China has quit recycling plastic. Could incineration plug the gap?

A worker at a recycling plant in Beijing considers his machine. Admittedly it’s a water recycling plan, but still. Image: Getty.

China’s decision last year to implement a ban on the import of 24 categories of recyclable materials, including many common plastics used in consumer goods, has shocked recycling systems across the world.

Surplus plastics in the United States and Western Europe appear destined for temporary storage facilities or local landfills in the short run, as trash haulers and municipalities consider changes to their recycling practices.

The fallout, including stockpiles of unrecycled trash, from these events brings to light some of the challenges associated with the global market for recyclable plastic.

Long-term solutions may include exporting plastic to India and other developing countries in Southeast Asia. To reduce the generation of plastic waste, European nations are considering new taxes on the consumption of plastic and increasing recycling content standards.

My own research suggests another opportunity widely practiced in Europe and Southeast Asia: incineration.

How recycling markets work

The global market for recyclable plastic operates like the better-known markets for commodities such as crude oil, gold and copper.

Prices paid for recyclable plastic fluctuate daily in response to changes in global supply and demand. Anyone interested in purchasing plastic need simply submit a bid in the spot market and await a response. After collecting our plastic bottles at the curb, our municipalities rarely interact directly with this market but instead sign long-term contracts with recycling companies.

China had been processing about one-half of the world’s exported recycled materials. Its ban represents a very sharp reduction in the global demand for some forms of plastic, which has decreased these prices. Such low prices should, in theory, deter some suppliers – like the companies that take on all of our recyclable plastic – from presenting the plastic to the market in the first place.

But household plastic recyclers are a little like dairy farmers – they don’t want to stop supplying even though prices might fall to ridiculously low levels. Our society has simply come to expect that our discarded plastic should be recycled, regardless of the price, to avoid it being sent to a landfill or incinerated.

Adding to this market rigidity are state laws that require municipalities to continue to collect our plastic bottles even when recycling companies don’t want to or can’t find anyone to take it. These factors result in a steady supply of plastic even in the lack of a price incentive to recycle it.

Incineration 2.0

Having researched questions related to solid waste recycling and disposal for many years, I believe China’s recent actions provide an excellent opportunity to begin broad new policy discussions before finding another developing country willing to import it.

New taxes and recycled content standards can be considered. But if impure stockpiles of low-grade plastics indeed threaten the natural environment and human health in importing countries, as China has argued, or if shipping these materials across our oceans generates unwanted environmental signatures like islands of plastic, then perhaps it is the time to also (gulp) reconsider incineration.

A modern waste incineration facility, such as this one in Minato City, Japan, can reduce dioxins by burning at high temperatures. There are 19 waste-to-energy plants in Tokyo. Image: Government of Japan.

I could see the “Cadillac plan” for keeping household plastic from landfills and our oceans as the modern incinerator. Americans have never really embraced incineration as an environmentally sound process. NIMBY groups and local politicians have recently opposed plans for new incineration facilities in New York City, Baltimore and Seattle.

The concern has been dioxins and other air pollutants. Dioxins were first detected in the fly ashes of incinerators in the late 1970s. At the time, pollution abatement technology at incinerators consisted solely of electrostatic precipitators – a relatively low-cost filtration technology designed to remove fine dust particles from air streams. But these didn’t work. Dioxins escaped, and releases of dioxins were found to be intensive when combustion temperatures fell between 200 and 600 degrees Celsius.

As these old incinerators finally ceased operations, the percentage of all waste incinerated in the United States has slowly decreased from 16 per cent in 1996 to 13 per cent in 2014.

Many incineration plants, like this one closed one in Chicago, have fallen out of favor in the U.S. over concerns with local air pollutants. Image: Eric Allix Rogers/creative commons.

Modern incinerators currently operating in Europe and Asia employ technologies to sharply reduce dioxins. Furnace temperatures have been raised to levels above 850°C, and methods have been developed to better trap fly ash, better clean the boilers and remove dust. Abatement technology has also been added to reduce nitric oxides and other airborne pollutants. Periods of incinerator startup and shutdown, when furnace temperatures pass the dangerous 200°C to 600°C threshold, are minimised with steady supplies of waste.

As a result, dioxin emissions from incinerators with modern abatement technologies are currently near zero. Modern incinerators also include processes to generate electricity, heat water for district heating services, recycle the metals found in the ashes and build tiles from the remaining slag. Studies have found these incinerators can serve as carbon sinks if the energy they produce displaces coal.

Due to these advances and to European laws that deterred landfilling, incineration has been embraced across Northern Europe and Southeast Asia – pretty much everywhere except the United States.

Why landfills are winning

So why not in the United States?

One reason is the public’s distaste for incineration. Another is the high cost. The cost of operating an environmentally efficient incinerator is difficult to estimate, but is easily more expensive than that of an American landfill or expense associated with recycling – that’s why it’s the Cadillac plan.

Incineration costs are high due to the need to meet air pollution laws by treating post-combustion gases. The cost to incinerate one ton of waste in a modern incinerator can be as high as $300. The cost of landfilling a ton of waste in Texas is only $35 per ton. Garbage generators in Texas won’t be rushing to support incineration anytime soon. Based on my own research, the cost of recycling an average ton of material is somewhere between these two measures.

Incineration and recycling

Incineration has certainly displaced landfilling in Europe and Southeast Asia, but has it also displaced recycling? Incinerators operate cleanest when at full capacity and are thus thirsty for material. That pile of plastic no longer wanted in China is looking pretty good to the hungry incinerator.

To see how recycling might be affected by the recent growth of incineration, I plotted the 2014 rates of incineration and recycling in all Organization for Economic Cooperation & Development countries. It appears that at low levels, incineration and recycling appear to replace landfilling.

As incineration rates in OECD countries rise over a certain point, the rate of recycling starts to dip. Image: Thomas Kinnaman/author provided.

But once incineration rates rise above 40 per cent, recycling starts to fall. Maybe some plastic bottles, manufactured from petroleum and a great fuel source for the incinerator, were not going to China in 2014. Nobody wants to admit that modern incineration has been displacing recycling, but the data appear to support the notion.

Modern incineration is not cheap – expect to pay maybe three times the current cost for waste removal – but studies have shown the environmental signature, as measured by air pollutants, is falling to small or could potentially even have negative carbon emissions when combined with carbon capture.

West Palm Beach, Florida, installed one of these incinerators in June 2015, making it the first incinerator to begin operations in the United States in the past 20 years. Maybe this is a more responsible future than sending containers of Americans’ plastic across the ocean to Africa.

The Conversation

Thomas Kinnaman, Professor of Economics, Bucknell University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


A Century after radical leftists were elected to its city hall, Vienna’s social democratic base is slipping away

Karl Marx Hof. Image: Kagan Kaya.

Karl Marx-Hof, a kilometre-long municipal apartment block in Vienna’s wealthy 19th district, was first named after the father of the communist movement by Austria’s Social Democratic Workers’ Party (SDAP) in 1927. Its imposing structure borrows from an eclectic mix of modernist, Bauhaus, art deco, neoclassical and baroque architectural styles. In the mould of early soviet experiments, the building, nicknamed The Palace of the Proletariat, housed shared childcare services, gardens and washrooms.

The building is Vienna’s most prominent physical reminder of a period known as Red Vienna, when left-wing radicals found themselves at the helm of the Hapsburg’s former imperial capital during the aftermath of the First World War. 

After the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian dual monarchy in 1918, the SDAP won the fledgeling republic’s first elections held under universal suffrage and commenced an ambitious programme of social and economic reform. Leading intellectual lights of the party sought to unite the two great strands of the 20th-century labour movement, reconciling parliamentary socialism and revolutionary communism under their new current of non-Bolshevik “Austro-Marxism”. Karl Marx-Hof epitomised their radical ambitions. “When we are no longer here”, Mayor Karl Seitz told an assembled crowd of workers at the building’s opening in 1930, “these bricks will speak for us.”

When I visited Karl Marx-Hof on a sunny day in June, Monica and George, two of its residents, were walking their two Chihuahuas around the estate’s leafy, quiet courtyards. “We moved here last year,” Monica tells me. “It’s really nice because you’ve got a lot of green space in the middle of the city.”

The young couple are the beneficiaries of a generous system of public housing provision. Vienna has a relative abundance of high-quality municipal flats compared with most large capitals. “We weren’t waiting long for the flat – moving in here was really fast”, Monica says. Currently, 60 per cent of Vienna’s residents live in either municipally owned, subsidised housing, or in social homes run by not-for-profit cooperatives. The remaining portion of private homes is subject to strict rent controls and regulations.

The social democrats and their less radical successors have remained the dominant party in Vienna since the city’s first election, save for an 11-year hiatus of fascist dictatorship from 1934, followed by Anschluss and Nazi occupation from 1938. The city remains a red statelet in an otherwise conservative country. Indeed, Austria is now more associated with the far right than the radical left. But even Vienna is no longer immune to the trend of waning support for centre-left parties that has gripped European countries since 2008, and cracks are beginning to appear in its social democratic project.

Two exhibitions in the city – one in the former communal wash house of Karl Marx-Hof, the other in the grand Wien Museum MUSA – note the achievements of Red Vienna’s experiment in local socialism: the introduction of pensions and unemployment support; the establishment of a nascent public healthcare system; the opening of kindergartens, schools run on Montessori principles, public baths, open-air swimming pools, libraries, parks, leisure facilities, arts centres; and, of course, a programme of mass council house building, all paid for by a system of progressive income taxation coupled with duties on luxury goods, including servants, champagne, private cars and riding horses.

Unlike the Bolsheviks, (and partly because, as a provincial government, it lacked the powers to do so), the SDAP did not expropriate or nationalise factories or private industry without compensation, but instead paid former owners whenever buildings or land passed from private to public hands. The party built what it perceived to be the chrysalis of a new egalitarian society, while leaving the market and private ownership of the means of production largely intact. In many ways, its policies palliated the worst effects of early 20th century industrial capitalism like slum housing, mass unemployment and extreme poverty. Red Vienna laid the ground for the modern European welfare state, inspiring other social democratic governments across the continent to implement similar policies after the Second World War. 

“Back then the social democrats were good,” Monica tells me, attempting to calm her excitable dogs by pulling on their leads. Does she intend to vote for the social democrats in the upcoming national elections in September? “We vote for the blue ones,” she answers. Monica and George will cast their vote for the Freheitliche Partei Osterreichs (FPO), the Freedom Party, an organisation founded after the Second World War by a former Nazi minister of agriculture and high-ranking SS officer. “It’s because of all the refugees and all the violence that’s going on here,” she claims. “Shootings are more frequent in Vienna.”

Austria has one of the lowest murder rates in the world, almost half that of England and Wales, and Vienna itself is known for its relative safety compared to other European capitals. But hundreds of thousands of refugees have travelled through Austria over the last four years. Many have made the city their home, but most have transited towards Germany, at Angela Merkel’s invitation. The mass movement of people from across the Mediterranean to central and northern Europe has ruptured the country’s social-democratic pact. In 2016, Norbert Hofer of the Freedom Party narrowly missed out on victory in the presidential election, receiving 46 per cent of the vote.

“Lots of people say they’re just racists,” Monica continues, visibly uncomfortable with the idea that people would attribute malice or prejudice to voters like herself. But she hastens to add that her views, and those of her partner George, aren’t necessarily typical of Vienna’s affluent 19th district. “There are very rich people here, so they vote for the party who protects their interests… You’ll see a lot of big houses, so I think the OVP, the People’s Party, would do well.”

The OVP is the more traditional centre-right party of Austrian politics, and wins the most seats in the 19th district. Yet the city’s voting patterns are diverse. This is partly a result of the policies of successive social democratic administrations placing the integration of social classes and income levels at the heart of their municipal agenda. Subsidised housing can be found alongside wealthy private apartments in the city centre designed by Renzo Piano, and at the foot of the city’s vineyards near up-market wine taverns. Kurt Puchinger, chair of wohnfonds_wien, the city’s land and housing fund, tells me that the council “do not want to have a situation where you can identify the social status of a person by their home address.”

Despite the SDAP’s century-long efforts to promote social cohesion, recent years have seen the rise the FPO’s vote share at the expense of the left. Favoriten is a more solidly working class area of Vienna in the 10th district. There, according to Monica, “most vote for the Freedom Party because they are for stopping migration.” She pauses to consider her words. “Not stopping. Trying to find a way to filter them and control them. Every country has a problem like this.”

Monica’s feeling for the electoral preferences of each of the various Viennese districts proves accurate. After the war, Favoriten elected communists as their local representatives. The district's loyalties quickly switched to the social democrats, and until 2005 the party could comfortably expect to receive over half the votes there, consistently getting more than double the votes of both the far-right Freedom Party and the centre-right People’s Party. But in the most recent 2015 election, the Freedom Party won 24 seats and 38 per cent of the vote, only two points and one seat behind the social democrats. In Austria nationally, the People’s Party, headed by a 32-year-old leader, Sebastian Kurz, with Patrick Bateman overtones, has formed a government with the Freedom Party – but their coalition collapsed ignominiously in May.

Neither Austria as a whole, nor Favoriten in particular, are outliers. In France, Le Pen’s National Rally polls well in the Communist Party’s former “ceinture rouge” outside Paris. In Britain, Labour’s post-industrial heartlands are turning towards the Brexit Party, while blue collar workers in America’s rust belt have backed Donald Trump. And in Vienna, neither the impressive legacy of the SDAP nor the continually high standard of living (the city was rated as the world’s most liveable for the 10th time in 2018 by Mercer, the consultancy giant) is enough to stem the tide of right-wing populism.

Until he was unseated as leader following a corruption scandal in May, Heinz-Christian Strache positioned the FPO as the party of the working class, a guarantor of Austrian identity, and the protector of a generous welfare system now threatened by an influx of migrants. “We believe in our youth,” ran one of his slogans, “the [social democrats] in immigration.”

Sofia is a masseuse who has lived in Karl Marx-Hof for 19 years with her partner and his son. “People are angry with the social democrats now because of refugees,” she told me. “They should change this... They should say ‘we are on the left but we can’t accept everybody here.’” The view that the party have abandoned their traditional voters is widespread, but Sofia isn’t fond of the alternatives. “The FPO – the Nazis – you can’t vote for the Nazis… anyone who votes FPO isn’t my friend… But I won’t vote for the People’s Party because they do everything for rich people, not normal people.”

Sofia reserves her strongest criticism for the youthful Sebastian Kurz, who is likely to become head of another People’s Party-led coalition after elections in September. “I’m scared of him,” she says. “I think he’s a psychopath. I think he’s not a normal person.”

Like many Viennese, Sofia admires the legacy of Red Vienna: “The socialists did a lot of really good things. We are the only city in the world that has so much state housing. And they brought in pensions, health insurance, a lot of things.” But she’s not sure they will get her vote in 2019. In an era of polarisation and anti-establishment rhetoric, the most fertile yet unoccupied political ground seems to be for a radical, redistributive economic programme, coupled with a more conservative vision of shared responsibilities and values, national sovereignty, and sociocultural issues.

“Even in the working class areas of the city,” sighs Kurt Puchinger, the city’s housing fund chair, “less people are voting social democrat. And this is a pity.” 100 years since the old radical Social Democratic Workers’ Party was first elected by a restive, war-weary working class, the working class remains restive, but while the SDAP’s flagship Karl Marx-Hof still stands, the bricks no longer seem to be speaking for them.