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Wednesday, August 6, 2008

“Waste-to-Energy” = a risky waste of energy, resources and money

Kai Hagen

It's hard to know where to start a short series of columns about an issue as mutli-faceted and complex as the current controversy about the proposal to construct a regional "Waste-to-Energy" (incinerator) facility in Frederick County.

A steadily growing number of people in the county have been discussing and debating the issue for a while. Over the past few years, the county has taken many steps in the process, including a number of concrete steps toward a decision to build a Waste-to-Energy (WTE)/incinerator. But an abundance of anecdotal evidence makes it clear that many people, and perhaps most by a good margin, have only recently started paying attention and learning about the issue. Certainly, the vast majority of local news coverage of the issue has been in the last year, with most of that in the last few months.

For those who have been interested and engaged, there has been - and is - a lot of information about the issue, in a wide range of forms. Almost everything the county has done so far to look into the possibility is available on the county website, including staff reports and presentations, reports from paid outside consultants, and streaming video of all the public meetings and hearings that took place in the last thirteen months. In addition, various ad hoc groups of concerned citizens have organized dozens of public meetings over the last few years, including a number with invited speakers with related expertise, and a series of presentations of one alternative proposal. The same local residents and some organizations have published some of their own research in various ways, from websites to printed fact sheets. There have been many articles, columns, editorials and letters to the editor about the issue in the News Post and the Gazette. On both the online forum hosted by the News Post, and in my own online forum, the related "solid waste" and "waste-to-energy" discussion topics have been the longest and most active discussions for some time (that includes more than 2,400 posts in one topic on the News Post forums, and roughly 1,800 posts in a few topics on mine). The subject has also received attention on various other local websites and blogs. And, without question, it has been the subject of uncounted conversations between individuals and among small groups throughout the county - via email and in person.

Obviously, there is no way to adequately capture the history, address all the complexities well, or even get into very much detail in a single column, or even a few. So, a few points:

1) As the process has unfolded, I've made an effort to keep copies of or links to almost everything that has come to my attention via others or that I've found doing my own research. A decent portion of that is either directly posted or linked to in the discussions in my online forum, and I encourage anyone who is interested to let me know they would like access.

2) Rather than dive deeply into one or two aspects of the controversy, I am going to touch on a number of issues (more briefly than they deserve). In doing so, I'll likely make some assertions that I won't have space to expand on or support with as much detail or references here as I'd like.

3) But, to the best of my ability through email or other means, I'd be happy to respond to specific questions, expand the discussion about certain issues, and share whatever information I can to support some of the points expressed.

More than a few people seem to have the impression that an incinerator is a done deal, either because they think an actual decision has been made, or simply because they perceive that a majority of the Board of County Commissioners has made up their mind that it is the right solution. But the process is ongoing. There will be more than a few more public meetings and discussions, and even though it is the direction we have been headed, the county has certainly not made any final decisions or commitments. And, given the individual decisions that need to be made along the way (where to site an incinerator, for just one example), a final decision and commitment will not suddenly be a front page article one day next week, or next month.

For a while, when people first heard or read about the proposal to build a regional incinerator in Frederick County, the idea was attractive and beguiling. That isn't hard to understand. After all, they heard...

Our landfill is running out of space. The only reason it won't be completely full in the next few years is because the county is spending a fortune to truck most of our waste to distant "mega-landfills" in another state. There's no certainty we'll be able to keep doing that, and/or there's a good chance we'll have to haul it even farther. Either way, the cost will go up due to increasing fuel expenses. By shipping it that far by diesel trucks, we are not dealing with our own problem, and there are significant environmental problems associated with that option anyway. We have to do something different, and we have to do it now. The county is taking steps to improve recycling, but we can't recycle everything. Rather than truck or bury the rest of it (which would require a new landfill), we can burn it in a modern, state-of-the-art Waste-to-Energy plant. With WTE, we can produce and sell electricity from "waste" (or "garbage"), generating revenue for the county and helping a bit with our national energy crisis. We can also recover ferrous metals, and sell that, too. The electricity will displace power produced from dirty coal burning power plants. The facility will reduce overall carbon dioxide and methane emissions - greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change. And, by the way, they've been building them in Europe.

Sounds good. What's not to like?! my view...a great deal. So much so that I have been quoted a few times saying that I'm convinced that choosing to spend hundreds of millions of dollars constructing a WTE/incinerator, and hundreds of millions more to operate it, and locking ourselves into this commitment and approach for twenty-five or thirty years or more, would be the single biggest mistake this board of county commissioners could make during our term.

There are many excellent and compelling reasons why no community in the entire country has embarked down this path in the last 13 years. And changes in the world around us are only serving, in virtually every instance, to make those reasons more compelling.

So, let's take a brief look at a few of the elements that have frequently been referred to as benefits of WTE/incineration, starting with some of the broader issues in this column, and filling out the list in two weeks.


Since the modern day incinerators are now called and sold as Waste-to-Energy facilities, let's start there. Despite the name, and the frequent references to the bonus energy produced ("Energy Recovery") by burning municipal solid waste, unless an incinerator is only used to burn the relatively small portion of our waste stream that, for now, can not be recovered and recycled, the process does not produce a NET energy gain. While it is true that it would likely produce a net energy gain at the local level, nobody should be fooled by the claim that an incinerator is in any way making a positive contribution to our regional or national energy crisis.

The modeling done for Frederick County by RTI International does refer to the "principles of Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), which is a form of analysis that "examines the inputs and outputs from every stage of the life cycle from the extraction of raw materials, through manufacturing, distribution, use/reuse, and waste management." In our context , the LCA "tracks the energy and environmental aspects associated with all stages of waste management from waste collection, transfer, materials recovery, treatment, and final disposal."

But, taking a broader perspective - a system-wide view - something critical is missing. The analysis completely fails to account for the net resources and energy that are consumed in order to replace the resources that are incinerated, but could have been effectively recovered from the wastestream. For example (and there are many), when a ton of office paper is burned (to reduce the volume of waste and recover some energy value), it generates less than one-fourth the amount of energy it takes to replace the paper from raw materials, even after accounting for the energy required to produce the paper with recycled material. Of course, paper is made from a renewable resource. But when the same sort of calculations are applied to plastics, for instance, which are still primarily made from petroleum, we get similar results.

Overall, depending on a number of factors, recycling materials saves three to five times the amount of energy as burning these same materials would generate. The county has not considered this sort of comprehensive Life Cycle Analysis. But shouldn't a "life cycle analysis" be comprehensive and system-wide?

In the end, "Waste-to-Energy" is not just a waste of resources, it's also a waste of energy.


In addition to concerns about local impacts on public health and our environment (addressed separately in the next column), the information above just as relevant when comparing the various forms of air, water and other pollution generated by one system or another.

Of course, a great deal of the emissions and other waste associated with almost any production process comes from the energy consumed. But beyond the energy-related pollution, for every ton of material destroyed by incineration, many more tons of raw materials must be mined, extracted, and processed to make new products to take its place - again, after accounting for what is required to create the same products using recycled materials.

We don't see any of this analysis in the reports the county has paid for, which, among other things, only attempt to compare the environmental effects associated with WTE/incineration with those associated with hauling waste out of state or burying it in a landfill here. Accurate accounting should weigh the entire life-cycle effect of the system, including the potential of the materials burned and converted permanently to ash.


When looking at some of the broader issues and impacts of WTE/incineration, we should consider the effect of our actions on the generation of greenhouse gases and the problem of human-induced (or affected) climate change.

While it's true that not even all of our county commissioners believe there is a connection, most do, and there have been plenty of references to the idea that WTE/incineration would reduce the county's contribution to greenhouse gases and climate change. This simply is not so.

Applying the same, broader and more comprehensive life cycle analysis to the question, we see the same results described above with regard to energy. By choosing WTE/incineration, our overall impact (and climate change is an "overall" or global issue that does not distinguish where the carbon dioxide or methane or other gases originate) would be much greater than the limited analysis suggests.

Even the assumptions that are made as part of that incomplete analysis have significant flaws, however. That's because the assertion - the claim that WTE results in fewer greenhouse emissions - is, again, partly based on a comparison to a hauling-only option and a landfill-only option. When comparing the landfill option, the assumption is that organic material would continue to be buried in the landfill, and that, for instance, only a certain portion of the methane produced would be recaptured, and either used or burned off.

However, if the same, even simplified, analysis was applied to a system that included a comprehensive composting option, the organic (compostable) waste (or most of it) wouldn't be buried in the landfill in the first place. Keep in mind that some of the most egregious environmental impacts associated with landfills, including leachate, methane and other gases emitted, and even local odors, are entirely or primarily the result of placing otherwise compostable material in the anaerobic environment of the landfill.

Separately, it's notable that when composted, the organic material, as with most of our wastestream, is a useful and valuable resource, and there is even a market for it (with higher and lower values, depending on the quality).


Advocates of a regional incinerator for Frederick County have pointed to the reported success of incinerators in Europe. That is certainly a legitimate consideration. But it not appropriate to make the reference, and use it to support WTE/incineration here, without acknowledging and understanding some of the differences. It isn't an apples-to-apples comparison.

First of all, our waste stream is not readily comparable to Europe. On average, Europeans generate far less trash than Americans, for many reasons, including, but not limited to, European legislation regulating packaging, laws that require manufacturers to take back certain products at the end of their use (and "de-manufacture" or disassemble them for re-use and recycling), tougher regulations that remove many hazardous materials from new products and/or the wastestream, and more.

Another is the commitment in many of the places with WTE/incineration to recover at least 70% of the wastestream in other ways, and to size incinerators accordingly. Given what we now know about what is possible with recycling/diversion rates, and the direction things are going in (that will only make it easier to achieve what used to seem like ambitious diversion rates), would there be any interest in making a commitment to directing no more than 25 or 30% of our wastestream into an incinerator?

That seems like an especially worthwhile question, given the repeated assertions (despite credible evidence to the contrary in this country) that an incinerator doesn't create a strong disincentive to increase recycling beyond a certain point. The county would really be putting taxpayer money where our mouth is, so to speak, if the capacity of a new incineration was designed to burn to no more than 30% of our wastestream, initially, and reducing that to 25% or less after the first ten or fifteen years. Those are not based on unrealistic recycling rates pulled out of a hat, but on what we now see and know is a reasonable expectation today when a real commitment is made and the proper systems are put in place.

If nothing else, such a commitment would certainly reduce the size of a new incinerator, lowering the cost considerably, as well as all the other impacts listed above.

NEXT COLUMN OR TWO: Local public health and environmental concerns; what's left after incineration; a look at some of the major changes happening in the world around us; the value of recovered materials in the marketplace; a sense of urgency; the poor economics of WTE and the possibility of something much better.

Kai Hagen is a member of the Frederick County, Maryland Board of Commissioners

1 comment:

sneffik said...

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