Incineration: Wrong Question, Wrong Answer for the 21st Century

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Incineration: Wrong Question, Wrong Answer for the 21st Century

Trash dump in Savage, Minnesota.  (Photo: Redwin Law/flickr/cc)

The comeback of trash incinerators is being welcomed by the corporations that build them and the politicians who see them as a “quick-fix” to the garbage problem, but let’s be serious — they are not a sustainable solution.

Environmentalists rightly remain skeptical about the claims that all the air pollution problems have been “solved” as proponents claim—especially the emissions of highly toxic and ultrafine nanoparticles that modern equipment is not very good at keeping from getting into the air.

As someone who has successfully fought against these facilities for 30 years I would urge us to ask other questions, too, and to re-imagine what it means to be truly sustainable society.

First, a quick history: In the US between 1985 and 1995 about 300 incinerator projects were defeated in North America. In 1985 in California 35 incinerators were proposed, but only three were built; in New Jersey 22 were proposed and only 5 were built and New York City proposed 6 (one for each borough) but none was built. Public health concerns delayed many projects, allowing a closer examination of the bad economic proposition these facilities provided, especially when you factor in the importation of waste from other communities. A Supreme Court ruling in the early 1990s, stating that municipalities couldn’t dictate where haulers disposed of trash, made the economics of these projects even more precarious. No new incinerator was permitted in the US for nearly 20 years until the one being built in West Palm Beach slipped through the cracks.

Different times, however, demand different questions. In the 20th Century the question was: “How do we handle our waste with minimum harm to the environment and public health?” In the 21st Century, we need to ask a different question: “How do we handle our discarded resources in ways that do not deprive future generations of some if not all their value?” Our focus needs to change from toxicity to sustainability.

The data on our lack of sustainability is staggering. We would need five planets to provide the necessary raw materials for daily life if everyone consumed as much as the average American. Meanwhile, India, China, and other huge economies are copying our unsustainable consumption patterns. Something has clearly got to change and the best place to start that change is with waste, because virtually everyone makes it every day. With good political leadership we could be part of a shift towards a sustainable society.

An incinerator is the final gasp of the throwaway society. As a result, incineration wastes the opportunity to reduce finite resource consumption, energy use, pollution production, ecosystem destruction and global warming. It is non-sustainability writ large. In short, the modern incinerator is a sophisticated answer to the wrong question – our task is not to find better ways to destroy materials but to stop making packaging and products that have to be destroyed. The only way to move towards sustainability is to adopt a Zero Waste strategy. Such a plan can be approached in a series of steps, which are simple, practical, logical and cost-effective. Those steps are:

• Source separation;
• Door to door collection;
• Composting;
• Recycling;
• Community-based reuse and repair centers;
• Economic incentives such as “pay as you throw” systems;
• Waste reduction initiatives;
• Residual separation and research facilities at landfills to analyze and record what can’t currently be recycled;
• Better industrial design of both products and packaging; and,
• Interim landfills that receive the currently non-recyclable materials and the biologically stabilized, but contaminated organic materials from the residual fraction.

In these ten steps to Zero Waste, the two key steps are composting and the residual separation and zero waste research center.

Composting is the key major step for any city. We need to remove clean organics from the waste stream at the source with door-to-door collection and return this valuable material to the soil. This will not only stimulate sustainable agriculture but also fight global warming by sequestering carbon in the soil. It will also make it easier for the city to handle the remaining materials via reuse, repair, and recycling. New York City has started such an effort, as have other large cities like Milan, but the best model to date has been San Francisco. Their once-a-week, three-container collection system (one for compostables, one for recyclables and one for residuals) has already yielded a remarkable 80 percent diversion from landfills and incinerators with their ultimate goal of zero waste by 2020 (or darn close!)

Residual separation is where community responsibility meets industrial responsibility. In this step anything not already recycled or composted goes to a separating facility built in front of the landfill. Here, more recyclables and more toxics are pulled out and the dirty organic fraction stabilized above ground with a second composting operation. Such facilities are already operating successfully in Nova Scotia. By incorporating zero waste research centers (already being pioneered in Italy) alongside the residuals, we can then start to study how to handle the non-recyclable fraction in our waste stream.

Incineration merely makes the items in the residual fraction “disappear”; the Zero Waste strategy aims to make them visible. They are our industrial design mistakes. We need to involve our professors, students and our best industrial designers in this research: this is our laboratory for sustainability.

Nature makes no waste. Waste is a human problem. We have to use our brightest minds in academia and industry to design waste out of the system.

To reach zero waste we need cooperation between community responsibility and industrial responsibility. The message we have to send from the community to industry is both simple and profound: “If we can’t reuse, recycle or compost it, industry shouldn’t be making it.” Building expensive incinerators would waste another 25 years by avoiding the moral imperative to move from a throwaway to a sustainable society.

A Zero Waste program fights global warming better, creates far more jobs, stimulates more businesses, wastes less energy, and conserves more resources than a program that includes an incinerator. It is better for our economy, better for our health, better for our universities, better for the planet and would give our children more hope for the future.

Paul Connett

Dr. Paul Connett taught chemistry at St. Lawrence University in Canton, NY from 1983-2006, where he specialized in Environmental Chemistry and Toxicology. He is the author of The Zero Waste Solution: Untrashing the Planet One Community at a Time (Chelsea Green, 2013).

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