To Burn Or Not To Burn

Recycling is both environmentally sound and economically sensible

One of the articles in The Next Agenda (IC#19)
Originally published in Autumn 1988 on page 22
Copyright (c)1988, 1997 by Context Institute


Neil Seldman is the President of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (2425 18th Street NW, Washington, DC 20009) and a consultant to cities and citizen groups around the country who are looking for sensible solutions to the growing garbage crisis.

Robert: People aren’t nearly as aware as they could be about the waste crisis, in spite of all the media coverage it’s starting to get.

Neil: That’s right. We’ve all heard of the garbage barge from Islip. But I wonder how many people have heard of the ash barge from Philadelphia? The material on the Islip barge was municipal waste, technically commercial waste. On Philadelphia’s barge the material is waste incinerator ash, not from a modern mass burn plant, but from an old time incinerator going back 80 or 90 years, a garbage destructor. The amount of garbage on the Islip barge was 3,000 tons, but the ash on the Philadelphia barge weighed 15,000 tons. And how long were they at sea? The Islip barge four months, the Philadelphia barge twenty-three months and it’s still on the high seas. Where did the Islip barge go? It went from Islip down the East coast to the Caribbean and back to Brooklyn, where the gargage was finally burned and its remains sent to Islip. Now, the Philadelphia barge has been down through all of those states, into the Caribbean, out to West Africa, back to Philadelphia, and back out to West Africa again.

Robert: It’s very curious that the media hasn’t picked up on this.

Neil: It shows how you can’t trust the media. You must go very deeply into these issues, because these issues are going to determine your future directly in your city. And your small town. These problems have to be solved within three years. Right now most of the authorities in the United States want to turn what was on the Islip barge into what is on the Philadelphia barge. They want to burn the garbage and dispose of the ash. And the story is, look how much more difficult it is to get rid of the ash than the garbage!

Robert: I understand this is all coming to a head because so many municipal areas are basically running out of landfill.

Neil: Absolutely. And that’s actually understating the problem, because 8 years ago you could put garbage in the ground on the East coast for $5 a ton, and now it’s a $100 a ton for landfill space. One of the ironies is that throughout the 1970’s New Jersey tried to keep Pennsylvania’s garbage out of New Jersey. They went all the way to the Supreme Court and were eventually told they couldn’t do it because of the Interstate Commerce Clause. Right now, guess where New Jersey’s garbage is going. Into Pennsylvania. That’s how quickly and profoundly the situation has changed.

And it’s not because of a lack of landfill space. It’s there theoretically, but politically it’s become impossible because of the incredible growth of cities, towns and suburbs. Literally no one’s neighborhood is unaffected. And people don’t want to see their property devalued tremendously, their kids’ health risked, their environment destroyed.

Robert: So the alternatives are recycling – or mass burn.

Neil: And mass burn is turning garbage into ash. It’s a choice between a major investment of $50 billion in the next four years to make ash (which means going down the completely wrong path of creating toxins and more of a burden on the Earth) or spending roughly half that amount on recycling systems. And you don’t spend all the money at once, on one plant. You spend it over time on education, both in school and in public awareness. You focus on collection equipment and techniques, monetary incentives, and fee structures that get people to recycle because it’s much cheaper. You use a variable can rate. You make low interest loans to re-equip collection routes, because you do need different equipment – and you don’t do it all at once, you do it as the old equipment runs out. And until the old equipment runs out you use it for recycling.

You also provide loan guarantees and price supports to induce the end use manufacturers to locate in your state. These are factories which will employ people, as well as being a market for the raw materials recovered through recycling. So instead of spending $50 billion to create worse problems, you spend $25 billion to not only solve the garbage problem, but to solve the youth employment problem, to solve the pollution problems, and to provide a flow of raw materials to local industry for the production of goods destined for local consumption.

Robert: It sounds like there’s a real divergence between what’s good practice and what the policy has been.

Neil: Exactly. A paradigm shift has occurred. Recycling has changed the country completely as far as solid waste management policy is concerned. But there are some people who resist the paradigm shift because they have careers and ego identities invested in the old paradigm. Whereas the new paradigm is recycling, the old paradigm is incineration and landfill. Aggregate and dispose, aggregate and burn. Cover it up.

Robert: A one way flow.

Neil: Right. One big plant. The shift has occurred first on the street, at the places where people are dealing with garbage. In the past 15 years there’s been this bubbling up of grass roots activity, and very dramatic things are happening.

But at the policy level you have this tremendous, inexorable pressure to incinerate and it comes from a variety of sources. It comes from the underwriters who want the biggest, most expensive plant because that’s the biggest bond issue and they work on a percentage. Then there’s the nexus of consultants who only recommend mass burns for the same reason – they’re part of the old establishment. In fact, the bond underwriting firms have a list of approved consultants, all of whom approve of mass burns.

The third group is the politicians, who are looking for financial patronage because the garbage burning plant is the biggest deal in town for the next 20 years. Where else will they get to designate, on say a $100 million deal, who gets about $12 million in underwriting fees, and the profits? Lawyers, and bond counselors, and consultants? A fourth factor is the bureaucrats, who have a career invested in incineration. I will remind you that no one is building nuclear power plants anymore, so the focus has moved to garbage incinerators.

Robert: Now let’s talk about the hazardous side of it, and the special problem of the ash both in the air and in the landfill.

Neil: The ash is not at all benign. Many, many governments have tested this material and found it to be hazardous, primarily because of heavy lead contamination, but also because of dioxin contamination. However, that doesn’t mean they have handled it as a hazardous waste. The State of Washington, in a very closely fought battle, exempted the ash from mass burn plants from the State’s hazardous waste laws. The EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] currently does the same thing, though the scientists at EPA want to change that. But they are being furiously lobbied by industry. You see industry, instead of getting their engineers to redesign the system, hires lobbyists and sends them to the EPA. The fact of the matter is, it’s hazardous, and everyone knows it’s hazardous. If you want to play "The Emperor’s Clothes," well go ahead, but what you are doing is subjecting the community to a leeching of very dangerous materials into the ground water. Which is going to affect the water cycle and the food cycle.

And the air emissions are quite significant, too. As air pollution control equipment becomes more sophisticated, which it has, the ash you collect is more dangerous, and you get more of it.

Robert: It just puts it in a different place.

Neil: When people are told that 90% or 95% of the gas is being eliminated, that doesn’t mean much if the 5% that is getting out is doing you harm. Don’t fall for these numbers. Always try to relate statistics to something. For example, if I told you that a 2,250-ton-per-day mass burn plant, with the best available pollution control technology on it, was going to generate fourteen hundred pounds of sulfur dioxide a day, you probably wouldn’t know what that meant. I wouldn’t know what that meant. But, if I tell you that’s equivalent to 167,000 additional automobiles driving 33.5 miles through your community every day, I think you can get a sense of what the environmental burden is.

Citizens really need a two-hour training course in how to evaluate the mass burn health risk assessments because, although it boggles the mind, the companies that want to build the plants also produce the environmental impact assessments.

Robert: I can see a place where the American psyche might squirm a bit at the recycling program you’ve been suggesting. Even though it represents an overall municipal savings of half compared to a mass burn plant, it does involve some of the subsidizing that you were describing earlier. How can things be framed so people realize that it’s not a choice between having a subsidy or no subsidy, but between different kinds of subsidies?

Neil: I would explain it this way. You always pay for garbage disposal. It’s ironic that the critics of recycling always say that recycling programs must pay for themselves.

Robert: But garbage collection isn’t expected to.

Neil: Exactly. We pay enormously for our garbage. So by recycling you reduce the amount you pay for garbage collection, but you don’t get a free ride. You still have to pay for garbage collection. But instead of paying $100 a ton to put it into a landfill, or $120 a ton to put it in an incinerator, you could be paying $50 or $40 a ton to recycle. The point is not to make money off recycling, but for cities and private entities to reduce their disposal costs.

Giving a subsidy in the form of price supports to a battery recycling plant, which would otherwise have to go out of business because the price of lead falls by 20 or 30 cents, is worth it. Having all of those batteries go to landfills or be in a roadside dump causes millions of dollars in damage. I’m not exaggerating, because the infiltration of that material into the ground water affects I.Q. levels, particularly among young children, affects the health of the elderly, and affects our crops and the value of agricultural products on the world market.

Robert: What’s striking me is how much we get manipulated by the way the accounting gets done. It’s important for people involved in any kind of activist way not to accept the accounting categories that are handed to you, but to be willing to reframe the accounting.

Neil: I would even generalize and say that it’s not only the accountants – it’s the mayors, it’s the heads of the solid waste departments. They are thinking in pigeon-hole, non-interconnected ways.

Now, people may object to this kind of government interference in the free market. But the mass burn industry wouldn’t even exist without government interference, via the federal Public Utility Regulatory Policy Act [PURPA]. Passed in the Carter years, PURPA forces utilities to buy electricity from any small generator. This was originally thought of as an innovative idea to help wind and solar energy, but it was grabbed by the mass burn industry. Citizens are now subsidizing garbage plants, not only through garbage taxes, but through the rates they pay for electricity. These garbage incinerators are not energy plants – that’s an afterthought. They try to get electricity by burning paper, tin cans, banana peels, tomatoes and plastic mixed together in a jumble, which is not very efficient as you can imagine.

But this is changing. PURPA rates are being driven down by the drop in oil prices; and state public utility commissions are demanding fundamental reform.

Robert: What about the technology of recycling? In the space of time since the 1950s I assume it hasn’t been standing still.

Neil: It hasn’t been standing still but it really hasn’t changed. It’s been reconfigured. Let me point out one bit of history. My generation of "baby-boomers" is the only generation of Americans not to recycle. The recycling tradition goes back to the quilting bee of colonial times, which was an institution of people collecting their scraps and bringing them together in social production.

Source separation recycling is still the same as it used to be. People set out what they don’t want in such a way that the guy who picks it up can easily reuse it or recycle it. But the amount has changed and the nature of it has changed. As the explosion of volume occurred, the old open trucks, where people could sort as they collected the garbage, were turned into compaction trucks. You could fit ten tons in them, adjust the hydraulics and squeeze that garbage in there. Then they started having to go to transfer stations, which could take maybe five or six truckloads and compact them with yet another stronger hydraulic, then put it on a trailer and haul it off to a landfill. Then they needed longer trailers because the landfills kept moving further out. And finally you’ve got an incinerator.

It’s interesting to point out that the manufacturing, collection, and education techniques that are necessary for recycling have all existed in the United States and were actually eliminated in the late 1950s. The collection of separated materials, the processing and reuse by industry, the infrastructure of marketing and brokers, has died out. Some of it has just atrophied and could be recalled, but most of it is having to be rebuilt from scratch.

Robert: Why has your organization, The Institute for Local Self-Reliance, been focusing on this problem?

Neil: Because this is a raw material that people can easily control. In fact, it’s theirs before it becomes garbage. And in general in the United States, if you put something in your garbage cans it’s no longer yours. Which means that it is your material, and you can either put it out as garbage or you can recycle it and literally change the nature of your community or city.

Let me give you one example. There’s a woman named Penny Wheat, who was a private businesswoman in Alachua County, Florida. She went to some hearings on the solid waste issue, and she happened to be a member of the Sierra Club and asked questions, not necessarily knowing much about the technology of landfill and mass burn and so forth. It wasn’t that she didn’t like the technology that was being talked about – she didn’t like the decision-making process. She was told to stay in her kitchen, that the professionals knew what they are doing and not to worry. So she researched the subject. She did some organizing in the local Sierra Club. Lo and behold, she ran against an incumbent county official on that one issue, the garbage issue, and she won. She is now a County Supervisor, and I understand she has managed to talk a few other County Supervisors over to her position. They are going to influence how that part of the country solves its garbage problem. Just last week, in early June, I read that the county’s consultants announced their findings: no incineration is necessary – instead they recommend aggressive recycling and landfill. I would say Citizen Wheat is doing a pretty good job.

Now I could tell you very similar stories from California, New Jersey, and a number of New York towns. In fact, Southern California is fascinating because in the last six months, $2 billion worth of mass burn plants were canceled. There’s no way mass burns are going to be built in Southern California, all because of citizen organizing. It’s very diversified: it includes churches, citizen organizations, environmental organizations, even major industrial corporations.

Robert: Why are they getting involved?

Neil: When I work for a community, one of the first things I do, after our two-day citizens’ training program, is meet the Chamber of Commerce and the Board of Realtors. Those are the people who understand the bottom line and have the long term economic interests of the community in mind – in quite a vested interest way, but nonetheless legitimate and accurate. And when you explain the facts and the numbers on mass burn and the alternatives, they make a phone call to the mayor or the County Supervisor and they say, "Hey Joe, have you looked at the numbers on this? Let’s have lunch tomorrow." And that one phone call is worth five hundred people on the streets for two weeks.

Robert: So one of the things I’m gathering from this is that the large bulk of existing businesses has every reason to oppose mass burn.

Neil: Absolutely. This is not an anti-industry issue. In fact, a lot more meaningful investment is going to be made in the community by doing recycling rather than incineration. Because when you invest in incineration your money flies out of town, it goes up the smokestack.

Robert: And off to the equipment manufacturers.

Neil: And off to the bond underwriters, and the mass burn corporations. Whereas if you invest in recycling, you’re involving local construction companies, manufacturing companies, and skilled union craftspeople. A system has to be built. It’s not one big burn plant, it’s a series of different factories and collection depots, equipment and repairs and bookkeeping and transportation. All kinds of jobs – six times as many jobs as the people currently picking up garbage and handling garbage at landfills. And it’s wonderful to see the young people in our cities get involved in recycling. You see them literally, in a period of two or three years, going through the plant, learning everything in the plant, managing the plant, getting out and giving speeches, and pretty soon they are civic leaders.

When you add product manufacturing to recycling the entire local economy can turn around. Recycled glass is worth $30/ton; but end products made from that glass are worth $4,000/ton. That’s why at ILSR we call our program "garbage based reindustrialization for our cities."

Also, the lower cost of building the right recycling system reduces the amount of capital you have to raise from local business people, who are generally unable to raise the $100 million or $50 million for mass burn, even in some large cities. But they sure as heck can raise $15 million or $9 million, which is the cost of a good four to seven hundred ton-per-day processing facility for a recycling system.

Now let me re-emphasize that the resale value of the materials is inconsequential – the cost is the name of the game. When you buy a technology, you buy it for what it doesn’t do as much as for what it does do. What you want to avoid is creating hazardous waste out of your garbage.

Robert: Where is this technology primarily being produced?

Neil: All over the world, in Japan, in Europe, and in the United States, but it’s mostly of European design. Europeans have been dealing with these problems much longer. What goes on in Europe in terms of sewage and solid waste disposal is mimicked in the United States, with lag time. Now, whereas we are still enamored of mass burn at the policy level and at the higher levels of decision-making, the Europeans are walking away from mass burn and into composting and processing.

Robert: Suppose someone knows that they have a problem in their community, but they don’t know where to start. Who do they get in touch with? How do they move up the learning curve so they can be effective?

Neil: If they have to battle a mass burn plant, there is an excellent network called Work on Waste, the successor organization to the National Coalition to Fight Mass Burn. Their address is 82 Judson Street, Canton, NY 13617, and they have an excellent newsletter, Waste Not. Mass burn is being stopped everywhere that organized people get together and get information to the right people.

But assuming you are beyond that, I would suggest you start working with your garbage haulers. Whoever is doing the hauling is going to be doing the recycling. You’ve got to bring in the right equipment and the right education program, all of which revolves around collection and hauling. You use monetary incentives. In Rockford, Illinois they go around once a month and pick someone at random, and if that person has recycled properly they give him or her a thousand dollars. Mandatory recycling is the most cost effective. It’s all been done before, there are guidebooks.

Robert: Where do you get them?

Neil: Wherever you live, you can write to your state government and they should have these materials. Some of the states have great materials: California, Wisconsin, and Massachusetts have terrific manuals and equipment guides to get you started. I mean, recycling is the law of the land these days. Every city and county solid waste management plan must account for recycling. That’s amazing because fifteen years ago, the word "recycling" was not in the American dictionary. To be a recycler then meant you were a social critic. This is how rapidly the early recyclers have made a difference.

Robert: How does all this impact the rest of the world?

Neil: Well, I want to emphasize that if each American city and each European city and each Japanese city does the right thing, that micro-level change leads to macro-level environmental changes and environmental impacts. What we decide to do with our garbage in Brooklyn and San José is an issue of world importance, because Americans consume some 40% of the world’s resources.

Let me also point out that virtually all of the military spending in the 1970s and 80s was based on the need to guarantee us a flow of raw materials. All of that could be avoided, in fact, if there were appropriate reuse of waste materials. We could actually eliminate the need for all of the oil we currently import from the Middle East.

Robert: So we could cut down on military expenditures, and the extra borrowing and the debt servicing that goes with it. We could also cut down on imports and improve our balance of payments. In a very broad spectrum we could have made a major difference in the history of the last two decades.

Neil: If we became a recycling society, the world would immediately become more democratic, because our policy-makers wouldn’t always be for the strong-armed dictator who can give us the bauxite, tin or lumber. And it’s important to remember that democracy is saving this country from mass incineration, just as grass roots democracy saved us from nuclear power. I know many nuclear power plants have been built, but can you imagine how many there would be if there wasn’t an organized citizens’ movement against it?

You see, once everybody knows the Emperor is not wearing any clothes, mass burn falls apart. Citizens are quite literally standing in front of bulldozers. They are fighting in court and they are running campaigns and winning them. But the most important thing to do is decide that you have to recycle.

[A final note: Just before we went to press Neil informed me that the city council in Austin, Texas had just voted to stop construction on a mass burn plant it had already sunk millions of dollars into. Why? Because, thanks to some effective citizen efforts, they finally understood that they could save $100 million over the next twenty years by using recycling instead. The tide just may be turning.]

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