The Latest

Inside EPA/Climate May 2015 article “EJ Groups Raise Concern Over ESPS Memo Allowing Waste-Derived Fuel.”

In December 2014, GAIA and allies submitted comments focusing on incineration in response to EPA’s November 2014 memo. These comments connect the dots between the Clean Power Plan and this EPA emissions loophole. Read the latest about the Clean Power Plan and Waste here.

In February 2014, dozens of Environmental Justice organizations and community organizations submitted comments to the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council to the EPA on the definition of what counts as waste when burned.


Previous to February 2013, if wastes were burned, the facility burning the waste was classified as an incinerator and subject to stricter emissions limits than other combustion facilities. Now, the EPA has approved a policy to allow processing facilities to take mixed waste-from municipal wastes like plastics and tires to industrial and other wastes like solvents, chemical wastes, chemically-treated wood, paper sludge, coal byproducts – you name it and reclassify it as non-hazardous secondary materials (NHSM).

When waste is no longer called “waste,” most EPA pollution controls and transparency regulations for waste burning facilities are eliminated in one fell swoop, destroying federal emission control standards and permitting processes. EPA just effectively gutted the Clean Air Act.

This means wastes can now be burned in cement kilns, and in lots of industrial power plants and heaters (called boilers). And these facilities will not have to meet the same standards as existing waste incinerators that are burning the same stuff.

The new classification goes with an associated policy that creates a major new loophole for burning coal. Shockingly, under the industrial boiler and heater rule, coal plants and other facilities can avoid regulation as coal plants and qualify as biomass plants if they use at least 15% “biomass” (and biomass means many different things, including waste). This means that a facility can sidestep air regulations for coal by burning 15% biomass and 85% coal — and avoid measuring nearly all pollutants.

Over the last several decades, community leaders from around the country have been successful at safeguarding community health, natural resources, and the climate by stopping dozens of new polluting incinerator projects. But if this ruling is allowed to stand, it will undermine that progress, while providing special interest benefits to highly polluting industries. In some states these companies will even receive “renewable fuel” subsidies by switching from one dangerous fuel to another!

What’s the threat?


  1. No requirement of public notice to burn waste at over 1.5 million facilities nationwide.
  2. More toxic emissions, less safeguards
    Although burning garbage releases up to 14 times more mercury than coal, and 2.5 times more carbon dioxide than burning coal, the EPA itself has noted that 99% of industrial power plants will not be subject to any emissions testing. Only new facilities will even report particulate matter.
  3. Anticipated health impacts to communities and to workers
    Municipal, construction, and other waste streams usually contain PVC, which when burned creates dioxin – a highly toxic chemical that “can cause reproductive and developmental problems, damage the immune system, interfere with hormones and also cause cancer,” per the World Health Organization.
  4. How it works: no enforcement, no transparency
    EPA does not even require notification or approval from companies – any company can burn these wastes, or process waste for sale to other companies as fuel. . EPA does tell companies that the waste is supposed to be cleaner than the dirtiest coal, but dirty coal can hardly considered a clean fuel, and companies are not even required to disclose emissions. 99% of boilers won’t be required to have an operating air permit at all. Air permits matter – they are the only way the public can find out about a facility’s air emissions and compliance.
  5. Evidence shows that burning waste is dirtier than burning coal – for human health and the climate!
    Although companies producing the pelletized waste are supposed to check that emissions from burning the waste are less than from burning the dirtiest coal, there is no independent evaluation of company claims. In fact, actual data comparing operating waste incinerators to coal-fired power plants shows that burning trash emits significantly more greenhouse gases and toxic heavy metals for the same amount of energy produced.
  6. Disrupting the economics of recycling, and encouraging plastic pollution
    Recycling, composting, and reuse provide nearly 1 million U.S. jobs, and could provide 1.5 million more if we hit 75% waste diversion targets, a level already reached in some cities. Despite its numerous economic and environmental benefits, recycling can’t compete against unregulated waste incineration. In fact, the American Chemistry Council boasts on its website, “Definition of renewable energy should be broadened to include energy from non-recycled plastics.”

Why is this happening?

There are many industries that want waste to be burned more easily and frequently across the country, in some cases to avoid regulations, in other cases to eliminate the need public pressure for product redesign. The plastics and chemical industry, for example, has campaigned strongly to burn waste plastics as a fuel in order to avoid responsibility for low-quality, toxic-laden, single-use plastic products and packaging.

The lack of transparency about companies burning these wastes means it’s hard to say how broadly this burning is happening nationwide. In the case of municipal waste, the industry making pelletized waste is poised to grow, although it is still relatively small.

What you can do

If you live near a coal-fired power plant, cement kiln, paper manufacturer, or other big fuel user, let’s work together to learn more about what may be happening in your community, and to protect yourself and your community. Call GAIA at 510 883 9490 ext 103.

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