Energy & Environment

A Burnt-Out Case

It's time to get beyond past recycling and incinerator mistakes and find new ways to deal with garbage
by | April 2003

Tom Arrandale

Tom Arrandale is a GOVERNING correspondent.

Not that long ago, the great debate in solid waste circles was recycling versus incineration. With garbage dumps filling up, energy firms tempted local governments with promises to put trash to lucrative use: Waste-to-energy plants would burn it to produce electric power. Environmentalists countered that such high-tech incinerators would pollute the air, concentrate contaminants in their ash and squander resources that could be reprocessed into reusable materials. Recycling, they said, could keep mountains of paper and plastic and glass from coming to the landfills in the first place--and pay for itself, to boot.

As things have turned out, neither recycling nor waste-to-energy plants turned trash into promised gold for communities that embraced them. Recycling rates are leveling off, while expensive waste-to- energy projects have locked local agencies into paying lofty "tipping" fees to incinerate the waste at a time when dumping at landfills keeps getting cheaper. Even so, fears of a solid waste calamity have faded away as municipal governments found they could export their trash to bigger, better-designed landfills that have opened across the country.

Before too long, however, governments will need to rethink solid waste management once again. Major cities are cutting curbside recycling pickups, and municipal incinerators are beginning to show their age. It's time to explore imaginative new ways to deal with garbage.

That's not to say that recycling and incineration have been busts. Americans now recycle or compost 28 percent of their garbage; incinerators burn 15 percent of the nation's solid waste, and they generate enough electricity to supply 2.5 million homes. But recycling programs can't come close to recovering curbside collection costs by selling reclaimed paper, glass and plastics. Tighter air pollution standards meanwhile have made incinerators more expensive to build and run, while deregulated markets have made revenues from selling power unpredictable. The number of municipal waste incinerators in operation has fallen from 150 a decade ago to 98 at present. In the past few years, energy-producing incinerators have closed in Nashville; Robbins, Illinois; Sitka, Alaska; and Pascagoula, Mississippi. Two small Texas facilities are still burning trash but have quit generating power.

Other areas that invested heavily in incinerators keep them operating at substantial financial sacrifice. Around Portland, Maine, for example, 21 communities are paying $110 a ton to dump trash at a 14- year-old plant, nearly four times the current tipping fees at Maine landfills. Even so, lower-than-expected electricity prices left the facility facing a $2 million revenue shortfall. Near Detroit, five communities are locked into 35-year contracts with the Central Wayne County Sanitation Authority's money-losing incinerator, but Dearborn Heights and Westland voters have turned down mill increases to help pay off $100 million in EPA-required improvements. "We're just screwed, because we're stuck with the thing," says Cheryl Graunstadt, a Westland City Council member.

Not all localities are so dissatisfied. Lee County, Florida, is planning to expand its 1,200-ton-per-day waste-to-energy plant in Fort Myers. Incinerators continue serving as mainstays of solid waste operations in heavily populated coastal regions where land prices are high or close-to-the-surface water tables make burying wastes too risky. In New York City, which a decade ago scrapped plans to burn half its garbage, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has hinted the city might take a new look at incineration. A Columbia University study suggests that burning the city's trash in plants equipped with state-of-the-art pollution controls would be less damaging than hauling it to Pennsylvania and Virginia landfills that eventually will start leaking.

As EPA air quality regulations have gone into effect, big municipal incinerators have cut dioxin emissions by 99 percent, mercury by 95 percent, and lead by more than 90 percent. EPA has now adopted standards for smaller municipal combustors as well, but it's questionable whether small-town governments can afford them. Park County, where I live, built the only solid waste incinerator in Montana in 1982, intending to sell steam power next door to the Burlington Northern Railroad's locomotive repair shop. But the railroad closed the shop down three years later, and there's no other industry to buy the energy. This summer, the county will lose a contract to burn Yellowstone National Park's garbage when the National Park Service starts shipping tourists' trash to a new composting facility. Two years from now, the county will have to come up with $500,000 to $1 million to retrofit the incinerator's air pollution controls.

Alternatively, county commissioners could shut the thing down and reconsider the solid waste system completely. Most recycling markets lie hundreds of miles away, but local officials here, like those elsewhere, now have a chance to think creatively about composting or other inventive techniques for processing trash right in their own backyard.


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