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Burning garbage: Every bit as dirty as it sounds

State and local officials all over the country will be facing tough, important decisions about waste disposal in 2021.

The Hennepin Energy Recovery Center is a facility located in Minneapolis that burns garbage to generate energy.
The Hennepin Energy Recovery Center is a facility located in Minneapolis that burns garbage to generate energy.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

Whether they are newly elected or have been re-elected as incumbents, state and local officials all over the country will be facing tough, important decisions about waste disposal in 2021. Meanwhile, the waste incineration industry doesn’t care much about who won in 2020 – they will continue making outrageous claims, targeting the decisions of both Republicans and Democrats, that dangerously cloud this already difficult decision-making process by hiding the significant environmental, health and economic downsides of burning garbage.

Trash incineration, which has been rebranded by the waste incineration industry as “waste-to-energy” (WTE), is often offered as an efficient solution to waste crises. But the truth is that this method of waste disposal is not only inefficient, it is harmful in every way that you might imagine, starting with the fact that it instantaneously spews virtually all carbon in our garbage into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, whether in the form of plastic, wood and paper, or lawn clippings and food scraps. In fact, burning garbage emits 1.5 times as much carbon dioxide per kilowatt-hour generated as coal and three times as much as natural gas.

In contrast: recycling, composting, landfilling store carbon

In contrast, the main methods for managing garbage today – recycling, composting and landfilling – store large portions of carbon for many years. Any carbon they do release, even as methane, is emitted slowly over decades. For example, 100% of fossil carbon in plastic wastes is permanently stored in a landfill. More than 80% of biogenic carbon from wood and many types of paper is stored for decades in a landfill. Up to 20% of carbon in food scraps is even stored long term in a landfill. Moreover, modern landfills which capture and burn methane for electricity release less carbon than incinerating the solid waste that generates methane. All of this means communities that combine modern landfills with composting organics and recycling do far less environmental harm than WTE facilities.

The direct impact on health of burning trash is even more troubling. Recent research on the human-health impacts of particulate emissions calculates that their costs in human morbidity and mortality due to asthmas, cardiovascular diseases and lung cancers are between $550,000 and $664,000 per metric ton of fine particulate emissions. Particulate impacts on human health from WTE are more than double their impacts from landfills, and even worse when compared with recycling and composting.

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The same is true for emissions of toxic pollutants. Incinerator toxic pollution costs are double those for landfills, and even higher multiples for recycling and composting.

Access to subsidies

In spite of these facts, some states, including Minnesota, consider burning trash as a renewable energy source. This gives incinerators access to taxpayer subsidies, which otherwise could fund clean sources of power like wind and solar rather than contribute to the profitability of this polluting industry.

Adding insult to injury, the health, environmental and economic costs of WTE facilities fall predominantly on the low-income communities and communities of color where most of these plants are located. In fact, nearly 80% of trash incinerators are located in environmental justice communities.

Jeffrey Morris
Jeffrey Morris
WTE is also more expensive than landfilling, even without taking into consideration the climate, human health and ecosystem health costs from WTE pollutant emissions. Garbage burners are extremely expensive to build and maintain. To make a profit and repay investors, incinerators require a guaranteed stream of waste, thus inhibiting recycling and composting efforts.

The cost of producing electricity at a WTE facility is between 12 and 17 cents per kilowatt hour (kWh) compared with 5 to 7 cents per kWh for the electricity generated by landfill-collected methane. WTE capital costs per kWh are in the same range as advanced nuclear and more than double the capital costs for onshore wind or fixed solar photovoltaic. WTE fixed operations and maintenance costs per kWh also are 6 times higher than landfill collected methane.

Incineration is inefficient

The bottom line on these cost issues: trash incineration is inefficient. It converts less than 25% of material energy in garbage into marketed electricity, compared with 35% efficiency for coal power and 45% for natural gas power. Even landfill methane burns with about 35% efficiency.

Burning trash also removes valuable materials from the economy. Once they are burned, they are gone – and it takes money and energy to create new ones. In contrast, packaging materials in garbage can be collected for recycling into new packaging products, thereby reducing the need for raw material and energy extraction from ecosystems. This conserves three to five times more energy than that generated by WTE burning of those materials.

Trash incineration is the ultimate wolf in sheep’s clothing. The industry markets itself as a clean, efficient and safe option – but in reality it is the most dirty, uneconomical and dangerous choice a community can make about their waste disposal. This is every bit as true after a big election as it was before.

Jeffrey Morris is a Ph.D. economist with a 45-year career focused on municipal solid waste management. He is also president of Sound Resource Management Group, Inc.

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