The Massachusetts Chapter of the Sierra Club has been fighting garbage and biomass incinerators for many years. Here’s some well researched information from them about the issue and about their efforts to preserve and protect their environment and community health.
Trash Incineration: Coming to a City Near You!
Like most other states, Massachusetts has had a moratorium on increasing incineration capacity since 1989. The threats to public health posed by the incinerators’ emissions was indisputable. However, under industry pressure, the Mass Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is considering lifting the state moratorium, which would open the door for new facilities, belching toxins, heavy metals, and global warming gases. The reasons for our 20-year moratorium are still valid today. And now additional concerns are making headlines: depletion of energy and material resources, and climate change.
The EPA requires incinerators “to use the best control technologies,”[i] but unfortunately, the best control technology is a poor technology and ineffective of removing the toxins from an incinerators emissions.[ii] Health impacts of dioxin include cancer, IQ deficits, disrupted sexual development, birth defects, immune system damage, behavioral disorders, diabetes, and altered sex ratios. Studies show higher cancer rates and the presence of elevated levels of dioxin in the blood of people living near municipal solid waste incinerators, when compared to the general population.[iii] All along the line, from the people who work in the plants to the people living near landfills where bottom ash has been deposited, people are exposed to dioxin and other contaminants from incinerators. High levels of dioxins are also found in food and dairy products produced near incinerators, so that the toxic impacts of incineration are as far-reaching as the shipment of that food to other communities.
More CO2 Than Coal, Accelerating Climate Change
Incinerators directly emit more CO2 per unit of electricity generated than coal-fired power plants.[iv] The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states that when comparing power sources, biogenic emissions from incinerators must be accounted for in evaluating global warming impacts.[v]
Destroys Needed Resources
We must conserve our limited resources, not look for new ways to destroy them. Massachusetts already burns 34% of discarded material,[vi] destroying these valuable resources for only a miniscule amount of energy–far less than could saved by recycling those materials. Most of the discards destroyed by incineration could be reused, recycled or composted, saving energy and resources, and generating new businesses and jobs in collection and processing.
Low Efficiency Captures Only 20% Of The Energy
Incineration captures only one fifth of the caloric (energy) value in garbage; recycling saves three to five times as much, because of the energy saved by using recycled feedstock for manufacturing instead of harvesting virgin resources.[vii] Virgin raw-materials industries are among the world’s largest consumers of energy. For example, recycling office paper saves four times more energy than the amount generated by burning it. Recycling offers energy savings for other materials as well.
Incineration Injures Recycling Efforts
Incinerators compete with recycling for the same waste streams—the high Btu paper, cardboard, and plastics. In many places, incineration has capped recycling. Incinerators require a constant high volume of garbage that often requires long-term contracts with municipalities for a specified amount of waste. These contracts destroy incentives for municipalities to reduce and separate waste at the source, and reuse, recycle and compost. For example, presently Covanta is offering Cape Cod towns a financial incentive to sign long-term contracts pledging at least 50% of their waste to the incinerator, which would then cap recycling at 50%. This is in conflict with the Cape Cod and Islands Planning Commission’s goal of 60% recycling for the Cape.[viii] And Nantucket’s recycling rate of 85%[ix]
Gasification, Pyrolysis, Plasma and Waste-to-Energy: New processes or just hype?
The newer high-heat conversion technologies – gasification, pyrolysis, and plasma arc – are classified by the EPA as what they are: incineration,[x] but instead of burning garbage directly in a single chamber, they heat waste until it forms a gas that is then combusted as fuel. While incineration companies invest in greenwashing their processes, the differences among them are miniscule. And when compared to emissions from old-style incinerators, emissions from these newer high-tech sounding processes show the same emissions of concern.[xi]
Continuing the Trash Incineration Moratorium Will Benefit Massachusetts
Despite efforts to make incineration safer, it remains a 19th century technology that is increasingly problematic given our dense population, the number of new toxins in the waste stream, dwindling material and energy resources, and the threat of climate change. We must retain the moratorium on increased incineration capacity to make way for proven alternatives that offer multiple benefits for Massachusetts. Adopting this moratorium would
- Allow the development of innovative waste-reduction programs in reuse, recycling, and composting that will generate new businesses and job in the Commonwealth.
- Protects residents from increased health impacts of incineration pollution.
- Conserve energy and material resources wasted by incineration.
- Save landfill space that would be used for increased loads of incinerator ash.
- Combat climate change.
- Does the Governor support lifting the Moratorium? On September 18, 2008, environmental organizations, community leaders, and elected representatives from across the Commonwealth issued a plea to Gov. Deval Patrick to stop DEP’s move to lift the moratorium on increased incineration. To view this letter, click here.
- Take Action! Say NO to burning more trash. Tell our leaders to keep the moratorium. Click here to tell Governor Patrick and Environmental Secretary Bowles to keep the moratorium. We’ll gather your emails and present them to Gov. Patrick and Secretary Bowles.
[ii] Jay, K., & Steiglitz, L. (1995). Identification and Quantification of Volatile Organic Components in Emissions of Waste Incineration Plants. Chemosphere. 30(7). pp. 1249-1260.
[iii] Pascal Brula and others, “Etude d’incidence des cancers a proximita des usines d’incineration d’ordures managers,” Departement sante environment, Institut de veilee, sanitaire. 2006.
P. Elliott and others, “Cancer incidence near municipal solid waste incinerators in Great Britain,” BRITISH JOURNAL OF CANCER Vol. 73
[iv] USEPA. How Does Electricity Affect the Environment? www.epa.gov/cleanrgy/energy-and-you/affect/municipal-sw.html. accessed 9/11/2008.
[v] 2006 IPCC Guidelines for National Greenhouse Gas Inventories; Chapter 5: Incineration and Open Burning of Waste,” Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change National Greenhouse Gas Inventories Programme, p.5.5, 2006.
[vii] Morris, Jeffrey, Comparative LCAs for Curbside Recycling, Versus Either Landfilling or Incineration With Energy Recovery. International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment. (2005); 13(3) 226-234.
[ix] Massachusetts Municipal Residential Recycling Rates, FY 1996-2001 and Calendar 2002-2007, Massachusetts DEP. http://www.mass.gov/dep/recycle/priorities/munirate.doc Retrieved May 6, 2009
[x] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Title 40: Protection of Environment, Hazardous Waste Management System. General, Subpart B—definitions, 260.10. Current as of April 25, 2008.
[xi] Waste Conversion Technologies: Emergence of a New Option or the Same Old Story, Theodore S. Pytlar, Jr., Vice President, Dvirka and Bartilucci Consulting Engineers, presented to the Federation of New York Solid Waste Associations, Solid Waste & Recycling Conference, May 9, 2007.