“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.

 
 
 
 

Could twin towns bring Britain back together?

An unlikely pair. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Twin towns: an irrelevant novelty to most of us, a peculiar name on a village’s welcome sign. But could linking one British town to another – a domestic reinterpretation of this long-standing European practice – help bring Britain back together in a time of national crisis?

Born in the aftermath of World War II, town twinning aimed to foster cooperation and solidarity across Europe. Communities entered formal alliances, nurturing friendships and shared histories. Coventry forged links with Dresden and Volgograd, then Stalingrad, marking the devastation faced by their citizens during the war.

The democratisation of Greece, Spain and Portugal during the 1970s led to a new wave of twin towns across Europe, as did the fall of the Soviet Union a decade later. Since its inception, the focus of town twinning has been on uniting people through relationships. It is a testament to the initiative’s success that many of these remain to this day; Coventry recently enjoyed a performance at the city’s cathedral by Volgograd’s children’s choir.

While European relations have improved since the 1940s, unity at home has received less attention. As a result, Britain is riven with deep economic, political, educational and cultural divides. These fault lines are increasingly determined by geography, with a growing gap between our big metropolitan cities and almost everywhere else.

In comparison to other European countries, we face staggering levels of regional inequality; six of the ten poorest regions in northern Europe can been found in the UK. As outlined by Alan Milburn, the government’s former social mobility tsar, “the country seems to be in the grip of a self-reinforcing spiral of ever-growing division. That takes a spatial form, not just a social one.”

These divisions are poisoning our body politic. As Adam Smith argued in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, putting yourself in someone else's shoes is vital for developing a moral compass; in doing so "we conceive ourselves enduring all the same torments, we enter as it were into his body, and become in some measure the same person with him..." But this is difficult when we have little interaction or experience of those with opposing views.

This is increasingly likely in geographically polarised Britain, with the places we live dominated by people who think alike. Our political leaders must commit time and energy to bridging these divides, just as the leaders of Europe did in the aftermath of the Second World War. By forging links between different parts of the country, a new era of domestic town twinning would do just that.


School exchanges between sister towns would offer an opportunity for children to be exposed to places, people and perspectives very different to their own. This would allow future generations to see things from an alternative and opposing perspective. It may also embed from a young age an awareness of the diversity of experiences seen by people across our highly unequal country.

MPs would be encouraged to spend time in their constituency’s sister town. First-hand exposure to voters in a very different part of the country would surely soften the views of even the most entrenched parliamentarian, making for a more civil debate in the Commons. Imagine the good this would do for Parliament today, with Brexit gridlocked because of the unwillingness of MPs to compromise.

In 2016 the Carnegie UK Trust launched its Twin Towns UK programme, a pilot linking twenty towns across the UK to examine how they might develop together. Emerging benefits include a reduction of insularity and a greater awareness of the bigger picture. Its focus was not on bridging economic divides – towns with similar socioeconomic characteristics were twinned – but initial outcomes from the scheme suggest a broader programme of domestic town twinning could have a powerful impact.

Looking further back, Camden has been twinned with Doncaster since the 1980s, a relationship that unionised Camden Town Hall workers forged in a display of solidarity with striking miners during the 1980s. Funds were raised to feed families of striking workers at the pit and Camden locals even drove north to deliver presents at Christmas. Though the relationship appears less active today, it serves as a powerful reminder of twinning’s capacity to bring people from very different places together.

As we prepare for Brexit it’s imperative that we protect existing twin town relationships with our European partners. This is of vital importance when we know sadly many of these are under threat from austerity and gloriously un-PC mayors. But we should look to breathe new life into these traditions too, where possible. Domestic town twinning would do just that: a step towards bringing Britain back together, just as a continent was reunited after the devastation of war.

Ben Glover is a researcher at the think tank Demos.