Saturday, October 3, 2020

Trash: The moral high-ground vs reality

 Of course, it would be better to recycle than to burn. Of course, dioxins are a devilish pollutant; of course is it reprehensible that incinerators, chemical facilities and polluters are concentrated near communities of low income, that cities are designed so that the poor live downwind from flu-stacks and the rich in the healthier air upwind. Of course, Baltimore is a non attainment area under the federal Clean Air Act and the trash incinerator known as the BRESCO plant (now owned by Wheelabrator) is the biggest stationary pollution source. And yes, air pollution adds complications to other diseases.

Incinerator (Baltimore Brew)

In light of this the Baltimore City Council created its own Baltimore City Clean Air Act that set such strict emission standards for the incinerator that it would have been forced to shut down. The alternative waste concept that the Council created is the Zero Waste Plan, an idealistic goal that is a bit a bit like God stating on the eighth day: "there shall be no trash". It would assume trashy Baltimore to become cleaner than tidy Zurich, Switzerland.

When this attempt failed in court for overreach and Mayor Young began to negotiate with Wheelabrator instead, outgoing councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke's came up with an even more god-like idea. She introduced the “Ban the Burn at Every Turn Act” (bill 20-0615) which would prohibit the City to even negotiate with any incinerator operator. This would prohibit Wheelabrator to entertain a settlement with Baltimore City which would allow some continued use of its incinerator. This bill would lift Baltimore to the loftiest moral high grounds possible. But inevitably, the dank and stinky valleys of the reality of trash. have not gotten any better.  The heroic theater is deeply impractical if one considers these stark realities:

  • the international system of recycling is on its knees, not least since American laziness fed it an unusably polluted mix of stuff resulting from single stream recycling so that China, the main recipient finally said, no more. 
  • the pandemic has put the use of plastic through packaging, online shopping and the use of disposable protective gear on steroids
  • which increased domestic garbage by as much as 30% in cities around the world
  • this, in turn brought Baltimore City's trash collection on its knees for months. DPW has abandoned curbside recycling and is not managing to pick up trash on time once a week in some neighborhoods 
  • trash has now an even more distinct presence in Baltimore alleys and neighborhoods that even in normal times are more trash strewn than those in most cities
Zero Waste is an admirable goal and Baltimore is not the only city to aspire to it. But even for the first steps such a plan needs many pieces to work, even in the beginning when low hanging fruit can be collected. San Francisco which aimed for Zero Waste in the first decade of this century managed to reduce trash by 50% in the first 5 years of its program and has become the Mecca of the US Zero Waste movement. San Francisco didn't believe in magic. Instead it made big investments and created a trash reducing regulatory framework. It bought an enormous sorting machine for recyclables, it banned plastic bags, styrofoam containers, introduced an elaborate composting system and made recycling mandatory. It has a fleet of trucks which collects trash in presorted categories. It all started a dozen years ago. This year should have been the end date to reach the final goal of the 12 year strategy: zero waste. What happened was not linear progress. After the first 4 year success (a 50% trash reduction) San Francisco's trash volume increased again. In 2020 it is bigger than it had been in 2012. The goal of Zero Waste has now been abandoned and a new target has been set for 2030, a 50% reduction of today's waste. 

Most would agree that Baltimore isn't San Francisco, and that goes both ways. It doesn't have to contend with a giant growth wave but it also doesn't have nearly the same resources.

In the short term, incineration or landfilling are the alternative for the trash that has not yet been avoided or recycled. Baltimore's Zero Waste plan recognizes that. Since its only own landfill on Quarantine Road will soon run out of space, the plan wants it expanded. Ironically the landfill sits in the center of the disadvantaged communities that the clean air activists claim are most impacted by the incinerator pollution. A landfill is an environmentally very undesirable way of taking care of trash, even though, it is probably the oldest method. In landfilling heat from the decomposing trash is wasted and methane, the gas that is created when organic matter decomposes, escapes into the air all over the landfill as long it isn't capped, and contributes to global warming. Methane is a many times more potent greenhouse gas than CO2. But exact measurements of the pollution caused by landfills from trucks, methane and fluids that seep into groundwater or the Bay are hard to come by due to the nature of an ongoing spread-out operation.

By comparison, it is relatively easy to determine what comes out at the top of the incinerator flue stack. 
Friends and foes of incineration and cogeneration use incompatible arguments to make their points. 

Wheelabrator says incineration is more environmentally friendly than landfills. The Energy Justice advocates maintain that incineration is the dirtiest way of waste disposal. Hotly disputed is especially the slogan "waste to energy", the practice of using some of the heat from incineration for steam heating or electricity production, a process known as cogeneration. Energy Justice says on its website:
Incineration is the most expensive and polluting way to make energy or to manage waste. It produces the fewest jobs compared to reuse, recycling and composting the same materials. It is the dirtiest way to manage waste - far more polluting than landfills. It is also the dirtiest way to produce energy - far more polluting than coal burning.
The Energy Justice folks make fairly free wheeling assertions, as in their talk about waste and water vapor in this paragraph from their website:
Waste-to-Energy is a PR term. Trash-to-steam is also a lie (there is more in trash than water, thus more in incinerator pollution than water vapor). The reality is that incinerators waste 3-5 times more energy than they recover
Sure, now doubt that producing heat or energy by burning fuel is neither particularly efficient nor is it clean. Incineration creates more toxic emissions than fossil fuel (even coal) power plants, it shouldn't be recognized as a renewable energy, for example. But nobody sees incinerators as great powerplants.
Co-generation diagram

Cogeneration, simply means recouping some of the energy that gets set free when burning trash, either for electricity or for steam. 
Of course, the steam isn't generated from the waste itself! It gets created in a heat exchanger. The idea is to get something useful out of the trash, in this case steam that runs in a district heating system that warms downtown buildings, or runs a turbine to generate electricity. This side benefit can't be all bad. Wheelabrator states that about 65MW of electricity are generated that way, with about 1 MW feeding about 600 homes, this amount could serve up to 36,000 or so homes.  In total the 80 plus incinerators in the US provide only a tiny contribution to power generation. 

One can certainly call "waste to energy" a PR term. However, if waste has to be disposed of anyway, it is probably better to get something out of it than not. 

The opponents of incineration correctly state that most items that make up municipal waste, have too much value to be incinerated. Much could, indeed, be recycled, and much could be composted. But to discuss the matter in extreme terms doesn't lead to a solution.

That is why even countries that recycle a lot more than most States in the US, use incineration for the remainder of their refuse. Sweden burns about 50%. They use better incinerators than Baltimore's aging plant. The City would be well advised to keep negotiating with Wheelabrator about what they can contribute towards recycling, waste reduction, and fewer emissions through the installation of better scrubbers. This wouldn't negate the objective of waste reduction at the source. 

Klaus Phlipsen, FAIA

CityLab article about increased trash
Pro Wheelabrator commentary SUN
Brew article about Clarke bill
Anti Incinerator commentary SUN
Energy Justice website
West Palm Beach modern incinerator

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