“A false solution to climate change”: why burning rubbish does not mean clean energy

A waste energy plant in Nuemuenster, Germany. Image: Getty.

U.S. cities have been burning municipal solid waste since the 1880s. For the first century, it was a way to get rid of trash. Today advocates have rebranded it as an environmentally friendly energy source.

Most incinerators operating today use the heat from burning trash to produce steam that can generate electricity. These systems are sometimes referred to as “waste-to-energy” plants.

Communities and environmental groups have long opposed the siting of these facilities, arguing that they are serious polluters and undermine recycling. Now the industry is promoting a new process called co-incineration or co-firing. Operators burn waste alongside traditional fossil fuels like coal in facilities such as cement kilns, coal-fired power plants and industrial boilers.

I study environmental justice and zero-waste solutions and contributed to a recent report about the health and environmental impacts of co-incineration. Since that time, the Trump administration’s lenient approach to enforcing environmental laws against polluters – including incinerators – has deepened my concern. I’ve come to the conclusion that burning waste is an unjust and unsustainable strategy, and new attempts to package incineration as renewable energy are misguided.

U.S. municipal solid waste generation, 1960-2013. Image: USEPA.

Incineration industry capitalises on renewable energy

Currently there are 86 incinerators across 25 states burning about 29 million tons of garbage annually – about 12 per cent of the total U.S. waste stream. They produced about 0.4 per cent of total U.S. electricity generation in 2015 – a minuscule share.

Classifying incineration as renewable energy creates new revenue streams for the industry because operators can take advantage of programs designed to promote clean power. More importantly, it gives them environmental credibility.

Image: author provided.

In 23 states and territories, waste incineration is included in renewable portfolio standards – rules that require utilities to produce specific fractions of their power from qualifying renewable fuels. The Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan – which the Trump administration has pledged to replace – allowed states to classify waste incineration and co-incineration as carbon-neutral forms of energy production.

Another EPA policy, the Non-Hazardous Secondary Materials rule, was amended in 2013 to redefine waste so that municipal solid waste can now be processed to become “non-waste fuel products”. These renamed wastes can be burned in facilities such as boilers that are subject to less-stringent environmental standards than solid waste incinerators. This is good news for an industry trying to monetise waste materials such as railroad crossties by treating them as fuel.


Why waste incineration is not sustainable

Many environmental advocates in the United States and Europe are alarmed over government approval of increasingly diverse waste fuels, along with relaxed oversight of the incineration industry.

Although municipal solid waste combustion is regulated under the Clean Air Act, host communities are concerned about potential health impacts. Emissions typically associated with incineration include particulate matter, lead, mercury and dioxins.

In 2011 the New York Department of Environmental Conservation found that although facilities burning waste in New York complied with existing law, they released up to 14 times more mercury, twice as much lead and four times as much cadmium per unit of energy than coal plants.

Disproportionate siting of incinerators and waste facilities in communities of color and low-income communities was a key driver for the emergence of the environmental justice movement. In 1985 there were 200 proposed or existing incinerators online, but by 2015 fewer than 85 plants remained. Many U.S. communities effectively organised to defeat proposed plants, but poor, marginalised and less-organised communities remained vulnerable.

Rally opposing a proposed waste-to-energy plant in Baltimore, Maryland, 18 December 2013. Image: United Workers/creative commons.

Now some companies are turning to co-incineration rather than building new plants. This move sidesteps substantial upfront costs and risky financial arrangements, which have created debt problems for host municipalities such as Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

Co-incineration offers new markets for waste-derived fuels using existing infrastructure. It is hard to measure how many facilities are currently using co-incineration, since EPA’s Non-Hazardous Secondary Materials rule does not require them to report it. But as one data point, two affiliated building material companies, Systech and Geocycle, are co-processing waste in 22 cement kilns in the United States and Canada.

Co-incineration is not clean

As an example of concerns over co-incineration, consider the Hefty Energy Bag program, which is sponsored by Dow Chemical Company and promoted by the nonprofit group Keep America Beautiful. This project offers grants to municipalities to participate in a curbside pilot program that collects hard-to-recycle plastics for energy production.

Currently this initiative is collecting plastics in Omaha, Nebraska, and mostly co-incinerating them at the Sugar Creek cement kiln in Missouri. In 2010, the owner of this plant and 12 others settled with EPA for violating the Clean Air Act and other air pollution regulations, paying a $5m fine and agreeing to install new pollution controls. Although this is just one example, it indicates that concerns over air quality impacts from co-incineration are real.

Promotional video for the Hefty Energy Bag program.

Waste incineration deflects attention from more sustainable solutions, such as redesigning products for recyclability or eliminating toxic, hard-to-recycle plastics. Currently only about one-third of municipal solid waste is recycled in the United States. Rates for some types of plastics are even lower.


Dow’s partnership with Keep America Beautiful is particularly problematic becomes it takes advantage of local municipalities and residents who want to promote zero-waste, climate-friendly policies. 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 natural gas.

As the Trump administration reverses or abandons national and international policies to address climate change, many Americans are looking to local and state governments and the private sector to lead on this issue. Many cities and states are committing to ambitious zero-waste and renewable energy targets.

The ConversationThese policies can drive innovations in a greening economy, but they can also provide perverse incentives to greenwash and repackage old solutions in new ways. In my view, incineration is a false solution to climate change that diverts precious resources, time and attention from more systemic solutions, such as waste reduction and real renewable fuels like solar and wind. Whether it’s an incinerator, cement kiln or coal plant, if you put garbage into a system, you get garbage out.

Ana Baptista, Assistant Professor of Environmental Policy and Sustainability Management, The New School.

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

 
 
 
 

How can cities become more bike friendly? The Netherlands offers useful lessons

(Aurore Belot/AFP via Getty Images)

It might seem like cycling is in the DNA of the Netherlands, a country where even the prime minister takes his bicycle to work. But the Dutch haven’t always lived as one with their bikes. In the Amsterdam of the early 1970s, cars were considered the wave of the future. They can be seen filling up squares and streets in historical photographs, and killed an average of over two Amsterdammers per week, including many children.

It is nothing more than an “accident of history” that the Netherlands embraced cycling, says Marco te Brömmelstoet, the director of the Urban Cycling Institute in Amsterdam and a man better known as the city’s cycling professor. Today’s bike rider’s paradise was created after parents and activists took to the streets to protest “child murder” by car. A Saudi oil embargo, rising gas prices, concerns about pollution and anger about the destruction of entire neighbourhoods to build motorways did the rest. 


Amsterdam, 1958. Not a cyclist's paradise. (Keystone/Getty Images)

What’s important about this history is that it can be replicated in other cities, too. Of course, the Netherlands has certain advantages – it’s flat as a pancake, for example. But in the eyes of traffic reformers, the rise of e-bikes (and even cargo bikes) means there’s no excuse for prioritising cars everywhere. 

So how can cities, flat or not, follow Amsterdam’s path to creating places where cycling is a pleasant, safe and common way to get around? The Dutch have some tips. 

Separate bikes from car traffic

Any city could start painting dedicated bike lanes on the streets. But in the Netherlands, those white marks indicating space for cyclists are considered just a minor first step. 

“A line on the road is not enough. Motorists will ignore it,” says Frans Jan van Rossem, a civil servant specialising in cycling policy in Utrecht. If other cities want their residents to choose bikes instead of cars when dodging pandemic-era public transport, protecting them from fast-moving car traffic must be the priority, Van Rossem says. 

The Dutch research institute CROW developed a widely praised design manual for bicycle infrastructure, full of tips for creating these protected lanes: A row of vertical white posts or a curb can serve as a physical separator, for example. Still, cyclists tend to feel safest in a "solitary" path, separated from the road by grass, trees, or an elevated concrete island. 

“The main bottleneck, the main reason why people don’t cycle, is that they don’t feel safe,” Van Rossem notes. “To start, construct separate paths.”

Turn those bike paths into a network

Many cities may have some bike lanes on some streets, but leave cyclists to roll the dice everywhere else. Will conditions still be safe when they turn left or right? Often they have to continue their way without any protected facilities for cyclists. 

“In many cases, cities take fast action, without thinking it through very well,” says Lucas Harms. He leads the Dutch Cycling Embassy, a partnership between the Dutch government and several companies, which promotes Dutch bike knowhow globally. “Don’t build small pieces of bike lane from nothing to nowhere. Think about a network of cycling infrastructure.” 

Utrecht aims to have cyclists within 200 to 300 metres of a connected path anywhere in the city, Van Rossem says. Avoid constructing those paths in sketchy industrial areas, he warns. “A connection through an unattractive area may be fast, but won’t be used a lot.”

Embrace the ‘fietsstraat’, a street where bikes come first


On some streets, drivers have to give up their privileges. (Rick Nederstigt/AFP via Getty Images)

A peculiar Dutch invention called "fietsstraat" (cycling street) holds strong potential for the rest of the world, Kevin Krizek says. He’s a transportation professor from Colorado who spent three years at Radboud University in Nijmegen. 

On cycling streets, cars are “guests”, restricted by a speed limit of 30 kilometres per hour. Drivers are not allowed to pass, so cyclists comfortably dominate the road. In the Netherlands the fietsstraat is usually paved with red asphalt, to resemble a bike path and notify drivers of their secondary status. But creating a cycling street can be easy. “All you need to do is put signs at intersections,” Krizek says. The effect is revolutionary in his view. Drivers have to give up their privileges, and cyclists can take the lead. 

Some Dutch traffic experts worry the cycling street won’t work if a city doesn’t also have a robust cycling culture. In the Netherlands, drivers are aware of the perils of urban cycling because they too use bicycles. Moreover, Dutch cities use sophisticated “circulation plans” to direct cars away from city centres and residential areas, onto a few main routes. 

Without “calming” traffic this way, the cycling street could be a step too far, Harms says. “In a city like New York, where all roads are equally accessible and full, it’s better to separate bicycles and cars,” he says.

Redesign intersections for cyclists' safety

If cyclists have to cross intersections “at the mercy of the Gods”, you’re not there yet, says Harms. When he travels abroad, he often finds clumsily designed crossings. As soon as cars turn, cyclists may fear for their lives. 

Harms recommends placing physical barriers between cars and bikes in places where they must cross. The Dutch build elevated islands to direct traffic into separate sections. The golden rule: cars wait behind bicycles. That way, drivers can see cyclists clearly at all times. Barriers also force Dutch cyclists to turn left in the safest way possible. They cross the street first and wait for their turn again before making their way left.

“You can create that with simple temporary measures,” Harms says. Planters work fine, for example. “They must be forgiving, though. When someone makes a mistake, you don’t want them to get seriously injured by a flower box’s sharp edge.”

Professor Krizek points out how the Dutch integrated cycling routes into roundabouts. Some are small; some are big and glorious, like the Hovenring between Eindhoven and Veldhoven, where cyclists take a futuristic-looking roundabout lifted above the highway. Most of those traffic circles move high volumes of cars and cyclists through intersections efficiently and safely. For a simpler solution, the Dutch manual suggests guiding cyclists to quieter streets – crossing a block up or down may be safer. “Nobody knows how to do intersections better than the Dutch,” says Krizek. 

Ban cars, or at least discourage them


A man rides down from a three-level bicycle parking garage near Amsterdam's main train station. (Timothy Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

The quickest, most affordable way to make a city more bikeable is to ban cars, says Ria Hilhorst, cycling policy advisor for the City of Amsterdam. It will make streets remarkably safe – and will most likely enrage a significant amount of people. 

Amsterdam doesn’t outlaw cars, but it does deliberately make their owners feel unwelcome in the historic city’s cramped streets. Paid parking is hugely effective, for example. Many car owners decide to avoid paying and use bicycles or public transportation for trips into the city. Utrecht, meanwhile, boasts the world’s largest bicycle parking garage, which provides a dizzying 12,500 parking spots.

To further discourage drivers from entering the city’s heart, Amsterdam will soon remove more than 10,000 car-parking spaces. Strategically placed barriers already make it impossible to cross Amsterdam efficiently by car. “In Amsterdam, it is faster to cross the city on a bike than by car,” Harms says. “That is the result of very conscious policy decisions.”

Communicate the benefits clearly

Shopkeepers always fear they will lose clients when their businesses won’t be directly accessible by car, but that’s a myth, says Harms. “A lot of research concludes that better access for pedestrians and cyclists, making a street more attractive, is an economic boost.”

Try replacing one parking space with a small park, he recommends, and residents will see how it improves their community. Home values will eventually rise in calmer, bike-friendlier neighbourhoods without through traffic, Van Rossem says. Fewer cars mean more room for green spaces, for example.

“I often miss the notion that cycling and walking can contribute a lot to the city. One of the greatest threats to public health is lack of exercise. A more walkable and bikeable city can be part of the solution,” says Ria Hilhorst. “But in many countries, cycling is seen as something for losers. I made it, so I have a car and I’m going to use it, is the idea. 

“Changing this requires political courage. Keep your back straight, and present a vision. What do you gain? Tranquility, fewer emissions, health benefits, traffic safety, less space occupied by vehicles.” 

Again, she points to Amsterdam’s history. “It is possible; we were a car city too.”

Karlijn van Houwelingen is a journalist based in New York City.