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Recycle or Burn? Local Governments Must Choose for the Long Term.

China has disrupted our once-thriving recycling programs. Cities and counties should be investing in the recycling industry, not incinerators.

Truck dumps waste to the incinerator.
A truck dumps waste to the incinerator.
(Shutterstock)
One of the great responsibilities of public office is to know when and how to use its power to change a dangerous trend. At this time of recycling disruption and municipal-waste crisis, local governments have an urgent challenge and opportunity to steer America in the right direction. Their decisions about whether to invest in recycling or regress to just burning our trash will impact environmental trends for decades to come.

Over the past 30 years, recycling went from being an aspiration to an American habit and a significant waste-management practice. When I was governor of Indiana in the early 1990s, I worked with the legislature to create and implement local recycling grants to encourage that nascent trend. There was bipartisan interest in recycling at the time, and Indiana's grant program is still robust today.

Indiana was part of a nationwide phenomenon that benefited from good public-policy decisions. But as much as Americans came to understand and appreciate recycling, most did not know that our wholesome blue-bin habit was overly dependent on the appetite of China's recycling industry. It was so affordable to ship recyclables overseas that a strong American recycling industry never developed. Our environmentally healthy habit had a dangerously unstable foundation.

Last year, China closed the door to most of America's recyclable products. That created an immediate municipal solid-waste crisis, and communities are now faced with a decision about what to do with the sudden and dramatic increase in waste volume. It is their responsibility to make decisions that go beyond managing this temporary market disruption and set the table for socially and environmentally desirable outcomes for the long term.

Unfortunately, waste incineration -- an industry that should have burned out long ago -- is being considered, and implemented, as both a temporary and long-term solution. Incineration offers a short-term alternative, but the long-term consequences of subsidizing and expanding this industry must be considered.

Incineration facilities are branding themselves as "waste-to-energy" plants and pushing municipalities to make decades-long investments in their operations. Some energy is produced by incineration, but it is a very expensive way to produce a very small amount of energy. Meanwhile, the environmental costs of incineration are tremendous. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, burning municipal solid waste emits nearly as much carbon per unit of energy as coal -- and almost twice as much as burning natural gas.

We started burning garbage in the late 1800s, and we should have stopped long ago. One of the reasons these facilities have survived without much notice is that they are typically located in the communities that government tends to neglect: minority and impoverished neighborhoods. These constituencies should not be forced to bear a disproportionate burden for solving America's waste-disposal challenge.

Burning our waste is a giant leap backward; cities and counties must make the responsible decision to invest in the American recycling industry instead. Local-government officials will set the course now, toward either a path of waste-management regression and pollution or forward toward a stable, robust, profitable domestic recycling industry, as well as environmental justice for the communities surrounding dirty and antiquated waste-incineration plants.

There is no doubt that the disruption in recycling, thanks to the volatility of relying on a foreign partner, has been a burden for America's municipalities. The decisions they must make are difficult, and the pressure is terrific -- the collection and disposal of waste is as immediate a concern as any public official can have, tied with delivery of clean water, power and public safety.

So, given my own career in public service, I appreciate how difficult this moment is for local-government officials. But choosing a path that is socially and environmentally responsible is a fundamental part of the job. The time to invest in recycling, not trash incineration, is now.

Former governor of Indiana and U.S. senator
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