September 19, 2001
Mr. Allan Gerlat, Editor Waste News, Akron, OH
Touché Maria Zannes – those battling waste incinerators will feel a measure of success in the half-truths and lies in your article, “A few full-truths about WTE,” (September 3, 2001, Waste News).
Half-Truth: waste incinerators convert trash into energy Reality: Incinerators burn discarded resources and the embodied energy they contain. They waste energy. For every ton of material destroyed by incineration, many more tons of raw material must be mined, processed, or distributed to manufacture a new product to take its place. On the whole, three to five times more energy can be saved by recycling materials than by burning them. Furthermore, if the U.S. burned all its municipal waste, it would contribute less than 1% of the country’s energy needs.
Half-Truth: waste incinerators support recycling. They recycle hundreds of tons of materials, including ash, and communities served by incinerators are recycling 33% of their materials. Reality: Source-separation recycling systems do a better job of recycling than incinerators. It is much better to compost and market segregated yard trimmings than to compost the potentially toxic organic fraction of mixed trash. Garbage in, garbage out. In our study of recycling programs with the highest recovery levels, Cutting the Waste Stream in Half (published by the U.S. EPA) not one was in a community served by a waste incinerator. Why? Incinerators compete with recycling for the same materials and dollars. Montgomery County, MD, for instance, recently announced that it will not reach its 50% recycling goal as a result of the county incinerator. An incinerator in Babylon, NY, found it better to burn readily recyclable materials than pay extra fees for tonnage shortfalls at the incinerator. One study evaluating Florida’s seven largest incinerators found that these facilities regularly burn significant amounts of highly recyclable materials. Incinerators perpetuate the throw-away society and waste generation. They are an obstacle to preventing waste and encouraging sustainable methods of production and consumption. With regard to ash recycling, this practice should be immediately halted. Incinerator ash poses a health hazard. In Newcastle, U.K., for instance, soil testing of land spread with incinerator ash in the 1990s revealed dioxins and heavy metals far in excess of safety levels.
Half-Truth: Waste incinerators are cleaner, more efficient, and safer than ever before. They prevent greenhouse gas emissions and other pollution as a result of displacing coal. Reality: All incinerators release pollutants to the biosphere through air and ash emissions. These include acid gases, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, metals, dioxins and furans, and at least 190 volatile organic compounds. Many of these chemicals are known to be persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic. According to the latest dioxin and furan inventory from the U.N. Environment Programme, municipal waste incinerators are responsible for 69% of the dioxin in the global environment. The better the air pollution control, the more toxic the ash. Instead of ensuring ash is disposed in lined landfills with leachate collection systems, the industry continues to promote the dispersion of this potentially toxic material throughout the environment by mixing it into a road sub-base material. Moreover, waste prevention and recycling can reduce greenhouse gases and pollution far more effectively than burning trash to displace coal.
Maria Zannes wonders why incinerator opponents keep up the attack. One major issue she overlooks is costs. Incineration is the most costly of all waste management options. Facilities often cost hundreds of millions of dollars to build. Operating costs are far higher than recycling and composting facilities. Indeed many existing facilities have become white elephants for their communities. In New Jersey, for example, the state and, therefore, the citizens have had to bail out — to the tune of over $1 billion — five counties that built incinerators. Some communities have raised property taxes to subsidize their incinerators.
Zannes makes the point that newer facilities are better at curbing emissions. But she doesn’t state that their costs skyrocket as a result. In the Netherlands, a 1,800 ton-per-day facility recently cost $600 million with half the investment going into air pollution control.
The industry wants more subsidies because it costs so much more to burn garbage than to reduce, recycle, compost or landfill the materials. The industry wants to overturn anti-flow-control rulings in order to use government power to force businesses, cities and citizens to pay for something that is not otherwise economically viable. Citizens and businesses know better. Each of the heavily subsidized plants now in operation was built over public opposition.
|Neil Seldman, Ph.D., President||Brenda Platt Director, Materials Recovery|