organizers from other issues on the environment to join United workers. Energy Justice Network did a whole lot of work, the institute, myself and Brenda Platt did a lot of work. The institute’s work was showing, pointing to specific examples of what government, industry, and citizens have been doing to implement alternative systems that do not have incineration. We supported the Fillbert Street Garden, which is a community institution in Curtis Bay. We raised money to build a compost pad, that compost pad is now the basis for a collection program in nearby neighborhoods that picks up organic waste from households and businesses, brings them back to the garden for composting, and reuse. The program involves young people and also small children. There’s an elementary school right across the street, the children are growing flowers, fruits, vegetables, it’s quite an institution.
All of this mobilized the community both from the fear of pollution, and the possibilities that the 90 acres that was going to be devoted to the incinerator could now become a green industrial park with recycling, composting, solar energy projects. So the community was turned around into what’s possible, it energized their mobilization, and after the defeat of the planned incinerator in Curtis Bay, there was a seamless transition to focus on the existing incinerator, and of course, Environmental Justice did a great job in documenting the pollution. I also want to tip my hat to Environment Justice Network because they also went deep into the weeds, working with communities surrounding the incinerator who suffer the most from the pollution, and raised money and developed a pilot recycling program. Baltimore has a very low recycling rate.
There are reasons for it, the DPW, the Department of Public Works in the city just hasn’t paid attention to recycling and composting. And the Energy Justice Network pilots showed that citizens with the proper carts, proper information, and proper incentives, they were recycling at 39%. The city’s average is anywhere from 14 to 19%, so virtually a doubling of the recycling rate just by paying attention and proving that low income people, black, white, or green, will recycle and want to recycle.
|John Farrell:||So, Neil, this is terrific, I was just gearing up to ask you the question about how this mobilization happened around the Wheelabrator, and that led to this city policy, and so I appreciate you just jumping right in and talking about that Curtis Bay planned incinerator and the way that the community had rallied around it.
But we’re going to take a quick break here and when we come back we’re going to talk about how many states are providing subsidies to trash burning through renewable energy definitions, which we touched on before. I’d like to dive into how industry consolidation is helping the incinerator industry. And then also to talk a little bit more about what we’ve already heard about, is what communities can do instead of hosting trash burners, in terms of waste processing and things that they can do to create jobs, and healthier jobs in their community.
|Marie Donahue:||Thank you for listening to this episode of Local Energy Rules with ILSR staff Marie Donahue and Neil Seldman joining our host John Farrell. A version of this conversation was released last month as part of the Institute’s Building Local Power podcast — featuring topics and stories about how communities can build power locally while challenging concentrated corporate power across our economy. Now, stay-tuned for more local energy highlights from this episode, after a short message from our Energy Democracy Initiative director John Farrell.|
|John Farrell:||Hey, thanks for listening to Local Energy Rules. If you’ve made it this far, you’re obviously a fan and we could use your help for just two minutes. As you’ve probably noticed, we don’t have any corporate sponsors or ads for any of our podcasts. The reason is that our mission at ILSR is to reinvigorate democracy by decentralizing economic power. Instead we rely on you, our listeners. Your donations not only underwrite this podcast, but also help us produce all of the research and resources that we make available on our website and all the technical assistance we provide to grassroots organizations.
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Thanks again for listening. Now, back to the program.
|John Farrell:||Okay, before the break we talked about how Baltimore’s incinerator is a classic case of environmental injustice. Aided and abetted by state policy that subsidizes trash burning. Marie, can you talk about how common it is that states allow burning in municipalities to counter renewable energy? You gave us the number before, and is that a subsidy that’s keeping incinerators afloat?|
|Marie Donahue:||So we discussed how classifying burning trash as a renewable resource is this oxymoron. How quite a number of states it’s quite common, 23 states currently allow municipal solid waste to be included in these definitions, which is quite unfortunate. And so we’ve been talking about Baltimore, we already mentioned Maryland’s case is particularly striking and unfortunate in that it puts trash incineration on the same plane as solar and wind. Not in all of these other states is that always the case, there are some stipulations, or where incineration is counted under certain conditions, but 23 states have included incineration in their goals, or in some cases these more strict renewable portfolio standards. This designation allows incinerators to benefit from the support of renewable energy credits in states, both within states where they might be getting credits toward their electricity production, and then also has implications for out of state credits that city’s utilities may be buying to offset other sources of energy. And we see that in Maryland as well. We cited a report showing that in Maryland, for example, rate payers reportedly spent 84 million over the last decade to purchase these unbundled, out of state renewable energy credits from Virginia, which is another state that classifies incineration as a renewable resource. And that these credits were from … a majority of these credits are from dirty energy sources. So again, these are sort of indicative of how this industry is funded and supported by these renewable credits and that designation. It allows the power that’s generated by facilities, and you’ll mention this a little bit just about how utilities, how these companies are able to market the energy as this renewable, attractive resource. And so, from at least a marketing perspective, in wholesale electricity contracts, with utilities, cities, or others, these power purchasers can tout that sort of green nature, and that green washing is really quite pervasive in the industry. It’s been used, and certainly they’ve changed the wording. Neil knows this history better than me, but that they’ve changed the wording to allow it to be more attractive and sound like it’s a better source or energy than it is, brushing aside the public health impacts and some of these other negative impacts that we discussed earlier. That said, on the flip side of what state definitions and policies are, there are examples that we found, in Rhode Island for example, of clear bans on municipal solid waste incinerators, or ones that are keeping this explicitly out of their renewable energy goals and definitions. So that’s sort of a positive, small positive story even though that’s a rare occurrence in these states we looked at. In some cases it’s just not mentioned at all.|
|John Farrell:||It sounds like that could be a potential opportunity then in how states can address this, not only does a state like Maryland need to remove municipal solid waste from its definition of renewable energy, but it’s important to also include some sort of language that says you can’t buy dirty energy from out of state and count it as renewable here. That if it comes from an incinerator in Virginia, or Ohio, that when it’s purchased in Maryland it can’t be counted as renewable.|
|Marie Donahue:||Exactly. Yeah, I think that is a clear opportunity and we do I think called that out in the report.|
|John Farrell:||You know, I wanted to jump back to this bigger picture around incinerators, you mentioned before that ILSR has worked on helping to stop incinerators, dozens of them across the country, when folks who are building incinerators here, the name Neil Seldman, a fear is stricken in their heart about the fact that they were going to be able to build that incinerator. There have been hundreds on the drawing board, including that one in Curtis Bay that really triggered the action in Baltimore. Who is it that’s trying to build trash burners? And can you tell us about how consolidation in the waste disposal industry is playing in a role in the push to develop more of these large facilities?|
|Neil Seldman:||Yeah, quite correct, since the Institute was founded in 1974 we’ve been involved in over 50 of these battles. We won all of them except for four. The point is that over 400 have been stopped since the 1970s, 80s, 90s, and going into the 2000s. There’s only one that has been built since 1996, and that was in West Palm Beach, Florida, that’s a story unto itself. And none has been built since then. To be frank, the citizens and small businesses, there’s a playbook on how to kill incinerators, and you could read the playbook and organize your community, and it’s more than 50/50, much more than 50/50 that organized citizens will be able to stop it. The consolidation of the solid waste industry is a critical component of this. The first consolidation started in the late 60s, early 70s over buying out haulers and consolidating haulers, and creating a virtual monopoly on hauling. At the same time, a virtual monopoly on landfill capacity was developed by these companies. When it comes to incinerators, it was just another form of the consolidators taking control and putting in systems that favored them, not the citizens or the environment. But, as I indicated, that effort was stopped cold. And the effort by the waste hauling companies to add incineration monopoly to their landfill monopoly was shut down. There are remnants of those facilities that were built in the 70s and 80s, such as in Baltimore, such as in Montgomery County, actually, Montgomery County was built in the 90s. Citizens have been fighting existing plants for 20, 30 years. The prospect of citizens winning in battles against the existing incinerators is now improving tremendously, and I think that Baltimore experience is certainly going to help citizens in Detroit, Indianapolis, Newark, New Jersey, and many other cities that still have these incinerators. There are about 50 remaining, 50 to 55 garbage incinerators remaining in the state. That’s down from over 100 a couple of decades ago. The other important thing, as I said earlier, environment concerns, people breathing air that has mercury, and lead, and dioxide, and known killers, as well as oxides of nitrogen which are not killers but certainly impact health, gets peoples’ attention. But it’s very important for anyone fighting these plants to have a sense of what’s possible. And happily, the recycling movement across the country since the late 60s has shown what can happen, that’s both grassroots recyclers and small business recyclers. And that confidence, and that merging or pro recycling and anti incineration movements, has really made a tremendous different. And the transition away from these incinerators, it can’t be done over night, but it certainly can be done within a two to three year period. And it’s relatively simple, the transition is based on best practices. Composting, which comprises about 30 to 40% of the waste stream, is a very easy alternative to incineration and landfill. The big waste holding companies fight composting because it has the potential to take away 30 to 40% of their market, into a distributed system that’s based on local markets and local small businesses. The other part that we recommend, it’s not essential, composting is essential. A very helpful tool, which I sometimes refer to as a magic bullet, if there is anything to get people to recycle, is unit pricing, or charging people by the amount of garbage they set out for collection, with composting set-outs and recycling set-outs either free or much, much less expensive for households to put out. This creates an immediate incentive for households to pay attention to their waste. In fact, we have documented cases through original research, as well as other research, other organizational research, that shows that when you put in unit pricing within a year to a year-and-a-half, your overall solid waste stream goes down by 40%. That’s a combination of people getting involved in recycling, composting and source reduction, meaning people don’t buy packaging that they’re gonna bring into their house and then have to pay to get collected in their curbside system. The other thing about unit pricing, also called Pay as You Throw, Save as You Throw, smart save money as you reduce trash, is that it can help civilize American culture. The United States, people in the United States, generate 4-and-a-half pounds of garbage a day, it’s the most of any country by far in the world. It breaks out to about 3 to 3-and-a-half pounds per day when you take out the amount of recycling we’re doing.Yeah, quite correct, since the institute was founded in 1974 we’ve been involved in over 50 of these battles. We won all of them except for four. The point is that over 400 have been stopped since the 1970s, 80s, 90s, and going into the 2000s. There’s only one that has been built since 1996, and that was in West Palm Beach, Florida, that’s a story unto itself. And none has been built since then. To be frank, the citizens and small businesses, there’s a playbook on how to kill incinerators, and you could read the playbook and organize your community, and it’s more than 50/50, much more than 50/50 that organized citizens will be able to stop it. The consolidation of the solid waste industry is a critical component of this. The first consolidation started in the late 60s, early 70s over buying out haulers and consolidating haulers, and creating a virtual monopoly on hauling. At the same time, a virtual monopoly on landfill capacity was developed by these companies. When it comes to incinerators, it was just another form of the consolidators taking control and putting in systems that favored them, not the citizens or the environment. But, as I indicated, that effort was stopped cold. And the effort by the waste hauling companies to add incineration monopoly to their landfill monopoly was shut down. There are remnants of those facilities that were built in the 70s and 80s, such as in Baltimore, such as in Montgomery County, actually, Montgomery County was built in the 90s. Citizens have been fighting existing plants for 20, 30 years. The prospect of citizens winning in battles against the existing incinerators is now improving tremendously, and I think that Baltimore experience is certainly going to help citizens in Detroit, Indianapolis, Newark, New Jersey, and many other cities that still have these incinerators. There are about 50 remaining, 50 to 55 garbage incinerators remaining in the state. That’s down from over 100 a couple of decades ago. The other important thing, as I said earlier, environment concerns, people breathing air that has mercury, and lead, and dioxide, and known killers, as well as oxides of nitrogen which are not killers but certainly impact health, gets peoples’ attention. But it’s very important for anyone fighting these plants to have a sense of what’s possible. And happily, the recycling movement across the country since the late 60s has shown what can happen, that’s both grassroots recyclers and small business recyclers. And that confidence, and that merging or pro recycling and anti incineration movements, has really made a tremendous different. And the transition away from these incinerators, it can’t be done over night, but it certainly can be done within a two to three year period. And it’s relatively simple, the transition is based on best practices. Composting, which comprises about 30 to 40% of the waste stream, is a very easy alternative to incineration and landfill. The big waste holding companies fight composting because it has the potential to take away 30 to 40% of their market, into a distributed system that’s based on local markets and local small businesses. The other part that we recommend, it’s not essential, composting is essential. A very helpful tool, which I sometimes refer to as a magic bullet, if there is anything to get people to recycle, is unit pricing, or charging people by the amount of garbage they set out for collection, with composting set-outs and recycling set-outs either free or much, much less expensive for households to put out. This creates an immediate incentive for households to pay attention to their waste. In fact, we have documented cases through original research, as well as other research, other organizational research, that shows that when you put in unit pricing within a year to a year-and-a-half, your overall solid waste stream goes down by 40%. That’s a combination of people getting involved in recycling, composting and source reduction, meaning people don’t buy packaging that they’re gonna bring into their house and then have to pay to get collected in their curbside system. The other thing about unit pricing, also called Pay as You Throw, Save as You Throw, smart save money as you reduce trash, is that it can help civilize American culture. The United States, people in the United States, generate 4-and-a-half pounds of garbage a day, it’s the most of any country by far in the world. It breaks out to about 3 to 3-and-a-half pounds per day when you take out the amount of recycling we’re doing.|
|John Farrell:||You were talking about civilizing America, Neil and so I hoped that you had a solution to political polarization in this.|
|Neil Seldman:||Hm, no. I don’t, although I must say that recycling is not a partisan issue. It’s an incumbent issue, because incumbents, for many reasons like big bond issues, which is what your incinerators give you for financial patronage and all kinds of things that go on in our political system. But what I meant is, that the United States is a pariah in the world because we generate so much waste. Three or four times what most countries generate. And using a certain type of unit pricing system, the bag system, which allows you to collect organics, used products, textiles, et cetera, in your curbside recycling program, allows cities to get their per capita waste generation down to less than one pound per person. And that’s revolutionary, and it would mean that the United States finally, or people in the United States are finally taking responsibility for the profligate lifestyles we’re living, which are generating all this waste, and we can have just a good a lifestyle without all this waste, as being proved by unit pricing systems. There’s one other and last major area that cities need to pay attention to, and that’s the economic development side of recycling. As you recover materials from the waste stream and process them, you add value to them, meaning jobs and better, higher market prices. And then if you use that material in your region or in your city to manufacture new products, you get another way of economic stimulation. This is what the Institute for Local Self-Reliance is. Cities control this material, why not use it and create a local economy? And the job creation, as Marie mentioned, is very important, and to accomplish all this, cities need to designate industrial sites, whether they’re continuous or not, as some people call them, “Resource Recovery Parks.” Some people call them ecological industrial parks. In California, where these types of recycling parks were created about 20 years ago, they’re called recycling market development zones. There are at least 30 of them throughout the state in rural and urban areas, and they give economic benefits, tax breaks, marketing assistance, to companies that locate in these parks and use the recovered materials from cities to create new jobs. There are over a hundred companies that have located in California, creating thousands of jobs, all because there are available industrial spaces specifically for companies that recycle, compost and reuse old products.|
|John Farrell:||As usual, you’ve anticipated my question and offered a lot of things that cities can do. The Pay as You Throw policy, creating these Resource Recovery locations. Marie, I was hoping that you could get a last word, too, about maybe one recommendation from the report, writ large, that either states or cities can do around incineration. And then just warning both of you that as is our tradition, we like to ask for a reading recommendation at the end of the conversation. So Marie, tell us something from the report that communities can pursue, that can help them address this problem with incinerators around renewable energy.|
|Marie Donahue:||Sure. So I think energy is, as we mentioned, a component of this incineration dilemma, perhaps, and cities that are looking for alternatives certainly have more economical, cleaner sources available to them. We recommend that local governments look into ways of investing in solar energy on municipal properties, for example, with savings they might make from transitioning the high costs of waste hauling that they would need to dump at incinerators over to investing in municipal solar pilot projects. And community solar is another great example of really empowering communities that might be near existing incinerators with cleaner sources of energy to renters, to others that have not had access to rooftop solar. So I guess I have two answers, but both of those things can be enabled by state policy, as well, so hopefully states make more progressive policies in the future, and I’ll plug our Community Power Scorecard that gives more of the state policies that are better than classifying waste incineration as renewable energy, for folks that wanna learn more.|
|John Farrell:||So make a note before I ask Neil for his reading recommendation, that all of the reports or other resources that were discussed in this will be available on the show page, we’ll link to them. The Community Power Scorecard, ILSR’s research in Baltimore, the playbook on stopping incinerators. But Neil, do you have something that you’ve been reading recently you’d recommend to our listeners?|
|Neil Seldman:||Well I’ve read them when they came out, but they’re two terrific books for people. Paul Connett, C-O-N-N-E-T-T, “Zero Waste: Saving the World One Community at a Time.” Really emphasizes the link between organizations, such as the Institute, and community groups. We have to work together. I mentioned that the Institute had all these victories, they certainly weren’t the Institute’s alone. We couldn’t get to lunch without local partners in all our cities. Another excellent book is Plastic Ocean by Charles Moore, Captain Charles Moore, which deals with the plastic dilemma. The other thing I would suggest, and John already mentioned it, if you go to the Waste to Wealth blog page, we cover these issues of monopolies, single stream, the issue of China, which is important. And citizens can get a very good background just checking out our blog page at Waste to Wealth, at ilsr.org.|
|John Farrell:||Thanks, Neil. Marie, what would you recommend?|
|Marie Donahue:||Book I’m reading now is called Emergent Strategy, I’m not through with it, but it’s by Adrienne Maree Brown, who’s a Detroit organizer and wears a number of other titles, but I love this quote about that concept means, about how we intentionally change ways that grow our capacity to embody the just and liberated worlds we long for. And I think learning lessons from anti-incinerator activists and other grassroots folks is just really inspiring to me, so looking forward to finishing that book.|
|Neil Seldman:||Let me just say this, another great book that just came out, by our very good friend, Beth Porter, at Green America. It’s called, “Reduce, Reuse, Reimagine”, and she introduced a great concept, perfect for Baltimore, which has a low recycling rate. “Recycling is like an acorn. If you plant it and nurture it, it will become a giant tree of economic, social and environmental benefits.” And thank you for your time.|
|John Farrell:||Thanks for sticking that in. Neil and Marie, thank you both, and all those book recommendations. We’ll have some links to them to where you can purchase them from your local independent book seller. Thank you so much, both of you.|
|Marie Donahue:||Thank you, John.|
|Neil Seldman:||Thank you very much.|
|Marie Donahue:||Thank you so much for listening to this episode of Local Energy Rules, where our host John Farrell was speaking with colleagues Marie Donahue and Neil Seldman about the issue of waste incineration and how communities can take action to support cleaner, more economical waste and energy alternatives. For more information about the intersection of waste and energy, we encourage you to dive into ILSR’s recent report Waste Incineration: A Dirty Secret in How States Define Renewable Energy and coverage of the Baltimore Clean Air Act, available from the Institute’s Energy Democracy and Waste to Wealth initiatives at ILSR dot org.
While you’re on our website, we encourage you to explore ILSR’s interactive Community Power Toolkit and Community Power Map to learn more about policies and programs that are enabling a local, clean energy future.
You can also find more than 70 past episodes of the Local Energy Rules podcast, sign up for one of our newsletters, and connect with us on social media. Tune back into Local Energy Rules — now every 2 weeks — to hear more powerful stories of communities taking on concentrated power to transform the energy system.
Until next time, keep your energy local and thanks for listening.
Lessons from Baltimore on Fighting Incinerators
Early in the episode, Farrell and Seldman discuss the timely passage of the Baltimore Clean Air Act, a bill passed unanimously by city council and signed into law in March 2019, that will likely shut down the city’s Wheelabrator Baltimore trash incinerator and stop new incinerators from being built. The decades-old Wheelabrator facility is the city’s largest point-source polluter and generates power that counts, under Maryland state statute, as a “renewable” resource.
The law, Seldman explained, will require the city’s incinerators to meet more protective air pollution standards or else close, due to the costs associated with compliance. “These expenses for the corporation are just too much for it to continue operating this plant,” explained Seldman.
With this bill’s passage and success, Seldman also notes the impact this model policy could have for other communities across the country with existing incinerators in the estimated 11 states where such a policy could be used.
“These expenses [for compliance with the Baltimore Clean Air Act] for the corporation are just too much for it to continue operating this plant,” explained Seldman.
Later in the episode, Seldman detailed some of the story behind years of community efforts to shut down incinerators in Baltimore. He recounted how residents of the marginalized Curtis Bay neighborhood organized at the grassroots level to stop the incinerator project and advocate for their community’s health, wellbeing, and cleaner, alternative ways of managing waste and generating electricity.
Learn more about the recent Baltimore Clean Air Act, which was signed into law in early March 2019, detailed in analysis of the novel policy from ILSR’s Waste to Wealth Initiative, including “Report on the Proposed Baltimore Clean Air Act” and “Baltimore’s Historic Clean Air Act Could End Stagnation in Recycling.”
“Renewable” Trash Burning is a Legal Oxymoron
While discussing the bigger picture of issues that incinerators pose to communities and local energy system, Donahue shared key reasons why incinerators are a bad deal. These reasons include the financial risk incinerators pose to the governments that often help fund them, the environmental injustice that stems from these facilities typically being sited in marginalized communities, as well as associated public health concerns from pollution associated with the process of burning trash as a energy resource.
“The economics of incinerators don’t add up. Incinerators are risky investments for the local governments and utilities that support and subsidize them, particularly as energy prices decline [thanks to renewable alternatives],” explained Donahue.
To illustrate the high costs associated with these plants, Donahue described recent examples from California and Minnesota, where existing facilities have not been able to offer competitive contracts for electricity, and where, in the case of California, one of the state’s remaining facilities subsequently closed.
In terms of their direct impacts on communities, Donahue described how “incinerators are these classic cases of environmental injustice.” She explained that these facilities are often sited in neighborhoods that are made up of predominantly people with lower incomes and people of color, pointing to maps from the Energy Justice Network and illustrated in ILSR’s Waste Incineration: A Dirty Secret in How States Define Renewable Energy report.
One of that report’s central findings, Donahue explained, is the “legal oxymoron” that 23 states provide subsidies to incinerators by classifying municipal waste as a “renewable” resource and allowing them to benefit from renewable energy tax credits.
Dig deeper into the issues related to classifying waste incineration as a “renewable” energy resource by reading ILSR’s in-depth report “Waste Incineration: A Dirty Secret in How States Define Renewable Energy” and watching the report’s accompanying webinar.
Alternatives to Burning Trash for Energy
The episode concludes with a discussion about what communities and cities can do instead of hosting incinerators to manage their waste and produce power, foster a healthier environment, and create jobs.
In terms of waste, Seldman asked rhetorically, “Cities control this material, why not use it and create a local economy?” Indeed, he argued how diverting waste from incinerators to improved recycling efforts could add jobs in waste processing sites called “Resource Recovery Parks.”
On the energy side, Donahue explained how local governments can invest in solar energy on municipal properties, for example, with savings they might make from transitioning the high costs of hauling waste to incinerators.
She also noted how state policy holds one key to helping stop and shut down trash burning facilities and promote healthier and more economical alternatives for how communities generate energy locally, such as solar and wind resources. Putting pressure on state legislatures to pass policies that enable local, clean energy — as detailed in ILSR’s 2019 Community Power Scorecard — help promote true renewable energy resources. Such resources, including rooftop and community solar, can build wealth in communities and provide access to cleaner energy for the communities disproportionately impacted by pollution from incinerators.
“Community solar is another great example of really empowering communities that might be near existing incinerators with cleaner sources of energy to renters, to others that have not had access to rooftop solar,” Donahue added.
Finally, keeping trash burning out of definitions of “renewable” energy by changing official definitions in state policies is another key step to ensure the future local, renewable energy system puts an end to the dirty and costly power generated by waste incinerators.
The Baltimore Clean Air Act, discussed in this episode, was signed by the Mayor of Baltimore shortly after this podcast was recorded on March 7th.
For concrete examples of strategies that communities like Baltimore can take to replace dirty waste incinerators with local clean energy, reduce energy use, and fight climate change, explore ILSR’s Community Power Toolkit.
Explore local and state policies and programs that help advance clean energy goals across the country, using ILSR’s interactive Community Power Map.
This is the 74th edition of Local Energy Rules, an ILSR podcast with Energy Democracy Director John Farrell that shares powerful stories of successful local renewable energy and exposes the policy and practical barriers to its expansion.
This article originally posted at ilsr.org. For timely updates, follow John Farrell or Marie Donahue on Twitter, our energy work on Facebook, or sign up to get the Energy Democracy weekly update. Undergraduate intern Eli Crain assisted with editing the audio for this episode.
Featured Photo Credit: takomabibelot via Flickr (CC 2.0)