Trash Incinerators: Don't Call it a Comeback

The New York Times ran an article on Jan 11th, 2015, acting like incinerators are making a comeback, and featuring the huge Energy Answers incinerator proposed in Baltimore as if it's "being built" (which is not true).  Incinerators are trying to come back, but our movement is effectively beating back the industry almost everywhere they go, with Florida a rare exception.

We submitted this Op Ed to the New York Times, but they chose not to print it (or those submitted by several others to correct their reporting).

It's also worth nothing that in Massachusetts (one of the four states where the Times says large new trash incinerators are being considered) it's illegal to even build them, and none are being considered.  See our webpages on incineration and zero waste for more info.


Trash Incinerators: Don't Call it a Comeback

The Times' Jan. 10th "Garbage Incinerators Make Comeback" article portrays a false trend.  Trash incinerators are the most expensive and polluting way to make energy or to dispose of waste.  Since they impact health and property values, they're one of the most unpopular technologies in the world, and are actually on the decline in the U.S.

Far from a comeback, of the currently operating commercial-scale trash incinerators in the U.S., the last one to be built at a new site came online in 1995.  From 1995 until now, at nine existing incinerator sites (including West Palm Beach), operations have expanded, adding nearly 6,000 tons/day (tpd) of new capacity.  In that same time, 74 U.S. incinerators have closed, shutting down nearly 21,000 tpd of capacity.  Another 2,250 tpd incinerator (Florida's North Broward plant) is talking about closing soon for lack of waste to burn, as waste is sent to the new 3,000 tpd West Palm Beach incinerator one county north, to the displeasure of West Palm Beach residents.

Many hundreds of proposed incinerators have been stopped in the past few decades as well.  One compilation shows that 280 incinerator proposals were defeated in the decade between 1985 and 1994, and that trend has continued to this day, with several proposals defeated just last year.

At the industry's peak in 1991, there were 187 commercial trash incinerators in the U.S.  There are now about 80, with two more looking to close in the next year.

Waste Management, Inc., the world's largest waste corporation, has moved away from incineration.  Last year, they sold off their Wheelabrator subsidiary, abandoning their role as the nation's second largest operator of conventional waste incinerators.  Several experimental types of incinerators, using gasification, pyrolysis and plasma arc technologies have failed to prove capable of commercial operation.  WMI invested in a variety of these companies in recent years just to abandon them as well.

With this industry, there is a lot more "blowing smoke" than actual fire.  The plan in Baltimore for the nation's largest incinerator is permitted, but not actually "being built" as the article portrayed.  Incinerators supposedly "under consideration" in four other states aren't anything likely to happen, either, and are largely unknown to state permitting agencies.  One of those states, Virginia, confirmed that they have no active applications for incinerators anywhere in the state.  However, an informal proposal for one was "shot down due to public opposition" last year, after a year-long battle.

The same happened in Frederick, Maryland last November after a decade-long fight with the community caused the incinerator deal to crumble, even after all permits were issued.  The deal began to unravel when the partner county paid $1 million to back out of the contract thanks to their fiscal conservatism.  If only Harrisburg, Pennsylvania's leaders listened in 2003 when I warned them that the city faced bankruptcy if they invested in rebuilding their incinerator.  Eight years later, after listening to their consultants instead, the city was the largest at the time to seek bankruptcy protection.

Sadly, this is not so unusual, as incinerators must lock in energy sales and long-term waste supply contracts, even if construction is privately financed.  Local governments signing long-term waste contracts often get locked into bad deals where they pay too much for too long and are punished if they reduce waste or recycle more, since they still pay fees on waste they no longer supply to the incinerator.

Trash incineration is more expensive than landfilling which the waste industry (even the trash incinerator industry's trade association) has publicly admitted.  Of course, incinerators do not avoid landfilling as they need landfills for their ash.  Every 100 tons of waste burned results in 30 tons of ash that ends up landfilled.

Two studies done for the Energy Information Administration since 2010 show that trash incineration is also the most expensive way to make electricity.  It's the most expensive to build, and also the most expensive to operate and maintain – even though they get paid to take waste as their fuel, while other (non-renewable) energy sources pay for their fuel.

The industry avoids using the unpopular 'i' word, preferring to refer to incinerators as energy facilities, even though they're primarily waste facilities.  If you compare their pollution to other energy facilities, you find that they're far dirtier than coal power plants.  To make the same amount of energy as a coal plant, the average trash incinerator in the U.S. releases 28 times as much dioxin (the most toxic man-made chemicals known to science), 2.5 times as much carbon dioxide (impacting global warming), three times as much nitrogen oxides (impacting asthma), six times as much mercury and nearly six times as much lead (both affecting the brain and more), and 70% more sulfur dioxides (affecting breathing).  Incinerators are this much more polluting even though the average incinerator was built in 1987 and the average coal plant was built in 1968, with fewer pollution controls.

A state-wide analysis by New York's environmental agency, found that the state's ten trash incinerators put out 14 times more mercury per unit of energy produced than the state's eight coal plants, and more mercury in total, even though the coal plants are much larger.

Recycling is stagnating where political leaders haven't really been leaders.  However, in over 7,000 communities around the country, people are using Save Money and Reduce Trash (SMART) programs where they pay less if they throw out less trash (also known as "pay as you throw").  Just like any other utility, if you pay for how much you use, you'll use less.  Communities switching to these programs find immediate reductions in trash generation of 44% on average.  Over 80% of Wisconsin communities and over half of Iowa communities use it.  These programs are now mandatory in Minnesota, Oregon, Vermont and Washington, and are being considered in Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

Using the most expensive and polluting way to reduce tons going to landfills by 70% makes no sense, when some cities are already showing the way with "zero waste" plans that divert 70% or more from landfills and incinerators through source reduction, reuse, recycling and composting.  In doing so, they create 10 times as many jobs as landfills or incinerators.

Mike Ewall, Esq. is founder and director of Energy Justice Network, a national organization supporting communities threatened by polluting energy and waste facilities.