While We Fight Over Incinerators, Landfills Fill Up

BRUCE W. PIASECKI

April 21, 1992|By BRUCE W. PIASECKI

HEMPSTEAD, LONG ISLAND. — Current attempts to stop solid waste incinerators ignore the ++ real problem with the U.S. approach to solid waste disposal -- lack of an overall plan to manage wastes, including trash. The hearings over the Montgomery County trash incineration/energy recovery plant is a case in point. While the debate is framed as ''recycling or incineration,'' the actual alternative is more landfills.

We need to learn to say the word ''and'' -- recycling and incineration and pollution prevention at the source -- integrated in such a way that each technology is used to its best advantage. It makes little sense to speak of competition between recycling and incineration, when 70 percent of all municipal trash still ends up in landfills.

There is a deep-seated American belief in the land's capacity to regenerate itself. This, and the fact that land has been cheap, has resulted in a long American bias toward land disposal and the creation of a large technical and regulatory infrastructure to monitor disposal sites. Prior to the mid-1970s, most waste materials from industry that could not be discharged into rivers and streams were either dumped into unlined landfills at the generator's site or combined with common trash in municipal landfills. This unsound practice of adding small amounts of hazardous waste to garbage still continues at the level of small businesses and households.

A first step toward a more integrated approach should be pollution prevention -- removal of these ''bad actors'' from the trash. A good example is the recent move by American battery manufacturers to remove mercury from household batteries. In Europe, manufacturing changes such as this, plus collection centers for hazardous household wastes, have reduced the potential pollution from ordinary trash regardless of its final destination -- recycling, incineration or landfilling.

European systems place more emphasis on the recycling and incineration than land disposal, of which there is a deep suspicion. Governments subsidize the recycling of bottles, newspapers, used motor oil and other consumer goods and packaging materials, even when recycling may not be, in terms of short-range economics, competitive with disposable containers made of virgin products. The European emphasis is sensibly focused on longer-term, sustainable economics.

In the United States, recycling has made great strides in recent ++ years, so that it now accounts for about 17 percent of all municipal trash. Yet the municipalities that handle most American trash do not directly receive the long-term benefits of recycling, although they must beat the direct costs. Increased -- newsprint recycling, for example, lowers the cost of boxboard and other cardboard products that use old newsprint. However, while the cost of recycling appears in the municipal budget, the benefits return to the public much less visibly. This has led to the perception of recycling as expensive.

Under an integrated approach, recycling programs would begin at the factory in the choice of products and packaging. For example, it would be more cost-effective to require deposits on refillable bottles than to recycle glass by re-melting it. Recycling also needs to focus more on consumer separation of materials like bleached white office paper, which commands high prices and avoids the large environmental impact of chlorinating paper.

In an integrated facility, recycling can be subsidized by sales of composted yard waste and by steam and electricity production from incineration. Incineration systems have a built-in economic incentive to divert metal, glass and yard waste before burning because these materials increase the maintenance costs of boilers. Operators also have an incentive to recover ferrous metals from the incinerator ash. With new techniques to remove heavy metal contaminants, even incinerator ash shows promise for reuse in some construction materials.

With proper pollution controls, incineration has its own environmental benefits. It avoids the landfilling of trash that remains after recycling and it replaces the burning of some fossil fuels. Incineration is also the treatment of choice for a number of household hazardous wastes that make their way into garbage.

What is needed is some restraint by the incinerator industry in the size of the plants its operators build, so that communities are not locked into to a single waste-management option at the expense of recycling programs. Smaller incinerators, integrated with larger recycling programs, is the formula for acceptance that many in industry, government, the citizen groups and the research community are now seeking.

The current controversy over incineration is a good example of how single-solution plans can work against environmental management upgrades. The resulting paralysis is now staring us in the face on issues not only of waste management but of new energy sources. It is time not only to change the efficiency of our machines, but also the tack of our plans. We need integration that includes aggressive waste reduction, properly scaled down energy recovery and sustained recycling. Anything less will only confuse us more.

Bruce Piasecki, founder and president of the American Hazard Control Group, teaches at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

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