To burn or not to burn…is it still a question?

When I first told some colleagues I was moving to Sweden to get my Masters’ their congratulations was followed up with something along the lines of “just don’t come back preaching about incineration.” In California, incineration is taboo. When I entered the waste management industry I hadn’t given incineration much thought. I was pretty sure American’s buried everything in landfills so I focused on becoming well versed in the world of leachate, land use and methane. I didn’t even know people were still burning trash until I went to a conference in 2015 where a group from Zero Waste Europe advocated for Europe to stop promoting and subsidizing incinerators.

So when I got to Copenhagen a few days before starting school in Sweden my jaw dropped at the sight of their brand new waste to energy (WtE) plant. Which no joke includes a year-round ski slope on top. What?! So this got me thinking: why is Europe (Northern Europe in particular) so into WtE while it is so demonized in the US, especially in California?

I mean, come on, it’s just gorgeous…

The debate between WtE or incineration goes well beyond the vocabulary used to describe it in sustainability circles. Proponents of WtE have told me that the value of non-recyclable waste is lost when it’s buried. That it’s more beneficial to capture the energy it holds to create “renewable” electricity and heat homes. They’ll also casually toss out that CO2 generated at WtE is a less potent GHG than the methane generated from landfills. Sweden’s stellar recycling system captures a tremendous amount of recyclables at their highest value; a high volume of organics collection creates a low moisture content for residual which increases the efficiency of the incinerator.

In Europe, the abundant use of central district heating makes WtE even more appealing. The ability to capture heat and energy dramatically adds to the “advantages” of such a system. But that’s not how we do things in the US. The only time I’ve heard of central heating was when I lived in Brooklyn, NY where apartment buildings are often centrally heated. However, in large swaths of the US the infrastructure for a centralized system is non-existent. And to my fellow Los Angelenos where it’s plenty warm 10 months out of the year, not very appealing.

In the US most WtE is just for energy, but if the added efficiency of heat production isn’t the main stopping point, what is? My guess is that in the decades when the US environmental policies were more progressive than the EU the clean-tech options for mitigating pollution from incineration were not nearly what they are today. During the 1970s in the ‘golden age’ of progressive environmental policy, the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts idealized what a clean environment would look like and incineration was seen as the antithesis of that. American’s wanted fewer smokestacks billowing clouds of who-knows-what into the air. They certainly didn’t want it in the affluent neighborhoods. The civil rights movement platform against environmental racism tried to stop incinerators from entering neighborhoods occupied by marginalized communities of color. And some are still fighting to keep it that way.This largely failed, since most active WtE are in low-income communities of color.

Since then, the US EPA took a stance against incineration as a less viable environmentally sustainable option. Although in many states WtE is listed as a “renewable energy source”. Despite legislative nuances, the cultural stigmatization against incinerators that have stuck around in the American psyche of the environmentally conscious. This is still evident as communities are fighting for the closure of WtE plants in 2019 and the fact I could only find one instance of a new WtE plant opening in the states since the 1990s. The promise of cleaner air will always outweigh the sales pitch of expensive retrofits. Most of the incinerators in the US are reaching the end of their life, and communities want them closed. Period.

Speaking of retrofits… in the current state of affairs, the investment to think about retrofitting aging WtE plants or building new state-of-the-art plants is so monstrous that it would stop plans dead in their tracks before communities could even cry NIMBY. For the record, the EPA says the reason the US doesn’t really do the whole “combustion” thing is that we aren’t starved for space the way other countries are (i.e we have plenty of land to bury all our garbage. Also digging holes for landfill will always be cheap). But whoever crafted that idea obviously has never been to Nordic countries where there are more trees than people. Also goes to show what kind of value the US places on pristine land.  And, at the end of the day, the ever-so-marketable “zero-waste” lifestyle and feel-goodness of recycling fits much better into the modern American environmental persona than the subtle and boring industrial fix that is a power plant. 

The main argument by sustainability professionals and organizations like Zero Waste Europe (and even mentioned on the EPA website) is the long-term dependency these incinerators create on waste generation. Modern facilities with the latest tech cost millions of USD and the contractors building them want assurances that they’ll get their money back. Sweden is so starved for waste to run its facilities its importing waste from the UK, for now, hashtag Brexit. Investing in WtE means depending on the status quo of increasing waste consumption forgoing any true opportunity to reduce waste and invest in alternative models *cough cough* circular economy *cough cough*. WtE is only a “renewable energy source” if we keep producing it at the high levels we currently are.

So what’s a girl to do when she’s stuck between historical underpinnings of her home country and the ‘progressive’ environmental front of her current country spiced with the systematic social science use of “well it depends”? Relaunching a blog and writing a long post about it seems to be the current best practice…

Or, how about a study visit? My program is super into study visits. In the Fall we had the opportunity to tour the local WtE plant in Malmo, Sweden. SySav takes in waste from the southernmost part of Sweden and is owned by a collection of municipalities but run by a private contractor. The plant has been operating since 1973 with the newest boilers having been added in 2003 and 2008. The plant is permitted to take in 630k tons of waste per year and generates enough heat for 70k homes and 1.4 million MWh of electricity.

Let’s just say my excitement of talking about trash for an entire day was not a secret to any of my classmates see exuberance below.

Embarrassingly energetic jumping from yours truly.

And here’s where I need to be a bit more honest. Seeing SySav’s WtE facility, reading the signs, seeing the scrubbers, listening to Swede’s talk about WtE like it’s the end all be all – I kind of buy it. I’ve caught myself thinking “it’s okay to throw this in residual because it will heat someones home and run their water kettle.” Please let that statement not keep me from ever getting a waste management job in California ever again. I’m not saying that WtE is the end-all-be-all solution nor do I think that it would be a beneficial route for the US to consider. Even the EU has recently readjusted its stance on WtE within the waste hierarchy and its role in the circular economy. The EU Commission also came out with a statement reducing the investments in WtE in the EU. But I do think we can learn a few things from the WtE folks.

First, the way the EU talks about the value of waste is something the US is really bad at. Unless you’re in the waste/materials management field and understand the complexities of recycling markets there is little knowledge that what you throw away has not only a financial value but a caloric value as well. To me, that’s a fundamnetal building block to resource conservation. If you don’t understand that resources are finite and have more than one type of value, you can’t understand that burying it in the ground isn’t its best possible use. And let’s take a second to call out the myth of future “landfill excavation.” Sending it back into the economy as a valuable input is more than just recycling. It’s how we can redefine, redesign and remanufacture products and that circularity is key. The EU is bounds ahead of the US on this because there is a cultural and legislative competency around this.

Next, WtE is visible. The SySav plant has a sign on it. Everyone knows what it is, everyone knows that’s where their trash goes. As much as we love advertising in the US, we don’t advertise where our waste goes. It’s hidden under freeway overpasses or up unmarked roads. Unless you live right next to it, you don’t know where the landfills are. I don’t think it’s reasonable for every person to have an in-depth knowledge of what happens to their waste. I do think it’s reasonable to know that it does go somewhere whether it’s down the road or across state lines. It shouldn’t be a secret. I believe this visibility will help generate the value of ‘waste’.

I’m not claiming to be an expert in this. I did a ton of research for this post and am still toiling with the international complexity of differing waste management systems. I didn’t even have space to touch on how China’s SWORD policy is affecting domestic recycling in the US. So I’m not preaching that California or the US should embrace incineration. I think the negative cultural perception of WtE is too ingrained. There is too much baggage and too little money.

What I do hope is that as the US becomes ‘woke’ about plastic straws and microplastics, we can also embrace a more fundamental understanding of how resources flow through our economy. We can demand waste to move out of the shadows as something to be ashamed of and redesign a system for the long term. It should be a catalyst for something bigger. and I hope I won’t forgo any potential job offers by admitting my modest sympathies of WtE infrastructure.

This conversation for me is far from over – I would love to hear your thoughts on the cultural perceptions and scientific realities of WtE vs. Landfilling!

Map of US energy facilities (including WtE) in the US

Map of EU WtE facilities courtesy of CEWEP

*Please note the source of both maps seems bias.

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