Trash-to-Steam, or, Landfill in the Sky

I was recently at an unnamed manufacturer's US headquarters who informed us proudly that they have transitioned to a zero landfill plant.  As an environmentalist, this sounded interesting.  They recycle as much trash as they can, separating their waste streams in very detailed ways such that they send very little or no waste to a landfill.  What happens to the waste that can't be recycled?

The waste that is not recyclable is sent to a "trash-to-steam" plant.  Sounds pretty magical.  However, how this trash becomes steam is not a very magical process - it is burned, and the heat makes water turn to steam.  Just like coal.  In fact, the burning of trash can be far dirtier than coal.

There is no clear outline of what percentage of the trash can be burned to count as "zero-landfill", but even cursory research shows that the problem is far more widespread than isolated manufacturing plants seeking a "green" label.  In fact, many parts of the U.S. and Europe have decided that "trash energy recovery" is a great option.  In Europe, over 450 incinerators burn up to 25% of their trash.

Incredibly, advocates for waste-to-energy say that plastics are a great fuel.  They are made from petroleum and generate more energy than other materials [read: more carbon], so they are more attractive to burn, and less attractive to recycle:
Plastics are particularly attractive for burning, as they're made with petroleum and generate more energy when incinerated than almost any other material. "Plastic is a good fuel, " said Pål Mårtensson, a zero-waste advocate in Gothenburg, Sweden. “So they don't bother that much to sort it out [for recycling]." 
More carbon equals more carbon in the atmosphere, not to mention the dangerous toxins released by burning plastic, and many other poisons and heavy metals from trash.  In fact, pollutants released by incinerators include SO2, NOx, dioxins, furans, PCBs, lead, inorganic and methyl mercury, cadmium, chromium, and arsenic.  Incinerators have been shown to produce 14 times the amount of mercury as a coal plant per unit of energy, and more carbon dioxide than coal, among many other pollutants.  Even modern pollution control devices such as air filters do not prevent the escape of many hazardous emissions such as ultra-fine particles.  Ultra-fine particles are particles produced from burning materials (including PCBs, dioxins and furans), and are smaller in size than what is currently regulated or monitored by the U.S. EPA. These particles include some of the most dangerous toxins known and can cause cancer, heart attacks, strokes, asthma, and pulmonary disease.  It is estimated that airborne particulates cause the deaths of over 2 million people worldwide each year.

The trash is not of course, fully turned into steam/deadly smoke.  The products made by burning waste include ash, fly ash, combustion gases, air pollutants, wastewater, wastewater treatment sludge and heat.  Except this ash isn't like the wood ash from your fireplace - it can be tires, plastics, chemically treated woods, lead painted products, or coal by-products.  This is not a new issue; articles from the 1980's talk about a ship with ash from Philadelphia dumping 4,000 of its 14,000 tons of incinerator ash on a Haitian beach before it was stopped.  Not very zero-landfill of it.

Worst of all, this year the EPA made major changes to encourage this "green fuel" and actually to remove most emissions monitoring requirements and permitting requirements:

"In February 2013, via obscure rule changes, the EPA approved a policy to allow processing facilities to take mixed waste, as well as used plastics, tires, chemically-treated wood, paper sludge, coal byproducts– you name it, and turn it into pellets or other fuel stuff that can be reclassified as “non-hazardous secondary materials” or NHSM.

In an Orwellian twist, once “waste” is no longer regulated as “waste,” then burning it in industrial boilers and process heaters is no longer considered “incineration,” and most of the related pollution control and transparency regulations for burning waste are thus eliminated.

This new rule goes hand in hand with an associated policy that creates a major new loophole for burning coal.  Shockingly, under the industrial boiler and heater rule, coal plants and other facilities can avoid regulation as coal plants and qualify biomass by only getting only 15% or more of their energy from biomass.  This means that a facility could burn 15% biomass and 85% coal and avoid measuring nearly all pollutants."

We already wrote about the hazards of biomass here.  These recent rule changes mean that there is now no requirement of public notice for burning waste at over 1.5 million U.S. sites.  It also means that there will be more emissions and less control.  Without monitoring requirements, communities are having a hard time recognizing and fighting these major polluters.  Read about the interesting story of a major incinerator for one of these "zero-landfill" plants here.

Take action by joining one of these groups fighting incinerators without controls or monitoring here in the U.S. or worldwide.  Below is a picture of an incinerator that burned car batteries in Houston before the passage of the Clean Air Act.  With the lifting of Clean Air Act requirements, incinerators will grow once more and coal plants will grow in capacity and become "green" through burning waste, except this time it will be put down as a gold star on the politicians' resumes under added "clean energy" during their tenure.

Not steam - an EPA photo of a real incinerator



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8 comments

  1. http://www.epa.gov/osw/nonhaz/municipal/wte/airem.htm


    Waste-to-energy facilities are subject to standards that are among the most stringent in the world. Under the Clean Air Act, more than $1 billion was invested in upgrades to air quality control systems at America’s waste-to-energy facilities. The results were so dramatic that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency wrote that the “upgrading of the emissions control systems of large combustors to exceed the requirements of the Clean Air Act Section 129 standards is an impressive accomplishment.” In addition to combustion controls, waste-to-energy facilities employ sophisticated air quality control equipment.
    A “Selective Non-Catalytic Reduction” or “SNCR” converts nitrogen oxides – a cause of urban smog – to harmless nitrogen by spraying ammonia or urea into the hot furnace.


    A “scrubber” sprays a mixture of lime and water into the hot exhaust gases. The lime neutralizes acid gases, just as a gardener uses lime to neutralize acidic soil. Scrubbing also can improve the capture of heavy metals such as mercury in the exhaust gases.


    A “carbon Injection” system blows powdered carbon into the exhaust gas to absorb mercury. Carbon injection also reduces emissions of trace organics such as dioxins.


    A “bag house” works like a giant vacuum cleaner with hundreds of fabric filter bags that clean the air of soot, smoke and metals.

    Source: http://www.energyrecoverycouncil.org/waste-energy-superior-emissions-a2976

    From a lot of places the leftover ash is used as daily landfill cover and in other instances it is used with asphalt road surfaces.

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    1. Thank you for the informative response. Unfortunately the EPA website you refer to is both dated (2005) and gives numbers mostly in terms of tons instead of tons/MW produced, which is the key metric here. At the bottom of the page it finally gives greenhouse gases per megawatt produced (GHG/MW), and acknowledges that the GHG/MW from burning waste significantly exceeds coal, oil and natural gas.

      Coal plants also have advanced scrubbers and treatments that have improved over the decades since the passage of the Clean Air Act. However, the massive carbon issues remain, including ocean acidification which wasn't even covered here. The water usage you mentioned at incinerators can be in the millions of gallons per day, overwhelming water treatment facilities which cannot process in-organics or metals effectively or depleting water sources, also not discussed here. The massive pollution issues also remain. Furthermore, the incinerators have problems even coal doesn't have to the same degree, which cannot be effectively scrubbed: the potent and dangerous chemicals of dioxins and furans as well as PCBs.

      The key problem however is not that they exist, it's the terrifying concept that these incinerators can be considered "green" and incentivized. People must be educated on the truth if we want to move toward a cleaner, healthier and sustainable environment

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    2. Right now the 2 main options for waste disposal are landfills or RRF(Resource Recovery Facility). RRF is a better option than landfills overall. Both types of disposal have their benefits and drawbacks, and both have a role in a comprehensive waste management program.

      From the EPA; "In the end, what the scientists found was that burning waste is often the better option. Results of EPA’s research estimate that WTE (burning) is capable of producing up to about 10 times more electricity than LFGTE (burying) from the same amount of waste."
      Source: http://www.epa.gov/sciencematters/april2010/scinews_energy-from-waste.htm
      The full study: http://pubs.acs.org/doi/pdfplus/10.1021/es802395e

      In Counties with RRF's- they have a higher recycling rate.
      Source: http://www.pca.state.mn.us/index.php/view-document.html?gid=13898

      I don't believe that RRF's are green, but they are "greener" than landfills; which is the only other viable alternative at the moment. Plasma technology may become more affordable as we go forward and prove to be a viable option, but will have its own set of detractors.

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    3. Thank you for that study!

      Interestingly the object of the study was which was the best option for clean *electricity generation* versus which was the cleanest in general. In other words the "best" per energy produced, instead of the best overall. Landfills are cleaner overall, especially considering that the chemicals created from burning in WTE are toxic but are not taken into account. These are far more concerning even than GHGs. However, in their article they do show that the CO2 produced from WTE is 3-5x higher than coal or oil!

      It is clear that nuclear energy generation is cleaner by far- not only no carbons, but none of those many toxins, some that can't even be scrubbed out. So the question of which is the cleanest per unit energy is clear, and the best outcome for us, animals, and the environment is what is cleanest overall.

      As for recycling, unfortunately correlation is not causation, and many statistics (as well as the quote in this article) show that as WTE is introduced, less recycling takes place since plastics are more valuable for burning than recycling. (reference on recycling: http://www.no-burn.org/downloads/Incinerator_Myths_vs_Facts%20Feb2012.pdf)

      And you're right, nuclear fusion would provide the ultimate resource in recycling and waste- and carbon-free energy!

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  2. What about put the trash in a landfill and then burn the methane produced from the landfill to produce power?

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    1. Please see the article referenced by "Anonymous" above. It has an interesting breakdown on the pros and cons of each, and seems very thorough. It includes CO2, NOx, SOx, PM, CH4 and pollutants. My only concern is it does not seem to take into account some of the most dangerous pollutants created by burning trash like plastics, paints, etc.

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  3. Nuclear fusion would provide the ultimate resource in recycling and waste- and carbon-free energy only after the lunar poles are extensively mined for Helium-3. This source is the only conceivable and available existing natural fuel that produces fusion with no neutrons. All other more available fusion fuels produce neutrons. Neutrons are transparent to magnetic bottles and are guaranteed to activate whatever is used for the inner liner of the fusion chamber, thereby creating radioactive waste. The radioactive waste is likely to be from a degraded engineered material used for the inner liner that needs constant replacement and disposal, as preventive maintenance just to keep the reaction chamber working. So until the moon is mined, there is absolutely nothing clean about fusion.

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    1. Tritium is produced in small amounts at nuclear power plants. According to wikipedia, about 1 fission event in 10000 results in tritium being expelled. Tritium is also being produced deliberately at Watts Bar in larger amounts for use in the US N-Weapons arsenal by a method that I really don't comprehend...
      Tritium beta-decays to H3.
      Regular every day fission reactors could possibly produce tritium in large enough quantities to make fusion without the moon economic.
      . in the future..
      .. maybe

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