More US Cities Incinerate Recyclables After China Import Ban

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America is in the grip of a national emergency, but it has nothing to do with a few black and brown people asking for asylum at the border with Mexico. For decades, America has been bundling up its recyclables and sending them to China. But China last year decided it had enough of being used as a latrine by the rest of the world and banned the import of recyclables from the US and other countries.

Covanta recyclable energy plant
Credit: Covanta

The US, however, had no backup plan, which means much of what used to get sent to China now winds up in landfills or incinerators instead. Do you have any idea what happens when plastic waste gets burned? Tons of toxic chemicals and carcinogens get dumped into the atmosphere and drift downwind over large swaths of the country. Most of America’s trash incinerators are located in poor communities, places where the residents have little political power. They will get sick and die while the Davos set sits around and tut tuts about the situation in their gated enclaves.

Waste incineration is not necessarily a bad thing. In the city of Roskilde, Denmark, Dutch architect Erick Van Egeraat has designed a state of art facility that turns trash into enough electricity to power 60,000 homes, gobbling up as much as 350,000 tons a trash a year to do so. Sweden has turned burning trash to make energy into a high art. Less than 1% of the country’s waste products end up in landfills every year, according to Avfall Sverige, the Swedish Waste Management and Recycling association.

A report by the New York Times says Sweden has 34 trash-to-energy facilities which use the heat from combustion of waste materials to generate steam, some of which is used to power turbines that make electricity and some of which is used to heat Swedish homes and businesses in the winter. Four tons of garbage contain the energy equivalent of one ton of oil, 1.6 tons of coal, or five tons of wood waste, the Times says.

America, We Have A Problem

If China won’t take our refuse and we can burn it in incinerators, what’s the problem? Quite simply, there are no trash incinerators in the US that are designed to specifically handle the toxic spew that results when recyclables are burned. A recent story by The Guardian focuses on one such facility in Chester, an industrial city located a few miles from Philadelphia. It has an incinerator operated by Covanta that is receiving 200 tons a day of recyclable waste from Philadelphia. Other trash from as far away as New York and North Carolina pours in as well.

Covanta tells the Times that its exhaust scrubbers are doing a good job of removing the harmful chemicals that result from burning plastics and other recyclable material and that its smokestack emissions are lower than EPA standards — hardly a comforting thought in an age when the administrator of the EPA is actively involved in rolling back environmental regulations. It also argues that burning the trash is better than sending it to landfills where the detritus decomposes over time, emitting clouds of methane in the process.

“In terms of greenhouse gases, it’s better sending recyclables to an energy recovery facility because of the methane that comes from a landfill,” said Paul Gilman, Covanta’s chief sustainability officer. “Fingers crossed Philadelphia can get their recycling program going again because these facilities aren’t designed for recyclables, they are designed for solid waste.”

Chester is one of many US cities where the residents suffer from exposure to carcinogens and respiratory irritants in far greater concentrations than in wealthier, most white cities. “There are higher than normal rates of heart disease, stroke and asthma in Chester, which are all endpoints for poor air,” Dr. Marilyn Howarth, a public health expert at the University of Pennsylvania. tells The Guardian. She has advised Chester activists for the past six years.

Once burned, plastics give off volatile organics, some of them carcinogenic she says. “It is difficult to link any single case of cancer, heart disease or asthma directly to a particular source. However, the emissions from Covanta contain known carcinogens so they absolutely increase the risk of cancer to area residents.” The situation is now exacerbated by an increase in the number of diesel powered trucks hauling refuse to the Covanta plant.

Ignore The Problem. Maybe It Will Go Away.

America could choose to invest in modern incinerators that would turn its plastic refuse into energy and useful byproducts. The technology is ready and waiting. But it is hoping against hope the problem will resolve itself some way or other. Most Americans continue to separate their trash into organics, recyclables. and other waste, believing their efforts are resulting helping to deal with the effluent of an intensively capitalist society in a responsible way but they are fooling themselves. All that stuff is being collected, commingled, and either burned or buried.

The villain of the piece, as usual, is a distorted economic system that places no value on a clean environment. There is a belief in the minds of conservative economists that destroying the Earth is perfectly okay. If Milton Friedman wanted to assign a value to trash, he could have done so. But he didn’t, so therefore business is free to pollute the environment as much as they wish in the pursuit of short term profits. Health risks and premature death have no definable economic value so they can be safely ignored.

According to neoliberal theory, unless someone can point to a specific single use plastic bottle and say it led directly to asthma or cancer in a particular person in Chester, Pennsylvania, then no provable harm occurred. It is politically popular to rain hoots of derision down on anyone who dares say the word “socialism,” yet one of the primary roles of any government is to protect its citizens from harm equally — a truly socialist goal if there ever was one.

If you reject that notion and believe government has the right to protect some citizens and not others, to provide clean air and water to some citizens and not others, to apply its laws one way for wealthy white people and another way for poor people born with the stigma of black or brown skin, then you have no concept of what makes a nation great. A society that refuses to admit its waste products need to be dealt with appropriately forfeits any claim to greatness at all.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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