There they go again: Despite grassroots victories over the last two decades to stop new waste incinerators, and steady progress toward Zero Waste by communities from coast to coast, the industry is once more trying to convince a gullible mainstream news media that incinerators are making a comeback.
On Jan. 10, under the headline “Garbage Incineration Makes Comeback, Kindling Both Garbage and Debate,” The New York Times ran a package of pieces with a split personality. On the one hand, there was a terrific video of Free Your Voice and United Workers activists fighting an incinerator proposal in an African-American neighborhood in Baltimore that already hosts more than its share of toxic facilities. On the other hand, the article itself focused on the Baltimore proposal and exactly one incinerator under construction – in West Palm Beach, Fla. – as evidence of a resurgence. Yet four incinerators have been shuttered in recent years.
What’s worse, the article parroted the incinerator industry’s favorite – and misleading – pitch, that the primary goal of burning garbage is to generate energy. While burning garbage can produce a trivial amount of energy, it comes at a great cost. According to the Department of Energy, incineration is the most expensive form of electricity generation, and according to the Environmental Protection Agency, the most carbon-intensive.
Perhaps worst of all, the article claims that incineration’s “comeback” is because recycling programs are failing. Today, with nearly 1 million people employed and hundreds of billions of dollars in revenue generated, the U.S. recycling sector shows more promise of growth than any other green economy industry. National studies have shown that aggressive pursuit of recycling could produce 1.6 million more jobs across the country, with massive corollary benefits in pollution reduction and climate change mitigation. Some cities, like San Francisco, have even shown that rapidly moving down the path of zero waste can
be achieved through cooperation with unions, community groups and employee-owned companies.
So why then does the incinerator vs. recycling debate continue to be kindled in the press? Because, Dracula-like, the incinerator industry is hard to kill. Its growth may be stymied, but there remain 85 waste incinerators spewing toxins, predominantly in lower-income communities of color. And while struggling to retain their existing contracts and sites, the incinerator industry keeps reinventing their sales pitch.
From their old standard of being a better alternative to dumps, incinerator vendors have falsely claimed possession of silver-bullet technologies that magically eliminate pollution. And in recent years, in concert with a range of bio-energy industries, these dirty energy peddlers have positioned themselves as alternatives to fossil fuels like coal and gas. This last narrative has shown some measure of success at convincing a few local governments, as in the case of West Palm Beach. Even some EPA officials have shown willingness to support the burn industry’s bid for tax breaks, energy subsidies and regulatory concessions.
But on closely examining the exorbitant costs of building these burn facilities, most private financiers are reluctant to take risk on
such investments. Burning waste remains the most expensive form of electricity generation in the U.S, with capital costs of more than 2 times that of coal, and operating costs nearly 10 times as much, making it increasingly difficult to find the money to finance incinerator schemes. As new environmental and energy regulations attempt to place a price tag on the public health and climate costs of doing business, the writing is on the wall for these carbon-intensive and toxic industries.