[Greenbuilding] Another Green Myth: Garbage Incinerators Are Green Sources of Energy

Tim Vireo Keating t.keating at rainforestrelief.org
Wed Dec 7 19:04:35 PST 2011


You have indeed mentioned an important aspect of "waste to energy" 
facilities - the need to compete in the marketing of the energy. This 
is why these facilities will often enter into agreements with 
counties to assure that the counties supply a minimum amount of 
waste. Contrary to what you have said, this actually creates a 
disincentive to recycling and recovery of waste. This was certainly 
the case in Monmouth County, NJ, where we beat back the incinerator 
that was proposed (the former governor had decreed there should be 
one in each county in the state).

In Bergen County, I believe, the incinerator company actually sued 
the county when the waste being delivered to the incinerator dropped 
below an agreed level, and, when recyling started to kick in, the 
county had to start importing waste from another county or face 
massive fines (to which they had agree).

These facilities are a maw that needs to be constantly fed, once built.

Yes, landfilling is not a great option. But, if one were to take the 
millions committed to these facilities (supposedly to create jobs) 
and the billions to build them and actually educate the community 
(with door-to-door neighborhood environmental wardens (giving 
students summer jobs), shift to a pay-per-pound trash disposal 
arrangement, deliver bins for source-separation and hire a crew of 
enforcement agents, I believe recycling rates would approach 90%, 
negating the need for incinerators. The 10% heading to landfills 
could be processed in MRFs, capturing another 5% of the total (that 
is 50% of what the MRF processes). These MRFs (material recovery 
facilities) could be subsidized for about 10% of the subsidies going 
to the incinerators.

If any company saw the opportunity to make any money burning what 
little is left, 'power' to them. But, given what I know about 
incinerators, this would be unlikely.

My personal experience in Jersey City, NJ is that people are simply 
either not recycling or they are putting materials into the recycling 
that the "recycling" company can't use (that is, contaminants). But 
the company picking up the recyclables doesn't care because they are 
contacted by the city for a set amount, regardless of what they 
collect. Thus, there is a disincentive to enforce recycling. My guess 
is that much of what they collect ends up at the incinerator. This is 
a shame. We need to create incentives to use recyclable packages by 
charging for waste generated (pay-per-pound) as well as educate our 
populations. Also, we need to bring back source-separation and 
municipal collection of recyclables. As well, our recycling 
coordinators need to be educated and committed to recycling, rather 
than hired from cities' existing public works departments' staff, who 
know nothing about recycling or the markets for recycled materials).

I believe that if these steps were taken, municipalities would be 
making money by selling recycled materials, recycling rates would 
approach 90% and thus there would be no need to burn anything.

Oh, and BTW, incinerators are horrible generators of mercury (likely 
from batteries thrown in the trash that could have easily been 
recycled, had the people been educated and given incentives to do so).


At 12:23 PM -0800 12/1/11, Erin Rasmussen wrote:
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>Content-language: en-us
>Okay, to address the unfeasible question I'll go backward before I 
>go forward.  I am not by any means an expert in this area, but this 
>is the back story that I was thinking of as I wrote that message.
>In burning clean waste for energy, you are essentially create a 
>company that has to operate at enough of a profit to be able to keep 
>paying their employees and keep up with maintenance to the facility 
>and the machinery needed to perform that task (and cover your other 
>overhead).  On top of that, these energy plants can be  expensive, 
>and the investors typically want to be paid back some amount of 
>profit for their initial investment.
>Fuels derived from clean, unrecyclable sources are often oddly 
>shaped and require specialized material handling to put them into a 
>form that can be efficiently burned in a power plant, and the cost 
>of that handling can make the fuel expensive.
>These plants also typically operate in a market where they compete 
>with some relatively inexpensive forms of power. So, the plant may 
>not be able to sell enough power at a high enough profit to pay for 
>the expensive fuel, the maintenance of the facility and the pay of 
>the employees. (I'm ignoring the investors for now).  Those are some 
>factors that  can make the plant unfeasible.
>In some areas, there are incentives for disposing of waste (tipping 
>fees etc) that can make up the difference in price and allow the 
>power plant to operate at enough of a profit to ensure continued 
>operation.  (I don't get the sense that companies are making a lot 
>of money in this area the profit off of wind turbines is a lot 
>higher and that seems to be driving some of the growth in that area).
>In addition to the obvious necessity of keeping the doors open on 
>your facility, there's the "will of the people" in your area.  In 
>some areas, the local community is supportive of the plant, and 
>there tends to be a positive experience, but in many areas of the 
>country the community is less supportive and/or actively working 
>against your facility (or proposed facility) and in those areas the 
>experience of the people who own and run the plant can be quite 
>erin at trmiles.com
>From: greenbuilding-bounces at lists.bioenergylists.org 
>[mailto:greenbuilding-bounces at lists.bioenergylists.org] On Behalf Of 
>John Salmen
>Sent: Tuesday, November 29, 2011 7:12 PM
>To: 'Green Building'; 'Reuben Demling'; 'Gennaro Brooks-Church'
>Subject: Re: [Greenbuilding] Another Green Myth: Garbage 
>Incinerators Are Green Sources of Energy
>I am confused as to why you mention burning in the USA as 
>'unfeasible'. Is it because recycling has not yet claimed the bulk 
>of the waste and burning would divert too much of a recyclable 
>From: greenbuilding-bounces at lists.bioenergylists.org 
>[mailto:greenbuilding-bounces at lists.bioenergylists.org] On Behalf Of 
>Erin Rasmussen
>Sent: November-29-11 3:12 PM
>To: 'Green Building'; 'Reuben Demling'; 'Gennaro Brooks-Church'
>Subject: Re: [Greenbuilding] Another Green Myth: Garbage 
>Incinerators Are Green Sources of Energy
>With respect to burning waste to generate power, it's a lot smarter 
>to say that it depends a lot on the waste being incinerated, and the 
>way that it is being done.  In general burning municipal waste is in 
>the USA unfeasible, but there are fuels like waste wood and 
>non-recyclable waste paper that can be burned cleanly to generate 
>electricity.  And like people using wood to heat their homes in 
>efficient wood stoves, there are ways to burn clean wastes (wood, 
>some types of crop residues, waste paper) on a municipal scale and 
>there are places in Europe where they have several years experience 
>doing just that under much tougher environmental rules than we have 
>For some examples check out the Gasification Discussion List, and 
>its web site:
>Erin Rasmussen
>BioEnergy Discussion List
><mailto:erin at trmiles.com>erin at trmiles.com
>Greenbuilding mailing list
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