The burning question: Are some cities giving up on recycling?

Recycling in America stagnant since the 1990s

Has recycling reached its peak? In some parts of the U.S. this may very well be the case. Recycling rates have fallen in recent years or have failed to gain any traction in the first place due to factors like cost and accessibility.

Some communities are resorting to garbage incineration as a more cost-effective and convenient alternative to recycling.

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Environmentalists on both sides of the debate agree that recycling is the better option, but costs of maintaining comprehensive recycling programs are driving some communities into the ground.

Burning garbage to produce electricity. What’s wrong with that?

There’s an abundance of garbage in most parts of the country, so why not burn it and use waste-to-energy (WTE) technology to produce electricity from trash? On the surface, it’s a win-win. Garbage incineration significantly reduces the amount of garbage landfilled and it’s a semi-renewable source of electricity.

I refer to garbage incineration as a source of “semi-renewable” energy because there is, in fact, a limited amount of waste available to burn, unlike true renewable energy sources like wind or solar which are infinitely available. Sweden, for example, burns pretty much all wastes generated within its borders. The country actually reported a garbage shortage in 2012. It had to import trash from other countries to feed its incinerators.

The problem

Trash burning plant in Germany

Burning garbage emits harmful pollutants into the air, such as mercury and lead. So while the whole trash-burning process solves one problem, it creates another.

That said, modern waste-to-energy facilities are more efficient than ever, and the vast majority of pollutants are filtered out and never emitted into the air. It’s nothing like a “backyard burning” type of situation.

A modern incineration plant monitors air pollution continuously to ensure it stays within acceptable levels. It can increase or decrease air flow to the furnace as needed, and chemicals (e.g., lime) are added to neutralize certain toxic pollutants. “Dry scrubbers” help to remove acidic gases, and charcoal is used to absorb mercury. The Delaware Solid Waste Authority offers a quick overview of how waste-to-energy pollution filter technology actually works. Read it here.

Basic Garbage Incineration Process

waste-to-energy trash incineration process

Bottom line, There are local and federal EPA regulations involved here and precautionary measures in place to abide by them, but some opponents feel it’s not enough.

A 2011 study published in the American Economic Review titled “Environmental Accounting for Pollution in the United States Economy” is critical of the claimed added value of burning trash. “Added value” being the revenue generated versus the pollution produced. The study found that solid waste combustion does more harm than good. It’s worth noting that coal-fired electric generation was found to be the worst of the worst in terms of value added.

A 2013 joint study involving the University of Colorado and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory concluded that “[municipal solid waste] combustion is a better alternative than landfill disposal in terms of net energy impacts and carbon dioxide (CO2)-equivalent GHG emissions.” This even includes “greener” landfills utilizing gas-to-energy technology to capture methane gas. However, the report also mentions how expensive it is to build and operate a waste combustion facility.

The waste-to-energy debate teeters on both sides of the fence – environmentalists on one side with heavier hitters, like the EPA, on the other. The EPA puts “energy recovery” one step above “landfilling” in its Non-Hazardous Waste Management Hierarchy. In fact, landfilling is the EPA’s least preferred end result for waste.

Waste Management Hierachy - EPA

There’s really no debate about the fact landfills aren’t the ideal waste solution. The average person produces 4.4 lbs. of waste per day (per, and there are 300 million people living in the U.S. – you do the math. Burying garbage is fast becoming a thing of the past.

Many landfills have closed over the past two decades as recycling has become “fashionable” and waste-to-energy facilities began popping up around the country. Currently there are 86 such facilities nationwide.

Why the tendency toward combustion rather than recycling?

Long-term, it’s cheaper (in theory) to build a WTE plant and burn garbage than to collect, clean, separate, process and ship recyclables. A 2015 NY Times article put it this way: “Curbside recycling has more recently been deemed an expensive luxury by a number of municipalities.”

Durango, CO is a perfect example. The City turned to La Plata County in 2014 for funds -- $60,000 to be exact -- to help save its struggling recycling program, as reported by The Durango Herald. The City already charges residences a small monthly fee to recycle, and Durango earns some revenue from reselling recyclables. Despite multiple revenue streams, the City is still losing the fight to cover operational expenses associated with its recycling program. This is an all-too-common issue in municipalities across the nation.

The end of an era

The recycling boom of the 1990s is over. According to EPA statistics, the national recycling rate went from 10.1% in 1985 to 28.5% in 2000. Since then, the national recycling rate has inched its way to 34.5% (2012). Sure, the recycling rate is higher than it’s ever been, but it has become pretty stagnant over the past 15 years.

Graph of recycling rates in the U.S. - EPA statistics

Recycling is a commodity-driven industry, and when prices are down, so are profits for companies like Waste Management who are big name players in the recycling game. David Steiner, CEO of Waste Management, was quoted in 2013 saying “recycling is not profitable. We have lost money in recycling over the last one and a half years. Investment has slowed to a trickle.”

Some cities have eliminated recycling altogether. One example is Ocean City, MD. The Town found that trucking its waste to a nearby waste-to-energy plant in Fairfax, VA saved it $500,000 per year over operating a recycling program. The facility produces enough energy from WTE technology to power 75,000 homes. It also collects and recycles metals.

Part of the reason waste incineration has really made a comeback across the country is cost. However, an even bigger reason is that cities don’t really have any other options! Recycling is expensive and stagnant, and landfills are bursting at the seams. Plants in Florida and Maryland are in the works. This is a trend that is likely to continue.

Waste-to-Energy plants aren’t cheap either!

Trash incinerator in Baltimore

A new plant in West Palm Beach, FL cost the City more than half a billion dollars, while a large-scale plant in Baltimore (above) – soon to be the biggest in the country – tips the scale at a total estimated cost of $1 billion.

Smaller cities obviously can’t afford such an investment; in fact, many large cities can’t either. Case in point, Detroit has one of the biggest waste-to-energy facilities in the country. The exorbitant cost of building and running the facility is part of the reason for Detroit’s recent financial troubles.

A proposed $180 million Cleveland facility was shot down in 2013 because the City was unable and/or unwilling to fork over the upfront costs. It’s just too risky for many cities.

It takes a 20+ years for a garbage incineration plant to become profitable, if ever. There are plenty instances of waste-to-energy facilities becoming financially successful. A WTE plant in Pinellas County, FL is a great example. This facility generates $80 million per year, much of which has been allocated to fund capital improvement projects in the community.

Even though the upfront cost of building a garbage combustion facility is steep, it seems that for many cities it’s a more cost-effective option compared to maintaining a comprehensive recycling program.

Is it recycle OR incineration? Or, can the two coexist?

The two can, and do, coexist today. Modern incineration plants often remove certain recyclables, mainly metals, before incineration. This is far from a comprehensive recycling solution, though. Valuable recyclables are still burned during the incineration process, including paper, glass and plastics.

A solution may be to ramp up recycling efforts at these incineration facilities, but then the issue of cost once again becomes a problem. And the question of pollution is still an issue.

Whatever the answer, many communities are opting to cut ties with its recycling program and return to the age-old practice of waste incineration; albeit with a few modern pollution-controlling twists. Barring a major shift in public perception about this transition – on a similar scale to that of the “recycling boom” of the 1990s – don’t expect this trend slow down anytime soon.

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