Imagine attending a local government hearing where the issue is building a facility that will generate renewable energy from waste. One speaker advocating for the project describes how waste has been converted to beneficial use on a large scale for well over 100 years —and how combustion of municipal solid waste (MSW) with energy recovery (waste-to-energy or WTE) is a safe, effective and environmentally acceptable technology.
The next speaker counters that WTE has serious environmental impacts, including pollution and greenhouse gas, particulates and other emissions. This speaker claims that capital and operating costs of the new facility are too high and will require continued subsidies. Instead of the WTE facility, the speaker advocates zero waste through a combination of recycling and composting, financial incentives for recycling and organics recovery.
Which speaker should policymakers believe? All too often, those who oppose WTE serve up a platter of evidence laced with emotional messages and riddled with technical doublespeak. Some environmental groups, such as the Sierra Club, which is often assisted by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR), pride themselves on helping communities fight waste combustion facilities, including WTE plants. But the claims they make often obscure the whole truth.
The experience of Palm Beach County, Fla., serves as an example of how the truth about renewable energy from waste can win out over opposition. In April 2011, the Palm Beach County Solid Waste Authority Board of Directors was scheduled to meet and authorize the construction of a new 3,000-tons-per-day WTE facility—a facility that is now under construction. Two weeks before the meeting, the Florida Sierra Club and its consultant, ILSR, sent a letter to the Authority outlining environmental and economic concerns about the proposed facility as well as “alternative solutions” for managing Palm Beach County’s solid waste.
The Authority requested my firm to assist in reviewing the letter and to determine the truth about the claims. We developed a white paper that responded to each claim and investigated waste management systems the letter mentions.
In most instances, we found the claims were completely incorrect or half true. For example, in discrediting WTE and advocating for recycling, the letter cited Worcester, Mass., as a recycling and diversion leader. While Worcester’s 43 percent recycling rate is certainly very commendable, we noted that Worcester actually disposes of its non-recycled waste at a nearby WTE facility that produces 46 megawatts of renewable electricity from combusting waste from Worcester and 29 other communities in central Massachusetts.
Where the letter rightly mentioned San Francisco and King County, Wash., as exemplary recycling communities, it failed to note that San Francisco’s remaining waste is hauled to a landfill 55 miles away (with attendant greenhouse gas impact), and King County may consider a WTE facility when its landfill reaches capacity in 12 to 13 years. Communities where the ILSR claims to have stopped the development of WTE plants, such as Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., now haul their waste for disposal at WTE plants in other communities.
Those who discredit WTE often fail to note that WTE is fully compatible with recycling as a component of an integrated waste management system. Studies have shown that communities with WTE facilities in the U.S. on average have recycling rates at least 5 percentage points above the national average. In addition, they overlook the environmental benefits of WTE—it produces electricity with less environmental impact than almost any other source of electricity.
If the whole truth about renewable energy from waste were effectively communicated, proven WTE technologies would undoubtedly play a greater role in our nation’s waste management systems. Yes, we need to recycle and compost as much as we can, but WTE is a safe, reliable technology that reduces the waste that must be landfilled while contributing to our energy needs. The whole truth, and nothing but the truth, about renewable energy from waste is an important story that needs to be told!
Harvey Gershman, email@example.com, is president of Gershman, Brickner & Bratton, Inc., Solid Waste Management Consultants.