Thursday, September 25, 2008

What’s That Smell? Burning Trash Isn’t Clean Fuel

By Debra Fastino and Lee Ketelsen

It’s commonly known that burning anything isn’t good for the environment, because whatever you incinerate doesn’t actually disappear. Wafting through the air, pollutants often become even greater health hazards. That is why Massachusetts took great strides toward a cleaner environment when it imposed a moratorium on new incinerators in 1989. The state made the right decision to emphasize recycling and waste reduction, which is far better for the environment and the economy than burning garbage.

The policy still makes sense today, considering what we know about climate change and the need for clean energy. However, Governor Patrick’s administration is now looking into lifting the ban on new incinerators. Such a move would tarnish our state's efforts to clean up the environment with clouds of toxic smoke.

State environmental officials, under the justification of looking for alternative energy sources, are investigating a new generation of incinerators. These so-called trash-to-energy facilities include "biomass" incinerators. Trouble is these modern-era incinerators pose similar public health hazards and drawbacks as the traditional ones. There is no evidence that the new trash-to-energy technologies can work or are environmentally safe.

Trash-burning facilities are by definition a dirty technology, creating pollution and contributing to climate change. Waste-to-energy is actually a waste of energy. Burning trash is not a renewable energy source – it ends up costing more to generate electricity than at a coal, nuclear or hydropower plant.

Look at where the seven currently operating mass-burn trash incinerators in the state are located -- Agawan, Haverhill, Millbury, North Andover, Pittsfield, Rochester, Saugus. They can inflict pollution and blight on poorer, more urban communities who generally lack the clout to fight off their placement. Not to mention the fact that building more incinerators would only undercut successful recycling and waste reduction efforts by destroying, rather than reusing, high volumes of valuable materials. Communities could be faced with the prospect of having to burn recyclable materials in order to meet an incinerator's required level of input.

Recycling and waste reduction is cleaner, saves energy and natural resources, and creates many more jobs in the Commonwealth than new incinerator technologies ever will. An aggressive statewide public education campaign can boost recycling efforts, the same way public education helped cut down on tobacco use. The state already raises the money needed for such a campaign, from uncollected 5-cent bottle deposits, to the tune of $20 million to $25 million per year. A portion of that would pay for a vibrant waste reduction and recycling program -- if state officials agree to use the money for its original purpose.

Governor Patrick’s passage of the Green Communities and Global Warming Solutions Act was a step in the right direction for green energy. The Green Communities Act increases energy efficiency programs, allows for renewable energy to participate on a more even playing field, and creates incentives for communities to invest in green initiatives. The Global Warming Solutions Act requires the Commonwealth to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to the science-based levels, 80 percent by 2050.

So we are surprised the governor would consider undoing all his great work for a cleaner environment by lifting the ban on incinerators. We hope that he will follow his own clean energy example and strongly support a renewed focus on recycling and waste reduction, and consign burning garbage to the trash heap of bad ideas.
Fastino is an organizer and co-director of the Coalition for Social Justice. Ketelsen is New England Director of Clean Water Action.
Copyright © 2008 by the Massachusetts Forum.

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