BURNING GARBAGE REALLY BURNS ME UP
Why an incineration plant in Orange County would be a poor and costly choice
Maximo DeCastro Blake
The last thing families in Orange County need is anything that adds toxins to our air, water and food or anything that takes away employment opportunities in the county. A $160 million dollar garbage burning plant, planned to be built in Montgomery by Taylor Recycling/Holding Group, threatens to do both. The plant, designed to handle 500 tons a day of Orange County’s municipal solid waste,1 intends to “gasify” our garbage. Gassification places the garbage in a high temperature chamber where it is converted to gases that can be burned as a fuel. Because this is a low-oxygen process with no flame, the plant can claim no burning and avoid being labeled an incinerator. However, the toxic emissions from gasification are nearly the same as incineration,2 posing the same risk of contamination to air, water and food. In addition, our garbage – the items we discard – contain valuable materials (paper, plastics, organic waste and metals) that are in demand by local recycling businesses. And, this demand will increase as raw materials continue to become more expensive. Our waste management future points toward a robust recycling and reusing of the materials in discarded items. This offers a rich growth opportunity for local recycling businesses and for local job creation. A gasification plant, however, destroys what it incinerates, squandering the valuable, recyclable materials for future reuse and cutting off the supply of materials critical for the growth of local recycling businesses. Businesses that would create many more jobs than the gasification plant.
Incineration or Gassification: What Ever You Call It, It Still Emits Pollutants
Orange County has not been in compliance with federal air quality requirements for particulate matter and ozone for many years. As a county resident and member of Orange Environment (OE) I am, and we are, very concerned that the county is considering a gasification plant that will add to local pollution. We already have too many toxic particles and gases in our air. If this new facility were called an incinerator it would surely not be allowed. While we understand that the proposed Taylor facility wants to avoid inflaming its neighbors and surrounding communities with the term incinerator, Orange Environment believes it is correct and appropriate to use this term.
- New York State has formally classified the Taylor plant as an incinerator, although the State is not requiring it to comply with standard incinerator regulations and has created unique permit requirements just for this proposed plant. We find this special treatment troubling.
- Other states are much clearer. Massachusetts, for example, explicitly includes gasification plants in its ban on incinerators.
- Likewise, the plant will be treated as an incinerator under federal regulations when the air quality permit is considered.
- And, the Taylor plant includes a secondary burn unit to incinerate tar and char, components left behind after the gasification process. So there are actually two incineration processes in the Taylor plan: gasification followed by secondary burn.
- Finally, it is not clear that gasifiers are free of the problems that plague incinerators. Unfortunately most technical information concerning gasifiers comes from the equipment manufactures and as such paint a rosy picture. However, a recent review of gasification technology reports that gasification of garbage produces toxic fumes and ash comparable to emissions from incinerating garbage, and that the technology to “scrub” the toxins from gasification gas is under development and has not been demonstrated effective at commercial scale.3
State and federal permits will attempt to limit air pollution from the facility and Taylor promises that little pollution will be generated if the plant functions as planned. However, as noted above, the experimental process is untried and the record of gasifiers succeeding is abysmal. OE tried to force the DEC to name a monitor to enforce permit compliance but was denied. Right over the back fence of the planned facility is the Village of Maybrook, with two schools and a day care center within 2,000 feet. Prevailing winds assure that any pollution coming from the plant will affect these children, yet there was no discussion of this risk in the application or impact statement. With Orange County’s air quality out of compliance with federal air quality standards for particulate matter and ozone, we continue to have perilous air quality and can not afford to make it worse.
Incinerators: Costly, Debt Producing Facilities
Garbage burning facilities put communities in financial jeopardy. Governments and tax paying citizens around the country who have ignored the negative information about garbage incineration that has been available for over twenty years and have allowed garbage burning facilities to be built, or continue to operate, now have huge financial and pollution cleanup problems on their hands. As a result incinerators are being shut down all over the US and new projects are being rejected by the public.4 Most of the incinerators that continue to operate do so only by having tax payers fund their ever increasing operating losses.
New York State’s experience with garbage burning facilities should make its citizens quickly reject any new facilities. In Duchess County, taxpayers had to come up with an extra six million dollars last year to bail out their incinerator. Washington and Warren Counties have been operating an incinerator at a loss and are eager to sell it.5 Budget burning incinerators have been the experience of our neighboring states as well. New Jersey’s residents had to bailout five incinerator plants in late 1990s that could not pay their own way.6 Harrisburg, Pennsylvania’s incinerator has became a “money pit.” In 2010 the city was struggling to meet $65 million dollars (a sum greater than its annual budget) in payments for an incinerator $288 million dollars in debt.7
Taxpayer money is also going into the Taylor facility. Once municipalities and the County sign contracts to send their garbage to Taylor for the next 20 years, they will become as dependent on the plant’s viability as if it were a public facility.
In an effort to improve the environment, more than a decade ago Orange Environment worked to closed the Orange County and Al Turi Landfills and introduced recycling to the county. But, an undesired result has been the export of our wastes to far-off landfills, a costly and irresponsible practice. As we move to take care of our own garbage, however, we must make intelligent decisions that do not sacrifice the quality of our air, land, water and local food. Our health and businesses will suffer if the planned gasification plant goes into operation. We need to put gasification on the back burner and pursue more sustainable practices.
Reclaiming and Recycling Discarded Materials: The Way of the Future
Knowing the wastefulness and health dangers of incineration and landfilling, Americans began to reduce both the burning and burying of garbage years ago and began sorting recyclables contributing an ever increasing proportion of garbage to recycling. Burn barrels, incinerators and landfills are on their way to becoming a thing of the past. In 1960 incinerators burned 30% of the municipal solid waste in the United States. By 1988 this amount had dropped to 13%.8 Of the 186 municipal solid waste incinerators operating nationally in 1990, only 89 remained by 2007. No new incinerators were built between 1996 and 2007. Currently we burn about 12% or our waste, recycle about 34% and send the remaining 54% to landfills.9
New York State now has a goal of 90 % waste reduction and is supporting efforts to achieve this goal. Passage of “Bottle Bills,” requirements for retail packaging reduction, and other measures all contribute to this effort. The development of business that use recycled materials play a vital role in volume reduction. For example, aluminum made from scrap aluminum is more than 90% less expensive to produce than aluminum refined from newly mined aluminum oxide ore. Consequently, there is great demand for scrap aluminum, and discarded cat food cans, pie tins, iced tea cans and other aluminum containers fetch a good price for metal recyclers. Similarly, food waste also has value. When composted into rich topsoil it currently sells for $20 to $50 per cubic yard. Demand for used paper, plastic, wood, food waste, yard waste, and glass by local industries is growing. The industries that collect and process these materials employ our neighbors and will employ more if allowed to develop. Supporting these businesses will contribute to our local economy and increase our capacity to reach the goal of 90% or greater reuse and recycle.
1From Taylor DEC permit application.
2Friends of the Earth. “Briefing: Pyrolysis, gasification and plasma.” London. September 2009. Available at: http://www.foe.co.uk/resource/briefings/gasification_pyrolysis.pdf
3Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League. “Waste gasification: Impact on the environment and public health.” Technical Report. February 2009. Available at: http://www.bredl.org/pdf/wastegasification.pdf
4Greenpeace International. “Incineration: The burning issue.” Accessed June 2010 at http://www.stoptheburn.com/articles.html
5Seldman, Neil. “New York State, extended producer responsibility and Incineration.” Institute For Local Self-Reliance. Washington, DC. November 2020. Available at: http://www.ilsr.org/recycling/articles/comments-on-public-policy.html
6Rao, Maya. “N.J. won’t bail out Camden County incinerator.” Philadelphia Inquirer. November 13, 2010. Available at: http://articles.philly.com/2010-11-13/news/24955318_1_trash-incinerator-trash-disposal-debt-payments
7Cooper, Michael. “An incinerator becomes Harrisburg’s money pit” New York Times. Nytimes.com May 20, 2010. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/21/us/21harrisburg.html
8Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League. “Waste gasification: Impact on the environment and public health.” Technical Report. February 2009. Available at: http://www.bredl.org/pdf/wastegasification.pdf
9EPA. “Municipal solid waste generation, recycling, and disposal in the United States: Facts and figures for 2009.” US Environmental Protection Agency. December 2010. Available at: http://www.epa.gov/wastes/nonhaz/municipal/pubs/msw2009-fs.pdf