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Green Building News

Report: Trash-to-Energy Plants Face a Bleak Financial Future

Aging plants expose millions of people — most in poor and minority communities — to potential health risks

The Wheelabrator incinerator in Saugus, Massachusetts, opened in 1975, making it one of the oldest trash-to-energy plants in the country. Every day, the plant burns some 1,500 tons of solid waste from 10 surrounding communities. [Photo credit: Fletcher6 / CC / Wikimedia Commons]

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.

This map shows the location of solid waste incinerators in the U.S. [Image credit: Tishman Environment and Design Center]
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.

9 Comments

  1. Andrew C | | #1

    I have two questions after reading this article.

    First, the existing plants are old, and of old design. Are new incinerator designs now available that are more efficient and cleaner burning than prior generations? And might they be cost-effective if they had all the pollution controls installed up front?

    Second question: isn't the lack of recycling going to increase the amount of material available for disposal, increasing available "tipping fees"? I just read an article that indicates Canada actually recycles less than 10% of its "recycling" material. I doubt that it's much better in most of the USA. And countries other than China may start rejecting contaminated waste streams.

    Longer term we can hope that we can reduce the amount of packaging that we use, but I suspect we're going to generate a lot of trash in the interim.

  2. User avater
    Walter Ahlgrim | | #2

    Let’s get real the spot where the incinerator is now located was never a desirable neighborhood in most cases the incinerator was built next to the dump and the dump always had a small fire going somewhere and smelled bad. Dump sites are established very early in a community’s history. So the dump/ incinerator has been in that spot longer than the oldest continues resident. The poor and non-white residents knowingly and willingly chose this neighborhood.

    My guess is the main reason to incinerate is to extend the life of the landfill as it nears capacity. Being that it is so difficult to site a new landfill cities will have little choice but pay the market price as landfills close prices at the remaining sites go up.

    Walta

    1. User avater GBA Editor
      Martin Holladay | | #3

      Walter/Walta,
      You wrote, "The spot where the incinerator is now located was never a desirable neighborhood... The poor and non-white residents knowingly and willingly shook out and chose this neighborhood."

      I don't know what "shook out" means, but the implication of your statement is highly offensive. I strongly disagree. It's hard to imagine a more insensitive attitude towards the reality of available housing options for low-income Americans.

  3. User avater
    Walter Ahlgrim | | #4

    Sorry that word was a typo sought
    I did edit my post.

    It is true that poor people do not have good options available to them but they did make their choice.

    My point is it not a conspiracy that the poor end up living near the incinerators, chemical plants and flood zones it is economic

    Walta

    1. User avater GBA Editor
      Martin Holladay | | #5

      Walta,
      Yes, it is economic. Economic inequality results in many forms of injustice, including the fact that low-income families often can't afford to live in nice neighborhoods, and end up living in neighborhoods with above-average rates of pollution. The fact that the cause of the injustice described in this article is "economic" should not lessen our outrage or moral disturbance.

    2. Burninate | | #6

      Walter,

      Actually...

      There is a study in urban geography of the 'disfavored quarter'. In most cities this dates back to when we used horses for transportation and night soil men or gutters for sewage. It was a quarter of the city because it was physically downwind of wherever the center of the city was - these people had to put up with the smells of civilization. In the United States, this is typically where neighborhoods of free blacks and poor immigrants ended up. As time went on and things like 'racial preferences' were codified into a rapidly growing financial system, avoiding their presence did indeed create a modest conspiracy for a period to keep 'those sort of people' on their 'side of the tracks'. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Redlining

      As we built up heavy industry, 'downwind' stayed in the same direction. As we tore down heavy industry in our cities after public protest of pollution issues, we tore it down in mostly areas that had plenty of expensive lawyers an tap to fight those industries, and where the workers had white-collar offices and/or easy transportation, and were not dependent on that industry for employment.

      "The poor and non-white residents knowingly and willingly chose this neighborhood."

      It might for the sake of argument even be possible that a dump/incinerator is in one spot longer than the oldest continuous resident - but what about their parents? What about their grandparents? Are there family homes here that have been passed down here? Did the residents make the mistake of choosing to be poor and unable to afford the areas without dumpster fires? Did the residents make the mistake of choosing to be black and having no significant inheritance from their extended family, who was effectively forbidden from amassing wealth? Should the groups of people who moved here en masse because it was better than the threat of lynching and being spat on for living their lives in rural America have stayed? These historical circumstances have a very long shadow.

      "It's economic" isn't an excuse, it's a bit of an indictment of economics of the 'the market will sort everything out' flavor. White families with an employed head of household have literally ten times the wealth as black families with an employed head of household. That's ten times the resources that they can devote to choosing where they live. Economics says that if there weren't any long-lived racial preferences in hiring, that gap would have shrunk to negligibility by now: https://www.citylab.com/equity/2019/03/racial-wealth-gap-income-inequality-black-white-households/585325/ .

      I'm going to keep my policy ideas about how to fix that off this board - I just want to note that these effects are real and they are contiguous with historical circumstances.

      Now I would like to respond to the article, and I would like to use a some links to do so -

      https://www.wbur.org/hereandnow/2019/05/03/copenhagen-trash-incinerator

      https://unearthed.greenpeace.org/2018/10/25/waste-incinerators-air-pollution-uk-lobbied/

      https://e360.yale.edu/features/out_of_indias_trash_heaps_a_controversy_on_incineration

      https://www.euractiv.com/section/energy/news/worries-mount-over-waste-incineration-as-renewable-energy/

      https://e360.yale.edu/features/incineration_versus_recycling__in_europe_a_debate_over_trash

      https://www.parliament.nsw.gov.au/lcdocs/other/10967/Answers%20to%20questions%20on%20notice%20-%20Dr%20El%20Hanandeh.pdf

      https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK233627/

      It appears that Europe has subsidized rapid development and rollout of some extremely clean incinerators, but that they're not technology that would be used in a country where corporations control the rules or where there are no rules on air pollution emissions or where they have to be cost-competitive with strip-mined coal. Europe has simultaneously ramped up recycling to a great extent, and the current debate seems to be whether subsidies for incineration are depriving from the preferred route of recycling. They may end up retaining a heavy tax on landfill disposal in order to provide preference for recycling and incineration without letting one edge out the other.

      All of the American plants are ancient, and simply replacing them with modern technology is an option, if they're not expected to be 'run as a business' at a profit. We also have the option to just build them in rural areas.

      1. Andrew C | | #7

        Burninate - thanks for the links.

  4. Kenneth Garden | | #8

    We lived in Uppsala, Sweden for a year, where the trash room of our building sorted according to numerous categories of waste, the largest being "brannbart" or "burnable." The trash was burned, generating electricity, but also heat and hot water for the entire town, including the streets in the downtown shopping district and the road up the hill to the university library. Sweden actually imports trash for this system:

    https://www.mnn.com/lifestyle/recycling/blogs/sweden-runs-out-of-garbage-forced-to-import-from-norway

    I understand the skepticism about trash incineration, the inequality involved in the siting of the plants, and the concern about the emissions, but it is worth looking into state of the art systems and the possibility of killing three birds with one stone (trash disposal, electricity generation, and district heating). Denmark does this as well:

    https://www.wbur.org/hereandnow/2019/05/03/copenhagen-trash-incinerator

    What kind of potential could there be here in the US to make more efficient and cleaner use of this resource, and to eliminate in-home heating and hot water generation?

  5. Dennis Miller | | #9

    I doubt that the number one factor in siting a "trash to energy" plant is race. I think it's more about where they can put in a facility with the least amount of resistance. One way to get minimal resistance is to find an area of low population. Another is to float the idea in the area and see how much opposition you get. That's what happened back in the late 1980s here in the mostly rural area around Morgantown, PA on the boundary of Berks and Lancaster Counties in Pennsylvania.

    I believe the company was Ogden-Martin that wanted to build a trash-to-steam plant. They found a large land owner (a couple thousand acres) and started pursuing it. There was resistance from the community at large which got things tangled up in the township zoning ordinances. The property owner then went around the neighborhood and promised free trash service for the next 30 years if the locals would support the plant. The owner then petitioned Berks county to form a new township (or borough). The residents inside the proposed boundaries voted 90% in favor -- 9 for, 1 against -- yeah, only 10 people) and the petition was granted (and challenged in court but lost). Now they could get around the zoning laws. This all took a while and the trash-to-steam plant never was built. I'm not sure why, but maybe Ogden-Martin got tired of the opposition and found a different site. But I also have a vague memory that there was a brief moratorium on trash-to-steam in PA. However a landfill was constructed and is operating to this day. Other improvements the property owner had promised -- a Victorian village, golf course, 100s or 1000s of jobs, etc -- never materialized.

    The moral I draw from the story is that if you resist long and hard, the opponent may decide it's just not worth it and move on. Our locality had a lot of people up in arms who organized and fought back. I suspect that people in poorer regions have less energy to do all the organizing etc. necessary to fight off big companies. Epilogue -- About New Morgan, by the year 2000 the population had more than TRIPLED -- to 35 residents.

    I will shed no tears as trash-to-energy plants fade away. I've always thought is was unjust for a big city like Philadelphia (or as my dad calls it, Filth-adelphia) to generate all this garbage and then send it out to our nice area to be burned so we could inhale the pollutants. It's unjust regardless of your race or financial status.

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