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Trash Incineration:
Coming to a City Near You?

Massachusetts has had a moratorium on increasing incineration capacity since 1989. The threats to public health posed by the incinerators’ emissions is 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 22-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,”[1] but unfortunately, while there have been some improvements in control technologies, emissions are not monitored on a continuous basis and there are concerns about the accuracy of monitoring devices.[2], [3] Emissions are self-reported and plants are not required to report emissions during start-up and shut-down periods or during malfunctions. When emissions exceed allowable limits the waste company is fined long-after the fact when the damage has been done. Also, ultra-fine particulates, most dangerous to health, are not limited or even measured.

Health impacts of dioxin include cancer, IQ deficits, disrupted sexual development, birth defects, immune system damage, behavioral disorders, diabetes, and altered sex ratios. Some 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.[4] 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.[5] 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.[6]

Destroys Needed Resources

We must conserve our limited resources, not look for new ways to destroy them. Massachusetts already burns 34% of discarded material,[7] 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.[8] 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.[9] And Nantucket’s recycling rate of 85%.[10]

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,[11] but instead of burning garbage directly in a single chamber, they heat waste until it forms a gas that is then combusted as fuel or electricity. 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.[12]

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.[13]


[1] Development of Maximum Achievable Control Technology Standards, US EPA, Office of Inspector General http://www.epa.gov/oig/reports/1996/mactsrep.htm, accessed May 11, 2009

[2] Jay, K., & Steiglitz, L. (1995). Identification and Quantification of Volatile Organic Components in Emissions of Waste Incineration Plants. Chemosphere. 30(7). pp. 1249-1260.

[3] Waste Incineration: A Dying Technology; GAIA. July 14, 2003. www.no-burn.org/downloads/Waste%20Incineration%20-%20A%20Dying%20Technology.pdf

[4] 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.

[5] USEPA. How Does Electricity Affect the Environment?www.epa.gov/cleanrgy/energy-and-you/affect/municipal-sw.html. accessed 9/11/2008.

[6] 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.

[7] http://www.mass.gov/dep/recycle/priorities/06swdata.doc

[8] 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.

[9] Sierra Club

[10] 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

[11] 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.

[12] 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.

See Also

Zero Waste

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