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#167 - As If The Future Mattered..., 04-Feb-1990

WASTE MANAGEMENT AS IF THE FUTURE MATTERED, by chemist Paul Connett, in
45 pages summarizes all the advantages of trash incineration, and all
the reasons why trash incineration makes little or no sense for most
communities. Because Connett stresses readily available alternatives to
incineration, everyone concerned about trash will find this pamphlet
useful.

The big advantage of trash incineration is that it requires no change
in the habits of consumers, waste haulers, or manufacturers. A hole in
the ground (the traditional landfill) is replaced by a hole in the face
of a huge machine (the incinerator) and our throw-away society can get
on with business as usual. Another advantage is that trash incinerators
are the biggest boost to the construction trades since the heyday of
nuclear power; all those multi-billion dollar incinerators represent
high-paying (if short-lived) construction jobs; they also represent a
boon to investment bankers, bonding agents, and their respective
lawyers, all of whom skim a percentage from each dollar passing through
the construction pipeline. Incineration also generates steam and
electricity that can partially offset the enormous costs of building
the machines. And, lastly, incineration substantially reduces the need
for landfill space.

The disadvantages of trash incinerators form a much longer list: a)
Incinerators are extremely expensive (a billion dollars or more for a
4,000-ton-per-day plant), all of which the public ultimately pays,
whether through private fees or tax monies. b) Operation of an
incinerator creates very few jobs. c) The need for landfills is not
reduced by 90% as incinerator advocates often claim; the actual
reduction is about 40%. This means that an incinerator will extend the
life of today's landfills by a factor of 2.5, not a factor of 10. d)
The energy recovery from incinerators is relatively small, compared to
the energy saved when material is recycled. In fact, incinerators
require so much fuel to burn the garbage that another 1973-style oil
embargo would shut them all down. e) It is not easy to burn trash, and
incinerators often need many costly repairs that aren't anticipated in
the initial project budget. f) Incinerators are inflexible. Once built,
they must be fueled with garbage for 20 years, making the community's
trash unavailable for recycling; about 80% of the waste stream can be
recycled OR incinerated but not both. g) Incineration wastes resources
that could otherwise be reused or recycled; in the case of plastics,
this represents the waste of a nonrenewable resource (oil). h)
Incineration destroys discarded materials, which must then be replaced,
leading to greater industrial activity with well-known negative side
effects on the earth's deteriorating environment (greenhouse effect,
acid rain, massive chemical contamination of air, water, soil, and
food, and so on). i) Incineration is not a long-term solution, but
merely puts off the day when we can initiate real long-term solutions;
everyone with a shred of sense now recognizes that we cannot continue
to operate a throwaway society on a finite planet--and incineration is
just a way of denying that fact for a few short years. j) Toxics will
make their way into incinerators for exactly the same reasons that
toxics make their way into landfills, so a solid waste incinerator will
in fact be a hazardous waste incinerator, and there is no realistic way
to prevent this from happening continuously. k) Air emissions
(hydrochloric acid, toxic heavy metals, and hundreds of toxic organic
compounds inevitably created as byproducts of combustion) add enormous
quantities of pollutants to the atmosphere, and most incinerators (more
than 75%) are slated for areas that already fail to meet health-based
air quality standards, and where cancer rates are already the highest
in the nation. l) The ash from incinerators is toxic, laced with the
heavy metals lead, cadmium, chromium, and arsenic, among others. Dr.
Connett says, "Toxic ash is the Achilles heel of the incineration
industry.... It doesn't make either economic or environmental sense to
convert three tons of trash into one ton of toxic ash." It's a Catch-
22: the better the air pollution control system, the more toxic the ash
becomes. In many locales, cynical bureaucrats want to solve this
problem by changing the name of the ash to "special waste," but as Dr.
Connett points out, "This is based on convenience, not on science. As
much as our regulators would like to believe otherwise, there is only
one kind of lead atom, and that lead atom is toxic to humans. There is
not a separate lead atom labelled 'special'!" m) It is as difficult to
site an incinerator as a landfill; in fact, building an incinerator
requires the use of a hazardous waste landfill for the ash, and
hazardous waste landfills are the hardest of all facilities to site.

The siting of an incinerator is almost always accompanied by a "risk
assessment" in which a consultant, or a government bureaucrat, tries to
show mathematically that only a few people will be killed each year by
the incinerator's pollution. However, Dr. Connett and Tom Webster from
the Center for the Biology of Natural Systems, have shown[1] that
typical risk assessments for incinerators 1) Usually don't consider
"upset" conditions, which occur frequently though irregularly in an
incinerator, but instead assume that the incinerator will operate
smoothly and flawlessly for 20 years; 2) Don't consider all pollutants;
3) Don't consider multiplier effects (synergism) from exposure to many
pollutants at once; 4) Don't consider existing health conditions in the
affected populations; 5) Usually don't consider exposures through the
food chain and usually underestimate food chain exposures when they are
considered; 6) Don't consider effects on agriculture and related but
distant effects from exported food; 7) Don't consider the cumulative
impacts of all proposed incinerators (or other proposed sources of air
pollution) in an area, state, or region; 8) Don't consider risks from
ash handling and disposal. Such risk assessments are whitewash, not
serious attempts to anticipate pollution consequences.

So landfills are out and incinerators are bad business. What are the
alternatives? The real answer to our trash problems is a combination of
social innovation and technology. We need a new institution--the
"materials recovery facility" (MRF). Each community (or rural county)
could have one of its own. Each MRF would have: a) a re-use and repair
section; b) a waste exchange for household toxics; c) a composting
section; d) a separation, upgrading and marketing section for mixed
recyclables; e) a more mechanized section for screening of mixed
residues prior to landfilling; f) a section to handle commercial waste;
and g) a section to handle landscaping and building debris.

Connett says, "While no single community in the USA has yet pulled all
these modules together, there are working examples of each module, and
several combinations, operating successfully in Europe and the USA
today." Many of these are illustrated in a videotape available for $30
with the pamphlet.

Does it work? After two years of a mandatory recycling program North
Stonington, Connecticut, recorded a 65% reduction by volume in its need
for landfilling. After four months of recycling, Rodman, NY, achieved a
71% reduction by volume in its landfill requirements. As we have noted
earlier (see RHWN #108), East Hampton, NY, achieved a massive 84%
reduction by weight during a pilot study. The town of Neunkirchen,
Austria, achieved 65% and 67% reductions by weight during 1986 and
1987.

Will people recycle? In Hamburg, NY, they have a 98% participation rate
in their recycling program because they simply refuse to pick up trash
that is not separated. In Rockford, IL, a "trashman" in gaudy costume
and polka-dotted truck inspects the trash of one household each week;
if he finds zero recyclables, he awards the household $1000. If no one
wins one week, next week's winner gets $2000.

Looking for one single source of information on solutions to the
garbage crisis? This pamphlet is it.

Get: WASTE MANAGEMENT AS IF THE FUTURE MATTERED; single copies, $3;
bulk orders of 10 or more, $2 each. From: Work on Waste USA, 82 Judson
St., Canton, NY 13617; phone (315) 379-9200. Accompanying videotape:
$30. You will also want to subscribe to their must-read weekly
bulletin, WASTE NOT, edited by Ellen Connett. $35 per year. Order all
from Work on Waste.

--Peter Montague

=====

[1] Paul Connett and Tom Webster, "Municipal Waste Incineration and
Risk Analyses: The Need to Ask Larger Questions." Canton, NY: Work on
Waste [82 Judson St., Canton, NY 13617], July, 1988. $2.50 per copy
from Work on Waste.

Descriptor terms: incineration; alternative treatment technologies;
reuse; recycling; waste not; paul connett; ellen connett; tom webster;
studies; dioxin; air pollution; landfilling; msw; risk assessment;