Incinerators that burn municipal solid waste face a variety of economic challenges, with most remaining plants located in poor and minority communities where nearby residents are exposed to a variety of pollutants, a new report says.
The study from the Tishman Environmental and Design Center at the New School in New York paints a bleak picture of the industry: high construction and maintenance costs, unreliable revenue streams, and the need for fresh capital investment as existing plants wear out. The waste-to-energy plants also expose millions of people to air pollution and related health risks.
There are 73 garbage incinerators currently operating in the U.S., not including those already tagged for closure, the report says. Fifty-eight of them, or 79% of the total, are located in what the authors call “environmental justice communities” of the poor and people of color. Since 2000, 31 plants have closed for financial reasons.
Economic obstacles are many, but researchers were especially critical of the location of the plants and the health risks faced by poor and non-white residents who live near the plants.
“The incineration industry represents an affront to environmental justice as they contribute to the cumulative and disproportionate pollution placed on communities of color and low-income communities,” the report says.
A trade group representing the industry defends its environmental record and says that incineration has a lower carbon impact than sending solid waste to landfills.
Where the money comes from
There are two main sources of revenue for the incinerators: tipping fees — the money that towns and cities pay for getting rid of their solid waste — and the sale of steam or electricity that incineration generates. For example, Covanta Corporation, a major player in the industry, gets roughly 71% of its revenue from tipping fees and 18% from selling electricity, according to the report.
But garbage is a competitive business, with both incinerators and landfills vying for what solid waste is available. When landfill tipping fees fall, or when the amount of solid waste declines, a plant’s primary source of cash dries up.
Further, many towns and cities are rewriting contracts so they are no longer required to deliver a certain amount of solid waste or face financial penalties. These are called “put or pay” clauses, and they helped prop up operations even when the flow of solid waste declines.
“Similarly,” the report notes, “renewable energy subsidies can change over time, depending on the regulatory and political environment in each state. This leads to an underlying business model at risk.”
Older plants need expensive upgrades
The average age of the remaining incinerators in the U.S. is 31 years — one year beyond their 30-year life expectancy. Older plants need expensive upgrades to continue operating, and when the burden falls on taxpayers the result can be “ruinous,” researchers wrote.
Energy sales should help keep incinerators afloat, but electricity produced by burning garbage is twice as expensive as power from burning pulverized coal and four times as much as power from a nuclear plant. Even so, two-thirds of all incinerators in the U.S. have access to renewable energy subsidies. The practice may not last.
“These energy subsidies are coming under increased scrutiny as environmental advocates question the classification of waste burning, particularly non-biogenic waste, as renewable energy,” the report says. “The introduction of new carbon pricing policies in states like New York may mean that incinerators, which emit significant amounts of CO2, will face new financial challenges.”
Health risks from air pollution
Solid waste incinerators are often unpopular with neighbors because they emit relatively large amounts of pollutants. The report cites studies showing that the plants emit some pollutants at a higher rate than plants burning fossil fuels. Emissions include dioxins, lead, and mercury.
More than 4 million people live within a three-mile radius of the 73 U.S. incinerators; 1.6 million are within three miles of the 12 worst polluters. Incinerators that emit the largest amounts of lead are located in Baltimore, Maryland; Camden, New Jersey; and Newark, New Jersey, the report notes, with 10 of the 12 plants with the highest lead emissions in environmental justice communities.
Collectively, the plants burn some 13% of all municipal solid waste produced in the U.S. and have revenues of about $3.2 billion. But looming financial problems may help explain why all but one of the 73 operating plants were built before 2000. The bulk of them, 45 in all, were constructed before 1990.
“The incinerator industry is in trouble,” researchers said. “These aging facilities are too expensive to maintain, too risky to finance, and too costly to upgrade. Incinerators in the U.S. operate under volatile economic and regulatory conditions that threaten their major sources of revenue, tipping fees and energy sales.”
The report was produced with support from the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA), which describes itself as a worldwide alliance of more than 800 grassroots groups that opposing incineration. The organization maintains a website called no-burn.org.
The industry sees itself as green
While the report paints an unflattering portrait of solid waste incineration, the industry sees itself quite differently. The Energy Recovery Council, a trade group whose members own and operate almost all of the nation’s incinerators, says that waste-to-energy plants safely dispose of solid waste while generating electricity using state-of-the-art emission control systems.
The group’s website says that incinerators have been recognized by the Environmental Protection Agency for producing “clean, reliable, renewable” energy with less environmental impact than almost any other means of waste disposal.
U.S. plants produce more than 14 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity from waste annually. Because waste is not landfilled, it doesn’t generate methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, the group says. It claims that for every ton of solid waste burned in a waste-to-energy plant, the equivalent of 1 ton of CO2 emissions is avoided.
A telephone call to the Energy Recovery Council seeking comment on the report was not returned.