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Waste Incineration vs. Recycling
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by Caroline Eader | 2011

Over 50 nationally recognized environmental and community economic development groups are opposed to trash incineration for numerous reasons: water pollution, air pollution, climate change, waste of energy, and poor economic planning.

Waste Incineration vs. Recycling

 

By Caroline Eader—Over 50 nationally recognized environmental and community economic development groups are opposed to trash incineration for numerous reasons: water pollution, air pollution, climate change, waste of energy, and poor economic planning. 

 

False Choice

The incinerator industry promotes a false belief that the choices in handling our waste are either burning it to “make energy” or burying it in a landfill. But the existence of a trash incinerator (what I call a Waste of Energy facility) does not eliminate the need for a landfill. There is waste which cannot be incinerated (10-15% of the waste stream), and after burning there is a significant amount of ash which must be landfilled (10-15% by volume, or about 30% by weight).

 

Trash as a Source of Renewable Energy?

This year Governor O’Malley signed into law Senate Bill 690 which gives trash burning Tier 1 renewable energy status, the same as wind and solar. It is not good policy to categorize burning waste as renewable energy when 3-5 times the energy can be saved by recycling the recoverable materials found in household and business discards. 

 

Burning Recyclables

Sometimes people are led to believe only items which cannot be recycled are processed, but the incinerator contracts in place in Maryland do not exclude recyclable materials from being incinerated. And if you ask a facility manager or an industry spokesperson why they don’t remove the recoverable material they will say, “It’s not my job.” Their job is getting BTUs from plastic and paper, not recycling.

 

You will hear the marketing claim that communities with incinerators have the greater recycling rates. Incineration is not the cause of higher recycling rates (unless the leftover ash is counted as “recycling,” which Maryland does). The only recoverable materials from an incineration facility are the metals left over after the burning process. Metal recovery accounts for a 2-3 % increase in recycling rates and can be reached with a lot less than the $600,000,000 price tag of the current series of trash incinerators the industry wants to build.

 

What We Can Do Instead

The communities which are now achieving the greater diversion rates are Zero Waste communities. Look to mainstream publications such as The Wall Street Journal to tell you about cities now achieving diversion rates of 77% (San Francisco) and 68% (San Diego). With more and more communities across the U.S. and Canada adopting Zero Waste resolutions and implementing Zero Waste plans (Austin, Texas, Atlanta, Georgia), landfill diversion rates are starting to rise. San Francisco’s waste study analysis found 90% of its waste stream is recyclable. A community implementing a Zero Waste diversion goal of 75% would have less discarded than a community with an incinerator would need to landfill.

 

What does Zero Waste look like? 

Go to a Zero Waste community and you’ll see a 3-bin system to discard waste—a bin for compostables (1/3 to 1/2 of the waste stream is compostable), one for recyclables and finally, one for what will go to the landfill. In Atlanta, where they have a “Zero Waste Zone” I’ve been to Ecco and South City Kitchen restaurants (partner Steve Simon was Georgia’s Restaurateur of the Year in 2007) which use no dumpsters. Everything is reusable, recyclable, or compostable and the kitchen grease is sent to be converted to biofuels. (Yours truly went behind these restaurants to see for herself!) The Zero Waste Zone concept is supported by the National Restaurant Association.

 

The destruction of recyclable resources is just one reason that providing incentives to trash incineration is the wrong direction for the State of Maryland.

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