When Phil and I set out on the Trash Blog our main goal was to educate ourselves, and to write thoughtful and well-researched posts. The more we’ve gotten into trash stories, the more difficult we’ve found this to be. Incineration is perhaps the biggest case in point: the debate around whether incineration is a ‘sustainable/preferable’ waste disposal strategy is great, vicious, and seems to have convincing points on both sides.
We met with Charles Mussche, a research associate at Columbia University’s Waste-to-Energy Research and Technology (WTERT) Council. Charles treated us to coffee, and chatted with us on a shady bench on Columbia University’s beautiful campus in New York City.
Much of WTERT’s philosophy is based on a ‘conceptual hierarchy of waste management’ – a ladder describing the best waste management solutions down to the worst. According to this hierarchy waste-to-energy is preferable to landfilling. Waste-to-energy (WTE) typically indicates incineration, though it also includes anaerobic digestion of organics for biogas. We’ve come across similar hierarchies in many state waste management protocols.
Many of us in the US have a gut reaction against incineration because of its toxicity. You may remember that we met with a group called GAIA (Global Anti Incinerator Alliance/Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives) back in California (gosh, that seems like SOOOO LOOOONNNGGG AGOOO!!!!). Their unofficial slogan seemed to be: “WTE? WTF!”; if I summed their stance up in one very oversimplified sentence it would be: Burning garbage releases toxins and carcinogens and is the worst thing to do with our garbage.
However, many other countries (notably EU and Japan) have embraced incineration as a part of their sustainable waste management strategy. According to WTERT’s data, Denmark incinerates over 50% of its waste, with a number of other EU countries incinerating nearly 40%.
So, where do we stand on incineration? I tend to like GAIA’s precautionary principle approach, yet I realize that their ‘answer’ to the trash problem (zero waste) may be too simple. So, perhaps the most surprising thing Charles shared with us was this:
One year’s worth of 4th of July fireworks from across the US releases more dioxins than 100 years of operation of a modern Waste-to-Energy facility.
Obviously I was dumbfounded. When you put it that way, it seems to make things pretty clear – either the 4th of July is suicide, or WTE plants are really no big deal! But as I tried to unpack this ‘simple fact’ I found it may be rather complex.
Here’s the basic calculation behind this statement:
- NYC set off 34,019kg of fireworks this past 4th of July. At an average dioxin release of 142ng/kg of firework, this means that 4.8M nanograms of dioxins were released during this one firework show. Got that? I checked the math, but we all know that math is not my strong suit.
- If we assume there may be at least 1,000 4th of July firework shows across the US each year, then we release about 4.8B nanograms of dioxins each 4th of July across the US.
- WTE plants release about 0.1ng dioxin/kg trash burnt (this is according to WTERT’s data, which I believe is based on the most efficiently functioning plants). US incinerators burn between 500 and 3,000 tons of garbage per day.
- Taking a typical incinerator that burns 1,000 tons garbage/day – 365,000 tons/yr – this incinerator releases 33M nanograms of dioxins/yr. In 100 years it would release 3.3 B nanograms of dioxins.
But sitting here, working that math out with just my relatively limited scope of knowledge, I started to see at least some ways that this ‘simple fact’ may be somewhat oversimplified. For example, some dioxins are more potent than others. Some waste-to-energy plants more efficiently capture their ash than others. Some firework shows are impressive while others are pitiful. Canadians set off fireworks at the drop of a hat… this is confusing, man!
It requires an enormous amount of research to start to unpack easy facts like these. Most people don’t have the time or resources (or shear mathematical genius, as you see demonstrated above) to do that kind of research. So where does that leave us? Does it just come down to trusting an organization to explain things to us? If so, how do you determine whom to trust?
As a footnote, though WTERT is based out of Columbia University, it’s important to look at their funders. Among them, Covanta Energy, Wheelabrator Technologies Inc. (both companies who own and operate US incinerators), Martin GmBH (a German engineering firm that develops WTE technologies), and others. I am not saying that this necessarily discounts their research. I am saying that they may start with certain basic assumptions. Though this can be said of nearly every resource and person we’ve met on our journey…