Philadelphia: Burning Trash is NOT the Answer

May 9, 2018: 40 Organizations call on Mayor Kenney to Stop Burning Philly’s Trash

See the statement to the mayor, and the press release. In addition to these 40 environmental, community, public health, and business organizations, the American Sustainable Business Council wrote a separate letter to Mayor Kenney making the economic case for ending incineration of Philly's trash.

Each year, Philadelphia disposes of nearly 1.4 million tons of residential and commercial waste. 55% of this goes to landfills in the state. 45% is first burned in trash incinerators. For every 100 tons burned, 30 tons become toxic ash that is dumped in landfills. The other 70 tons become air pollution. Burning trash is far worse for the environment and human health than direct use of landfills.

Since mid-2012, Philly has been contracted with two waste corporations: Covanta (the nation's largest trash incinerator company), and Waste Management (the world's largest waste corporation). The Waste Management contract includes some waste going to a "SpecFuel" plant in NE Philly that feeds trash as fuel to be burned in cement kilns in the Lehigh Valley, just north of Allentown -- another form of incineration.

These contracts expire June 30, 2019 and new contracts are now proposed by Mayor Kenney's Streets Department to continue the status quo for another seven years. Kenney's administration seems to prefer incineration, even though it's the most expensive and polluting way to manage waste. They pretend it's part of a "zero waste" plan, even though it harms Philadelphians with toxic air pollution that also contributes to asthma attacks. Mayor Kenney quietly declared October 11, 2018 as Children's Environmental Health Awareness Day, but did nothing to publicize it, and is now ensuring the Philly's kids will continue to miss school due to asthma attacks caused by incinerator pollution. See more context, see our testimony at Philadelphia City Council's hearing on health disparities, as well as these talking points. See these links for more info on incineration or zero waste.

Pennsylvania has a glut of landfill space, which is why the state is the nation's largest waste importer, accepting trash from Canada down to Puerto Rico, and every state in-between. There is no shortage of landfill capacity, and while we work to reduce the city's waste, it's vital to avoid the even greater environmental impact of burning trash and landfilling toxic ash.

The largest recipient of Philly's trash under the current contracts has been the Covanta Delaware Valley trash incinerator in nearby Chester City, just south of the airport. That incinerator is the nation's largest, and is one of the largest air polluters in the region. Chester is known as one of the nation's worst cases of environmental racism.

Where Philly's trash has been going

(During the current contracts from mid-2012 through first quarter of 2018)

Landfill / Incinerator County Tons %
Covanta Delaware Valley Delaware 1,912,001 24%
Wheelabrator Falls Bucks 1,360,959 17%
Modern Landfill York 1,253,083
G.R.O.W.S. North Bucks 1,027,550
Conestoga Landfill Berks 690,035
Fairless Landfill Bucks 674,542
Tullytown Landfill Bucks 517,239
Covanta Plymouth Renewable Energy Montgomery 155,869 2%
York County Resource Recovery Center York 147,554 2%
Delaware County SWA Rolling Hills Landfill Berks 78,311
Pioneer Crossing Landfill Berks 16,693
Cumberland County Landfill Cumberland 14,496
Commonwealth Environmental Systems Landfill Schuylkill 13,810
Western Berks Community Landfill Berks 11,529
LCSWMA - Susq. Resource Mgmt Complex Dauphin 10,622 0.1%
LCSWMA Resource Recovery Facility Lancaster 8,747 0.1%
Chester County SWA Lanchester Landfill Chester 7,517
Bethlehem Landfill Northampton 6,515
Advanced Disposal Services Greentree Landfill LLC Elk 5,907
Southern Alleghenies Landfill Somerset 1,321
Imperial Landfill Allegheny 1,232
Keystone Sanitary Landfill Lackawanna 375
Clinton County SWA Wayne Township Landfill Clinton 310
Casella McKKean County Landfill McKean 92
Grand Central Sanitary Landfill Northampton 1
TOTAL 7,916,310 45%

Source: PA Department of Environmental Protection, Division of Reporting and Fees

According to EPA's latest National Emissions Inventory, the Covanta Delaware Valley trash incinerator is the 3rd largest air polluter in the 5-county Philadelphia area. Only the airport and the PES oil refinery are worse.

Philly's trash is the second largest contributor to this major air polluter. We throw our trash "away" and end up breathing it as air pollution, since Philly is immediately downwind.


Where the waste burned in Chester came from in 2017:

State PA County Tons %
PA Delaware 366,037 28%
PA Philadelphia 343,474 27%
NJ 230,169 18%
DE (mostly NYC waste) 206,693 16%
NY 100,360 8%
MD (Ocean City) 33,493 3%
NC 8,084 1%
VA 4,616 0.4%
PA Lehigh, Bucks, Chester, Berks, Lackawanna, Luzerne, & Montgomery Counties 808 0.1%
TOTAL 1,293,732 100%

Source: PA Department of Environmental Protection, Division of Reporting and Fees


How polluting are these trash incinerators?

Incinerator
County
City/Town
Air Pollution Rankings
Covanta Delaware Valley Delaware Chester City Largest air polluter in Chester City, and second only to the PHL airport in Delaware County. Third worst air polluter in the 5-county Philly region. Within Delaware County, their air pollution even surpasses the oil refineries, fossil fuel power plants, chemical plants, a sewage sludge incinerator, and the waste coal-burning Kimberly-Clark paper mill in Chester.
Covanta Plymouth Montgomery Plymouth Township Largest air polluter in Montgomery County, accounting for 19% of all pollution from Montgomery County's 123 industrial air polluters, and more that twice as bad as the second largest polluter.
Wheelabrator Falls Bucks Falls Township Largest air polluter in Bucks County, accounting for 31% of all pollution from Bucks County's 104 industrial air polluters, and more that twice as bad as the second largest polluter.

Within the 5-county Philadelphia area, which contains a large concentration of polluting industry (489 facilities), the Covanta's incinerator in Chester ranks high for many specific pollutants, including being:

  • #2 in Mercury ­ causes damage to nervous, digestive, and immune systems, lowers IQ in children
    - Covanta Delaware Valley releases about 60 pounds of mercury into the region's air every year

  • #3 in Nitrogen Oxides (NOx) ­ triggers asthma attacks, increases lifetime risk of chronic respiratory disease and stroke
    - Covanta Delaware Valley releases nearly 2.5 million pounds of NOx into the region's air every year

  • #3 in Sulfur Dioxide ­ triggers asthma attacks, increases lifetime risk of chronic respiratory and heart diseases and stroke
  • #4 in Cadmium ­ causes cancer, damages bones and brain function, affects blood pressure and testosterone levels
  • #5 in Carbon Monoxide ­ causes headaches and dizziness; increases lifetime risk of heart disease
  • #5 in Hydrochloric Acid ­ irritates eyes, skin, and nose, damages lungs
  • #6 in Greenhouse gases ­ causes global warming, increases in heat-related deaths, suicide, mosquito-born diseases, and much more
  • #6 in Particulate Matter (PM10 and PM2.5) ­ aggravates lung disease, triggers asthma attacks, causes acute bronchitis; can cause heart attacks in those with heart disease