Incinerators 101

The MD Department of Environment has released a "Zero Waste" plan that includes waste-to-energy incineration as an essential part of the state's waste management portfolio. Zero waste was developed in European countries as an alternative to / transition away from incineration. "Zero Waste" refers to an explicit commitment to reduce landfill AND incinerator use to zero. Study after study shows that incinerators reduce recycling rates, and we already know that incinerators are costly (in terms of public finance and public health), dirty, inefficient, and more ghg-intensive per megawatt than coal.  

I've copied below a point-by-point summary that I wrote about a year ago on incinerators, public policy, controversy, and energy democracy.
  • There’s a strong tendency to take a serious and complicated socio-technological problem (and waste management is a classic example of this), condense it into a generalized statement and to look to technology and infrastructure for a single-case solution. The larger and bigger the infrastructure, the better. The whole "let's fight waste with a giant incinerator/landfill/anaerobic digestion WTF technology" that costs millions of public dollars" isn't really any different from the World Bank's "let's stop global poverty by building giant dams". Waste is a complicated issue, and will not be solved by simplistic policy measures.
  • In this case, we take hugely complicated issues relating to waste management practices and condense it into “we have to put the trash somewhere”.
  • Since “we have to put the trash somewhere”, let’s essentialize our options into two choices: bury it or burn it. In the past, burying it was seen as a solution. But that didn’t work. It must mean that we chose the wrong solution! So let’s burn it and see what that does.
  • Thing is, lots of places (Japan, for example), have been using incinerators for waste management and power generation. When you look to these countries, you find:
    • Incinerators create an economic incentive for communities to produce MORE waste. Recycling (another single-minded panacea that comes with a plethora of complications on its own) becomes almost nonexistent. 
    • Consensus among public health experts that incineration pollutes the air, causing birth defects, etc. 
    • In some cases, communities with incinerators begin to group together and demand more stringent air quality standards or the closure of incinerators altogether. And sometimes these social movements have precluded the scientific “discovery” (in spite of a government and industry financed academic denial industrial complex) of what they already knew: their communities were made sicker by the presence of incinerators.
    • Public officials who have no interest in pursuing new policy options make the decision to (wherever possible) place incinerators in disenfranchised, low-income communities and communities of color, because wealthy communities have been more successful at building movements against incinerators. Like landfills, the placement of incinerators becomes a race and class issue.
  • So, incineration, although it is intended to be a single-swipe solution for a simplified socio-environmental controversy, inevitably gives rise to more controversies that highlight an undemocratic decisionmaking process while doing little to solve the original problem.
  • “We have to put the trash somewhere” might seem blatantly obvious, but it isn’t helpful in finding a viable solution. Overcrowded landfills didn’t become overcrowded on their own.
  • Sociologists are better at delineating structural problems and the evolution of social movements rallying against these problems than they are at defining solutions. However, in the case of incinerators, all the controversy around them reveals a policymaking apparatus that is guided by industry patronage, privilege, and simplified thinking, rather than democracy. The social movements that rally against incinerators tend to demand a more democratic process for producing waste management process.
  • The answer is community empowerment, public involvement, and collective organizing, especially in low income communities and communities of color but also among wealthier communities to the extent where "no incinerators anywhere" replaces "no incinerators here".


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