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Waste-to-energy technology is cleaner and safer than generally believed

When we think of climate-change deniers, Tea Partiers and Republicans often come to mind. But some of the most troubling stumbling blocks to reducing greenhouse gases come from urban liberals and left-leaning environmental groups who oppose burning municipal solid waste to produce energy.

In California, when new waste-to-energy plants (WTEs) are proposed, they run into buzz saws of liberal opposition. Plans to increase the volume of waste burned at a Minneapolis WTE facility have been blocked for four years, and the issue recently divided the Democratic candidates for mayor. From New York to Massachusetts to Rhode Island to Pennsylvania to Maine, opposition has delayed or stopped WTE plants across the nation, largely in liberal-controlled urban areas.

But the opposition is misguided. Today’s waste-to-energy plants are not your granddaddy’s trash burners, and some liberal groups, like the Center for American Progress, are starting to look at the actual science and reevaluate long-held assumptions in light of new information and increasing concern over climate change. When they do, they are finding that today’s WTEs look surprisingly good for the environment and for fighting climate change.

Source: Covanta Energy, one of the two major US WTE operators.

Reduce, reuse, recycle — and then what?

Americans generate about 390 million tons of trash every year — as much as 7 pounds per day for every man, woman and child. The problem ranks with energy, food, population and the economy as one of the biggest issues humans need to tackle to create a sustainable world. The U.S. recycles and composts about 94 million tons of that waste, or roughly 24 percent, but could do much, much more.

Even if the U.S. doubled its rate of recycling, there would still be hundreds of millions of tons of post-recycled, post-composted solid waste. What you do with it is the question, and there are two options: dump it in a landfill or burn it/gasify it for energy. 

Liberals, overwhelmingly, are choosing to dump, which science shows is the most polluting alternative. Because of liberal opposition, almost no WTEs have been built in the United States for 20 years, despite the science-based classification of WTE as renewable energy by the EPA and  31 state environmental agencies.

Things are very different in green-conscious Europe. While the United States has just 89 WTE facilities, Europe has 420 and is building more. Northern Europe, the most environmentally conscious part of the continent, is also where the most WTEs are located.

WTE construction in the U.S. is being held back by fears that burning trash will cause people to reduce their recycling effort or will put dangerous toxins into the environment.  But are those fears supported by the evidence?

Evidence shows recycling and WTE are complementary

It is certainly true that maximum recycling effort should be put in to remove all recyclables and compostables before the remaining waste is disposed of in a landfill or a WTE facility. But the worry that WTEs reduce recycling rates does not appear to be borne out by the evidence, which shows that to the contrary, they tend to be associated with increased recycling effort.

The five European nations with the highest recycling rates — Germany, the Netherlands, Austria, Belgium and Sweden — also have among the highest WTE usage, to the point that they have reduced landfill use to less than 1 percent of their waste. Sweden even competes to import waste. While this is questionably desirable, it does not appear to have reduced their recycling effort, which is higher than that of the 22 other European nations.

In America, by contrast, where environmental groups frequently portray the issue as an either/or choice between recycling and WTEs, both rates are much lower, and a whopping 69 percent of U.S. municipal solid waste winds up in landfills.

As in Europe, the trend of increased recycling rates in communities that use WTE also holds in the U.S., where communities that have a WTE plant show higher recycling rates than the national average.

Finally, recycling itself is not without waste. For example, recycling mixed paper leaves a 15 percent residue that itself has to be disposed of somehow. 

Clearly, recycling and WTE can and do go hand-in-hand in a responsible waste management plan, and copromotion by environmental groups would likely increase both WTE and recycling, both of which are preferable to landfilling in the waste management hiearchy.

Clean-air technology cuts emissions to near-zero

While trash burners once did put dangerous toxins into the air, in the last 10 years WTE pollution-control technology has become so advanced that the most common and dangerous toxins have been almost completely eliminated, something that the environmental groups who still oppose WTEs rarely mention.

Under the Clean Air Act, WTE facilities are required to be equipped with the most modern air pollution control technology available to ensure that smokestack emissions are safe for human health and the environment. This new equipment must meet or exceed the EPA’s Maximum Achievable Control Technology (MACT) Standards. WTE plant emissions are far below the limits the EPA set as safe, and get better all the time.

The Minneapolis WTE facility, for example, uses the following process to control its emissions:

  • Air is injected into the boiler to control nitrogen oxide emissions.
  • Activated carbon is injected into the exhaust gases to control mercury.
  • Flue gases then pass through a dry scrubber, where a lime slurry is injected to control sulfur dioxide and hydrochloric acid.
  • Combustion gases pass through a baghouse containing a series of fabric filters to remove particulate matter (ash), metals and dioxins.

Emissions are monitored on a continuous basis for multiple pollutants.

Using the antiscience playbook

Because of WTE’s impressive results, opponents often make misleading arguments based on emissions data or policy decisions from 2000 or prior, before the MACT technology was put into place. 

Another common tactic is to use EPA data stating that trash burning is the largest source of cancer-causing dioxins. This is true, but the data refer to the uncontrolled backyard barrel burning of trash, and specifically not to WTEs. 

These are the sort of antiscience tactics — quoting old data, misattributing data or results, cherry picking data — that have been used by climate-change deniers.

Testing shows the ash to be non-toxic and it is widely used

WTEs reduce the volume of trash by about 90 percent, leaving about 10 percent in the form of ash that still needs to be landfilled unless it can be used elsewhere. Opponents often argue that the ash is toxic, but the EPA developed a test called the Toxicity Characteristic Leaching Procedure that tests the ash with an acidic liquid, causing any of 40 identified contaminants, or metals, such as cadmium, to leach out. If these metals are found in amounts greater than a fraction of a percent, the ash is considered hazardous. Scientists have tested ash from every WTE facility in the country over the course of several years, and the tests have consistently shown that the ash is non-hazardous.

Consequently, about 3 million tons of concrete-like ash, or more than one-third of all WTE residue, are being reused annually as roadbed material, as daily and final landfill cover, as an aggregate in road construction, as an additive to asphalt, in the construction of artificial reefs, and in cement blocks.  WTE operators are actively looking for other ways to reuse the concrete-like ash renewably instead of disposing of the balance in landfills. Mixing it into concrete is one solution that offsets the production of cement, which otherwise accounts for 5 percent of the world’s carbon emissions.

The big one: WTEs fight climate change

Opponents often argue that burning trash puts large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. And the atmosphere is already at a dangerously high 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide — higher than it has been in at least 600,000 years.  350 parts per million is the maximum level many climate scientists consider safe and sustainable, which is still considerably higher than the roughly 290 ppm it was at the beginning of the industrial revolution.

Classed as low-carbon, renewable energy.  But it turns out that while WTEs do emit greenhouse gases, they emit far fewer GHGs on a ton-for-ton basis than America’s current practice of landfilling. In fact, 31 state pollution control agencies and two US territories now class WTEs as renewable energy and as preferable to landfilling. To understand why, consider a ton of post-recycled, post-composted trash in either of two scenarios: landfilled, or burned for energy with pollution capture technology. 

Half of post-recycled MSW is part of the carbon cycle already.  First, roughly 53 percent of post-recyled, post-composted trash is still derived from organic materials and so is part of Earth’s carbon cycle anyway. Burning it does not increase the atmosphere’s carbon load. 

One ton MSW burned prevents one ton GHGs. Burning the remaining 47 percent, which is derived from petroleum carbon, prevents other, worse emissions. According to the EPA, every ton of garbage processed at a WTE facility actually prevents approximately 1 ton of emitted carbon-dioxide equivalent from going into the atmosphere. 

Methane is a far worse GHG. One way this happens is by reducing landfilling.  Landfills are the US’s largest emitter of methane, a very potent greenhouse gas.  According to the IPPC’s 4th Assessment on Climate Chage, in a 20-year window methane is 72 times more potent a greenhouse gas than cardon dioxide. Capped landfills now have the technology to capture methane, but only about 34 percent of that methane is actually used to generate electricity. The rest leaks away or is flared off, and nothing at all is captured for the first few decades that a landfill sits open while being filled. 

Metal recycling is built in to WTE.  Next, post-recycled trash still contains millions of tons of metals that are sent to landfills. At a WTE facility, those metals are automatically reclaimed and recycled as a part of its normal filtration process. This saves the time, materials, energy, emissions and environmental disruption of mining for an equivalent amount of new minerals.  The WTE operator Covanta Energy recycled 415,000 tons of ferrous and 16,800 tons of non-ferrous metals in 2012 alone — enough steel to build 28 Brooklyn Bridges and and enough aluminum to produce over one billion beverage cans. 

The aluminum that is reclaimed by WTEs from the already post-recycled waste is particularly important.  Recycling one ton of aluminum prevents a whopping 13.7 tons of GHG emissions, compared to 4.3 tons for office paper and 2.5 tons for newspaper. Recycling a ton of ferrous metal prevents 1.7 tons of GHG emissions. None of this is recaptured when a truck tips its load into a landfill.

Cutting waste transportation cuts carbon. WTE facilities are sited close to where the waste is generated, in or near urban areas. This eliminates much of the carbon emitted by hauling waste to a distant landfill. In 2011, New York City spent more than $300 million transporting its trash by train and truck — roughly 12,000 tons a day — to landfills as far as 300 miles away, emitting tons more carbon and wearing down roads and vehicles in the process. In some cases, such e-waste, the U.S. is now even exporting its waste to third world countries, vastly compounding its carbon contribution.

Energy generated offsets fossil fuels. WTE facilities generate heat and electricity, reducing the burning of fossil fuels for those same purposes.  For example, the Minneapolis WTE facility currently generates enough electricity to power 25,000 homes, and enough steam to heat 1,500. Their proximity also means less heat and electricity are lost in transport. 

Lower carbon than fossil fuel. According to EPA studies burning municipal solid waste (MSW) in WTEs emits less carbon dioxide per megawatt hour than fossil fuels, including natural gas.

New gasification technologies coming online promise even greater energy capture and lower emisions than WTE by incineration.

Cleaning up U.S. lakes and rivers

Leachate is a hazardous tea created when rain percolates through garbage. Its release to the groundwater and surface waters is regulated by federal and state laws. Landfills capture this leachate and pump it to a treatment facility, where pollutants are removed through biological and chemical processes, then it is discharged into public waterways. But these treatment facilities rarely have the expensive reverse osmosis filters necessary to capture pharmaceuticals and other bioactive chemical products.  These agents are turning up in groundwater throughout the United States and polluting even remote lakes and rivers. Their presence affects fish and other aquatic species, and they are now found in several municipal water supplies that are drawn from pharmaceutically polluted waters.

WTE facilities provide a safe way to destroy pharmaceuticals and other bioactive products that are disposed of in landfills or that people flush down the toilet. The high temperature of WTE combustion completely destroys the chemicals, rendering them inactive and ensuring cleaner lakes, rivers, and human water supplies and less pharmaceuticals and bioactive agents entering the food chain and affecting public health.

The times they are a changin’

So with all these benefits — efficiency, clean energy, reduced greenhouse gases, reduced transportation and road repair, reduced mining, freeing land space, protecting groundwater and public waters, keeping the food chain cleaner, recycling metals — why haven’t U.S. liberals, who control the politcs in many metropolitans areas where WTEs should be being built, been all over them like they have been in Europe? The answer lies in the history of the American public’s views toward science.

Suspicion of corporations and of hidden dangers to health or the environment have become core and often unquestioned assumptions of the liberal US politics that grew up out of the birth of environmental science and the environmental movement. But these days there is a growing rift between the science and the movement in areas related to energy, climate and waste management. While liberals are justified in their concern about the hidden dangers that pollution can pose to health and the environment, in the case of waste-to-energy plants that view has not kept up with the facts. This has led them to adopt policies that are less effective than other countries when it comes to managing waste and fighting climate change.

It’s time for a change. American liberals and environmentalists who care about climate change need to re-examine the science and get behind expanded recycling and waste-to-energy programs. Fortunately for the sake of our children, a few bold leaders are starting to do just that.

Shawn Lawrence Otto is a science writer, filmmaker, novelist, and the co-founder of ScienceDebate.org. His new book is Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America.” He lives in a wind-powered, passive solar, superinsulated geothermal home he designed and built with his own hands. He recycles, composts and drives a hybrid car. Visit him at http://www.shawnotto.com and like him on Facebook. Join ScienceDebate.org to get candidates to debate science.

This article is being published simultaneously with Ensia.

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Comments (16)

  1. Submitted by Alan Muller on 06/06/2013 - 09:15 am.

    Wrong, wrong, wrong, Mr. Otto

    Mr. Otto’s piece is a mishmash of unattributed and deceptive material.

    Presumably he wrote this to oppose community efforts to get the HERC garbage burner in Minneapolis under control. If so, shame on you, Mr. Otto.

    But regardless of motive, the sense of Otto’s piece is highly deceptive. The HERC, owned by Hennepin County and operated by Covanta, is very far from meeting “Maximum Available Control Technology” limits. At the moment, Covanta and Hennepin County are seeking to renew their long-expired air emissions permit without making any improvements to the emission controls. The MPCA, a relentless promoter of garbage incineration, is shamefully eager to go along with this.

    Hennepin County and Covanta seek to expand burning at their HERC, but don’t want to go through the “Environmental Impact Statement” process. What do they have to hide?

    Aside from the health-damaging emissions being dumped into an “environmental justice” community, perhaps what they have to hide is that most of what the HERC is burning IS recyclable, and recycling it would reduce greenhouse gas emissions far more than burning it up.

    As for the ash, Mr. Otto is again deceptive. The test described (“TCLP”) only measure what leaches out of the ash under an artificial set of conditions. It tells nothing about what is IN the ash. So, the TCLP might give some indications of how likely the ash is to contaminate groundwater, but gives no indication of the hazard of breathing the ash.

    I could go on and on. I hope Minnpost intends to all the other side of the story to be presented in detail.

    And what’s with all the snide remarks about “urban liberals” and “left-leaning” environmental groups? The sad truth is that in Minnesota most of the mainstream “environmental groups” seem to be in the pockets of Hennepin County and Covanta, and have done nothing to oppose garbage burning and expand recycling. Fortunately this ugly picture is not seen in every state.

    Alan Muller

    • Submitted by Greg Laden on 06/13/2013 - 12:52 pm.

      Attributed

      You made me go back and look for the unattributed parts of Otto’s post, but it turns out everything is attributed.

  2. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 06/06/2013 - 10:40 am.

    Reduce, reuse, recycle, and repurpose

    I’m inclined to believe that burning waste is a reasonable repurposing of waste. It provides energy, it recycles recoverables, and it reduces the amount of carbon emissions released per unit energy produced. Those are the numbers.

    In addition, it’s important to understand that not all carbon/greenhouse emissions are equal. Aside from the methane vs. CO2 differences noted by Mr. Otto, carbon released from burned waste contains a large percent of carbon that was recently removed from the atmosphere by renewable resources rather than carbon that’s been sequestered underground for eons as fossil fuels. Thus, the net atmospheric carbon load is more balanced when waste burning is used for energy production rather than fossil fuels.

    In addition, it’s very important to understand that toxicity must be measured in light of whether or not the toxin is available to actually affect a living organism. For example, asbestos is generally considered safe (and there is little evidence otherwise) when in the proper form, while it becomes a problem when in a form that it easily inhaled. While it is understandable that you wouldn’t want to inhale the ash from a waste burning facility–you wouldn’t really want to inhale ash from any source, actually–no one’s suggesting wafting it into the air. The most hazardous solution for ash use listed by Mr. Otto is using it to cover landfills as it is possible that such ash may become airborne in that case. But, if it doesn’t leach and remains in a compact form, it’s really a non-issue. In fact, it’s really the only issue that might be of real concern based on Mr. Muller’s post. The rest really seems to just be negative proclamations, not facts.

  3. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 06/06/2013 - 12:26 pm.

    Whenever a writer of political comment (which this is) loads his text with unnecessary adjectives that demonize those who might raise an objection or a different set of facts to his argument, one has to wonder, Why? what is served by that?

    Here, we have an article that says that liberals and left-leaning environmentalists do not pay attention to science, and scientific data.

    Really? I don’t know a liberal or left-leaning environmentalist who denies global warming/climate change; those folks are all to the right, and on the fringier right. So, what’s going on in this article, that its author would base it on an untruth of that sort?

    Here’s my guess: this article is intended to eliminate from consideration any protest or opposition to the Covanta corporation’s application to burn more garbage in its downtown Minneapolis garbage burner.

    No one I have heard on the subject is against a push for greater recycling ratios, so that whole part of the article is pretty irrelevant. Then we get tons of information on the last ten years’ innovations in garbage burning, but no indication that Covanta’s HERC in Minneapolis has updated anything, or has reduced emissions (we’re talking air pollution here, not ash). The company refuses to supply the information. It’s been four years. That is why the permitting process has stopped dead in its tracks. It’s not liberals denying that humans are changing the world’s climate.

    We can talk about Europe all we want. But let’s see obfuscation where it’s thrown at us: right here in River City, in this article.

  4. Submitted by Paul Gardner on 06/06/2013 - 01:20 pm.

    Here’s a different way at looking at interaction with recycling

    I certainly can’t argue science with Shawn Otto, whose work and recent book I admire. But I would respectfully insert a different perspective here on the economics of waste-to-energy (WTE) and its interaction with recycling.

    If the issue was whether we should burn or bury garbage, the argument would be simpler than it is. A community can become so reliant on WTE that it doesn’t make investments that would make even higher reductions in GHG through recycling and composting/anaerobic digestion. Many Europeans are now re-thinking their reliance on WTE for this reason.

    Our metro counties in the Twin Cities have poured many tens of millions of dollars annually in subsidies for WTE and refuse-derived fuel (RDF) to lower the tip fee at their facilities to make them compete with landfills. Just a fraction of that money could have been used to boost recycling rates through more technical assistance, expansion of best practices, and investments in managing the organics stream. Many counties are doing these things but it could be done at a higher scale to help meet the demand for recyclable and organic materials.

    Contrary to conventional wisdom, as a recycling professional I can say that the demand for recyclable paper, plastic, aluminum, steel, and glass has been high for the last decade. American manufacturers–including many in Minnesota–want to pay for it as opposed to “virgin” materials that require more energy to extract or harvest. The GHG savings in using recyclable materials in manufacturing are far higher than the gains from WTE vs. landfills. Getting metal out of WTE is great but paper makes up roughly 25% of what we are still throwing away.

    There is also competition for organic waste. The private sector is now building a bioenergy facility in South St. Paul to be fed by a variety of sources, including food waste (http://tcbmag.com/News/Recent-News/2013/May/$30M-Bioenergy-Facility-Proposed-for-St-Paul). Hog farmers have been accepting food waste from institutional sources in Minnesota for years. Industrial-sized compost facilities here go under-utilized for lack of enough organic feedstock. Expanding the good work that the public sector is doing in places like Hennepin County for food waste in schools and from residents would feed this demand.

    WTE has a legitimate purpose in an integrated waste management system. However, we still have a long way to go in maximizing recycling and organics management, and we need just as much leadership politically for those management methods as we have currently for WTE.

    • Submitted by Shawn Otto on 06/06/2013 - 01:52 pm.

      Well said

      I completely agree with Paul’s argument that we need to vastly increase our recycling rates, which are abysmal, as the chart I created hopefully shows. We should set a goal of at least doubling them and make the financial commitment to get that done. It’s stunning to me that Minneapolis hasn’t been in the lead when it comes to recycling – they could do so much more as a city, as could Hennepin County. It seems to be a major disconnect. Political leaders reading this: there’s your charge: solve that problem! But we should set a concomitant goal of waste reduction and then of reducing our landfilling of waste to 1%. Even after we max out our recycling effort and reduce our generation there is still tons and tons of stuff we all create and don’t want to think about that we need to either dump in a landfill or burn for energy with pollution control technology. My point is that WTE and recycling need to work together as green initiatives to reduce landfilling and lower our GHGs.

  5. Submitted by Angie Timmons on 06/06/2013 - 02:21 pm.

    HERC meets strict federal and state air emissions standards

    The county has been using waste-to-energy technology safely for 20 years. The Hennepin Energy Recycling Center (HERC) has a valid permit from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. Furthermore, HERC meets the more stringent federal standards.

    The preparation of the Environmental Assessment Worksheet (EAW) has taken longer than anticipated due to a recent request from the Metropolitan Council to construct a new building for transit police at the Interchange, which is a transportation hub under construction adjacent to HERC. The air emissions modeling for the EAW is being revised to account for the proposed new building and the effects of nearby emission sources.

    Learn more about HERC at http://www.hennepin.us/HERC
    Learn more about the permit amendment at http://www.pca.state.mn.us/hqzq13d8

    Posted on behalf of Carl Michaud, Director of Hennepin County Environmental Services

  6. Submitted by Shawn Otto on 06/06/2013 - 01:34 pm.

    Hennepin County HERC data

    Hennepin County and Covanta have provided the information to the MPCA. The assessment was completed by a third party and it is publicly available. You can find it and the PCA’s human health risk assessment here:

    http://www.pca.state.mn.us/index.php/topics/environmental-review/2012-13-environmental-review-and-draft-permit-amendment-and-reissuance-for-hennepin-energy-recovery-center-facility.html

    In short, their draft risk assessment shows the health risk to be comparable to other places in Minnesota and well below the EPA and PCA emission guidelines for human health. This appears to be borne out by independent information from the PCA and the MN Dept of Health, but everything is still in its draft stage and so may change.

    For those interested in Hennepin County’s fact sheet, it is available here:

    http://hennepin.us/portal/site/HennepinUS/menuitem.b1ab75471750e40fa01dfb47ccf06498/?vgnextoid=a9939258e6bec210VgnVCM2000000a124689RCRD

  7. Submitted by Mercedes Brugh on 06/07/2013 - 07:49 am.

    70% recycling rate easy

    Mr. Otto, Your goal of achieving 70% recycling before considering WTE is far too low. Knowing that recycling creates ten times the jobs than vaporizing our resources, we should be committed to the achievable goal of 90% recycling. Then we should look at that 10% that is left and see how the manufacture of unrecyclables could be discouraged.

    • Submitted by Shawn Otto on 06/07/2013 - 08:45 am.

      Easy?

      If it is so easy why has no one achieved it? We are at 24% including composting. We have to face the facts of where we are. We’re doing a frankly lousy job. Austria has achieved 70% and has set the standard I referred to. Perhaps you should get to work and take us to 90%. That would be wonderful.

  8. Submitted by Paul Gardner on 06/07/2013 - 03:42 pm.

    Shameless plug for the higher recycling rate

    75% for recycling and composting/organics diversion is achievable and can be done at a reasonable cost if the leadership is there. Minnesota has all the right ingredients to get there. Some of us are working on the mechanics. http://recycling-reinvented.org/.

    There is also a set of essays being posted this month at the libertarian Cato Institute on “The Political Economy of Recycling.” The second essay by Edward Humes, the author of Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash, has just come out and it includes some statistics on the GHG savings from using recycled materials over virgin materials.
    http://www.cato-unbound.org/issues/june-2013/political-economy-recycling

    Let’s also not forget the Minnesota Climate Change Advisory Group final report from April 2008, which shows the GHG contributions from municipal waste. Page EX-12 and page 6-9 from the following link show the costs and benefits of different waste management methods.

    http://www.state.mn.us/mn/externalDocs/Commerce/Minnesota_Climate_Change_Advisory_Group_Final_Report_030911041158_MCCAGFinalReport.pdf

    Page 6-2 has a telling graphic about the relative contribution of landfills vs. WTE which probably reinforces Shawn’s main point, although the cost for more WTE would cost a lot more than landfill gas recovery at existing landfills. Recycling yields a net cost savings and a much higher GHG reduction capacity than just about anything else.

    The dialogue is certain welcomed, Shawn.

  9. Submitted by Helen Spiegelman on 06/07/2013 - 04:59 pm.

    burning the furniture

    Incinerator salesmen are on a roll again. It happens every time there’s an uptick in the price of energy, whether driven by short-term political objectives or by the exigencies of long-term depletion. What energy junkies they think we are, that we’ll let these pushers burn our kids’ furniture to heat our houses. It’s not about science — both sides of this debate use science. It’s about the premises, in this case the assumption that a little energy is worth risks. This is not a scientific discussion, but a moral and political one.

    • Submitted by Shawn Otto on 06/08/2013 - 12:42 pm.

      Ad hominem attacks do not elevate the discussion

      @Helen, I am not an “incinerator salesman” or a “pusher.” I would ask that you refrain from emotional or personal attacks because they lower the quality of the discussion. If you’ve read my book, you’ll see what I do and what motivates me, and how different from your assumptions it is. And if you’ve read my bio, you’ll see that I have been a renewable energy leader in my personal and public life for decades. I battle plenty of right-wingers who act just like you, in the climate denialist camp. It’s not helpful. And in this case I am primarily motivated by the very sense of responsibility to my child and the future that you suggest is being disregarded. The facts are that WTE is simply better for the climate than landfilling. Would I like to see zero waste? Of course. But until we arrive at that halcyon shore, what do you suggest we do in the mean time? What is the most responsible choice between landfilling and WTE, knowing that WTE pollution control technology has taken such immense leaps forward, and that landfilling is worse for climate change and water pollution? By making the good the enemy of some eventual perfect, by failing to choose WTE as part of the solution, you are by default choosing to landfill, and we are doing that with 69% of our waste. I that the best choice?

    • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 06/10/2013 - 09:02 am.

      Why is it not about science?

      I don’t understand how the topic leaps from science to morality without any link in between? Specifically:

      If the science shows that WTE is cleaner and less expensive than fossil fuel based energy, then is it not actually building our children’s future (or maybe furniture?)? That is, without a cited negative impact, I don’t believe that any furniture (or future, for that matter) is being burned at all. And, in any case, certainly burning our waste is better than both filling up landfills and burning fossil fuels at the same time.

      If your house isn’t heated, is our children’s future a moot point? No, I’m not joking. We’re already at a point where the haves and the have nots are separated as much as possible before the have nots have to start cutting into necessities. One of those necessities is heating your home. If you can’t heat your home, you will find that your children may not even exist, let alone have a decent future.

      To another’s point above, yes, jobs are important, but so is energy and a relatively clean environment. Balance must be achieved. In any case, it certainly can’t be the case that all the untapped job production can only be found in recycling.

      Seriously, I haven’t seen anyone provide comments that actually refute the issues, numbers, and solutions that Mr. Otto has provided. I don’t have time to do all the in-depth research myself, and I’m highly convinced by honest-to-goodness science, or at least well-reasoned and articulated logic. Gut reactions and earnest protestations aren’t terribly helpful.

  10. Submitted by Paul Gardner on 06/24/2013 - 07:06 pm.

    Costs

    Not to beat a dead horse, but I thought I would just tack on a link to the front page article in the Sunday St. Paul Pioneer Press by Bob Shaw on the Newport refuse-derived fuel (RDF) plant that feeds two waste-to-energy plants.

    http://m.twincities.com/twincities/db_39829/contentdetail.htm?contentguid=EHkbhm8R

    $219 million in subsidies over 19 years, and electricity generation costs of $393 per kilowatt hour.

    This doesn’t have anything to do with the merits of Shawn Otto’s initial point–about the cleanliness and safety of today’s WTE compared to landfilling or old WTE technology–but from a public policy standpoint, with finite taxpayer resources, the article begs the question about where should we put our dollars to get the biggest bang for the buck. Where’s the sweet spot where we avoid the very large GHG emissions from landfills with some WTE of non-recyclable or non-compostable materials, but don’t infringe on the ability to maximize recycling and composting by directing so many large subsidies to WTE?

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