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Trash incineration isn't renewable energy

A growing coalition of environmentalists, public health advocates and sustainable businesses including renewable energy companies and composters are urging Gov. Martin O'Malley to veto legislation that would qualify trash incineration as a "Tier 1" renewable energy source on par with solar and wind — and rightly so. The bill on Mr. O'Malley's desk would be disastrous for advancing the state's top waste-management priorities — reduce, reuse and recycle — and legitimate renewable energy.

Maryland power suppliers are required to source 20 percent of the electricity they sell from renewable energy by 2022. The bill would flood this energy market with in-state and out-of-state trash burning and could also swamp Maryland with out-of-state garbage to feed the massive incinerators that companies pushing the bill want to build here. But it will please incinerator companies like Covanta Energy, Wheelabrator Technologies and Energy Answers, which stand to profit if their power is classified as a Tier 1 renewable.

Bill proponents narrowly view the debate as a false choice of incineration versus landfilling. The issue is actually whether Maryland will embrace real renewable energy and real waste reduction. Incinerators have serious drawbacks. For one, they require waste and make the job of conserving resources harder. Capital costs are enormous, dwarfing nuclear power plants on a megawatt-for-megawatt basis. They produce more CO2 per megawatt hour than natural gas and even coal.

While new incinerators emit less air pollution than their predecessors, they are far from clean, releasing acid gases, particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, mercury, lead, dioxins and more. Last year, a Covanta incinerator in Connecticut was shut down for excessive dioxin emissions and sued by the Connecticut attorney general. Another Covanta plant, in New Jersey, was forced to settle in court after chronically violating the Clean Air Act. In Massachusetts, Wheelabrator recently agreed to pay $7.5 million to settle a state lawsuit alleging that it broke environmental laws at several trash burners there.

Incinerators do not make landfills disappear. Some materials don't burn well and go straight to the landfill. One-quarter of tonnage burned turns into ash, requiring landfill disposal. Ironically, the better the air pollution control, the more toxic the ash. Building more waste incinerators to control waste is like loosening one's belt to control obesity.

Fortunately, there are countless opportunities in Maryland to expand non-burn alternatives such as composting. Compared to ash, compost offers the added benefits of restoring our depleted soils, managing stormwater, reducing nitrogen run-off into the Chesapeake Bay and sustaining real green jobs.

Northeast Maryland Waste Disposal Authority Director Robin Davidov claims the "bill does not take away from any other renewable project … and the technology has evolved to the point that it's so clean and so reliable that it's the best option for managing solid waste." Reality proves otherwise. Consider Frederick County, where Ms. Davidov is pushing a 1,500 ton-per-day $500 million Wheelabrator incinerator. A quarter of the facility's capital costs alone will be spent trying to control pollution. The project would be financed with huge public debt and is already crowding out far cleaner and less expensive renewable-energy generators such as anaerobic digestion — a biological process that converts food scraps and other biodegradable materials into a natural gas that can generate heat and electricity.

Mr. O'Malley recognizes the need to move toward "zero waste." But the definition for zero waste — developed through an international consensus process — excludes incineration. Instead of rushing to burn, Maryland might learn from Massachusetts, which recently issued its draft "2010-2020 Solid Waste Master Plan: A Pathway to Zero Waste." The document calls for keeping the state's current moratorium on new incinerators; expanding reuse, recycling and composting; ensuring greater producer responsibility for materials; and promoting recycling businesses and jobs. Indeed, on a per-ton basis, recycling sustains 10 times the number of jobs that burning does.

The choice for Governor O'Malley and Maryland is clear. We can attempt to reach our renewable energy goals honestly by pursuing wind, solar and other legitimate renewables, or we can cheat by promoting trash incineration. We can build a sustainable, green economy based on reducing waste and creating local jobs and revenues through recycling and other strategies, or we can continue to burn and bury valuable resources and diminish our children's future. Mr. O'Malley should veto the bill.

Brenda Platt is co-director of the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Local Self-Reliance, which is working to expand composting in Maryland, and is author of "Stop Trashing the Climate." She is licensed in Maryland to operate commercial composting facilities. Her email is bplatt@ilsr.org.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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