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|