Just burn it. That’s what Maui Mayor Alan Arakawa wants to do with all the trash we’re piling onto our dwindling landfills. “The idea would be to incinerate whatever we don’t want to recycle,” he said in an Aug. 28, 2005 Maui News article. Not only would the island be getting rid of garbage, he said, but it would also be generating electricity from a “renewable energy source.” Arakawa mentioned possibly putting this “trash-to-energy” incinerator over by the Pulehu Landfill, though he admitted that he won’t propose anything to the County Council until he’s gathered enough information about incinerators. Well, I know how busy our mayor is, so I went ahead and researched modern trash-to-energy incinerators. To my surprise, I was able to find a lot of information on them. Too bad none of it was good.
1. “Incinerator proponents mistakenly claim that waste burning reduces emissions of greenhouse gasses,” reported the Philippines-based Global Anti-Incinerator Alliance (GAIA) in its 2003 report Waste Incineration: A Dying Technology. “Their argument is based on the assumption that organic wastes, if not incinerated, will decompose anaerobically in a landfill, producing large quantities of methane (a potent greenhouse gas) that will vent to the atmosphere. However, [the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)] concluded in a 1998 study that incineration and landfilling of mixed municipal solid waste yield similar levels of net greenhouse gas emissions.”
2. Incineration creates particulates—dust and soot saturated with dioxin and other toxic metals—that stay in the atmosphere for a long time.
3. The pollution goes on round the clock. The H-POWER incinerator on Oahu runs 24 hours a days, seven days a week. All that burning, and they still produce just five percent of the island’s electricity.
4. To lower air emissions, incinerators rely on carbon injection—carbon particles are shot into the exhaust gasses, which then soak up dioxin and other toxics. Unfortunately, this technique creates “fly ash,” which causes an entirely different set of problems.
5. This stuff is bad. It requires disposal in special landfills capable of disposing of toxic residue.
6. And incinerators produce a lot of fly ash. In 2003, company officials trying to build a $120 million incinerator in Brighton, Australia admitted in a public hearing that their proposed plant would spew at least 3,000 tons of fly ash each year and not the 18 tons that was mentioned in project’s environmental report.
7. Getting rid of fly ash properly isn’t easy, but can be done. It’s called vitrification, and it requires dumping the ash into a melting furnace, where it’s fused into glass-like nodules. The intense heat destroys any toxics in the ash.
8. This works, but it does have one minor problem. “[I]t increases disposal costs by $20 to $30 per ton of waste,” according to GAIA. “Vitrification of ash from municipal waste combustion [also] consumes more energy than is generated by burning the trash in the first place.”
9. Turns out that the less air pollution an incinerator puts out, the more “fly ash” it creates. Or as GAIA’s 2003 report put it, “A hundred times more dioxin may leave the incinerator on the fly ash than is emitted into the air from the smoke stacks.”
10. Burning plastic releases dioxin, a cancer-causing chemical used in the herbicide Agent Orange during the Vietnam War.
11. Trash-to-energy incinerators run their exhaust through heat exchangers. This allows for electricity generation, but also leads to greater than usual dioxin formation.
12. No incinerator anywhere continuously monitors its air emissions for dioxin. At most, they conduct a couple six-hour “stack tests” each year, usually under optimum conditions.
13. In 1994, an incinerator operator running a dioxin-spewing facility in Columbus, Ohio specially treated the garbage used during a stack test to make sure the results were cleaner than usual. Even though an EPA official later wrote that such actions “might constitute a criminal conspiracy to violate federal environmental laws,” the agency accepted the test results.
14. Some proponents also say that burning medical waste is a good way to get rid of dangerous biohazards, but most of that junk is plastic, which creates dioxin when burned.
15. There is already more than enough dioxin in our environment as it is. Do we really need to keep producing it?
16. High furnace temperatures break down dioxin in an incinerator, but they also increase the formation of other toxics like nitric oxide, which helps create smog.
17. Injecting ammonia into the furnace will break down nitric oxide, but that in turn releases particulates, which are also dangerous.
18. Trash-to-energy incinerators also emit sulfur dioxide, which can aggravate heart disease, emphysema and bronchitis as well as kill plants and see acid rain clouds.
19. And they put out PCBs, which may cause birth defects.
20. Oh, and incinerators also belch lead, mercury—both inorganic and methyl!—cadmium, chromium and arsenic, all of which are probable or proven carcinogens that cause kidney damage, neurological problems, birth defects and cancer.
21. Trash-to-energy incinerators—at least the ones equipped with the latest pollution control features—are really expensive.
22. A 2,000-ton-per-day incinerator built a couple years ago in the Netherlands cost $500 million American. Around the same time, Japan bought two high-tech incinerators—one cost nearly $700 million in U.S. dollars and the other cost more than $800 million.
23. In fact, incinerator construction is so risky that the World Bank has actually concluded that, “when applying waste incineration, the economic risk of project failure is high.”
24. The kind of money required to build incinerators can only come through bonds—taxpayer-backed bonds. In the 1980s, taxpayers in Washington and Warren counties in New York had to fork over $87 billion to pay off an incinerator run by Foster Wheeler. But as is typical in these matters, once the bonds were paid off ownership went to Foster Wheeler instead of the counties. Sound fair?
25. Speaking of Foster Wheeler, in 1994 that firm got a $400 million trash-to-energy incinerator built in Robbins, Illinois. According to Reason Online, the whole works went bankrupt in 2001. Bond investors were lucky to get back 45 cents on each dollar they invested.
26. In 1993, 29 towns surrounding Claremont, New Hampshire had to declare municipal bankruptcy because they ended up locked into 20-year contracts demanding more trash than their respective towns could produce. According to GAIA’s 2003 Waste Incineration report, “the local municipalities found themselves paying exorbitant fees to burn waste that they did not produce.” Unfortunately, the courts threw out the town’s bankruptcy filing, forcing them to raise taxes to pay off the incinerator operator.
27. Not to belabor the point, but something similar happened in Tulsa, Oklahoma. In 2003, that city’s incinerator—run by the firm Covanta, which coincidentally also runs the H-POWER incinerator on Oahu—went bankrupt, leaving the city with $32.2 million in unpaid construction bonds.
28. Cleaning fly ash out of an incinerator is tough. Workers rarely wear protective clothing, even though the ash is highly toxic. Often they end up storing the ash in open pits, exposed to wind and rain.
29. Though incinerators are hideously expensive, they’re not exactly job-creators. A typical trash-to-energy facility will only employ a couple dozen engineers—about a tenth as many jobs generated by a comprehensive recycling program.
30. This is Maui: resorts and restaurants can’t even fill management positions. Where are we going to get waste management engineers?
31. Contrary to the promises from incinerator builders and operators, burning trash to make energy doesn’t complement recycling. In fact, it hinders it.
32. That’s because the best way for incinerators to generate energy is for them to burn trash that’s got a “high caloric value.” Unfortunately for recycling advocates, that means incinerating lots of plastic, wood and paper. Simply tossing old tires, Styrofoam containers and last night’s chicken carcass into the furnace isn’t going to do it.
33. Keeping recyclable wood, paper and plastic from the incinerator risks insufficient energy production, which makes it more difficult for the county to off those multi-million dollar construction bonds. So you can pretty much forget about instituting an island-wide recycling system.
34. This is tragic, because recycling actually saves more energy than you get by burning waste. According to the New Zealand group Zero Waste—which has so far succeeded in keeping incinerators completely out of that nation—recycling plastic saves about four times the energy burning it generates; paper recycling saves three times more energy; and recycling metal saves an amazing 30 to 888 times the energy generated by incinerating it.
35. Incinerators smell like burning crap. MTW