To Burn, or Not to Burn
November 2nd, 2007
By writing off garbage incineration as undesirable, New York is actually doing worse by the environment, writes Jack Lauber in an letter to the editor for the Albany Times-Union. By using modern, efficient and clean burning waste-to-energy facilities, the state could cut back on its consumption of imported fuel, reduce its energy and garbage removal costs, and lower its contributions to global warming, he argues.
In the letter, Lauber, a former engineer at the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation who now works at Columbia’s University’s Earth Engineering Center, compares New York City to Baltimore, which generates energy by incinerating garbage. Baltimore has lower energy costs and spends less than a quarter of the cost per ton for waste removal than New York.
The subject of waste-to-energy plants – commonly called garbage incinerators – is a volatile one here in the city. It’s so unpopular that when the last landfill in the city was closed, the government didn’t even consider incineration, and opted instead to export all of it out of the area at considerable cost.
“There’s a lot of other things we can be doing if we take [waste disposal] seriously,” says Laura Haight of NYPIRG. She opposes incinerators on four points: emissions, the ash left over from burning, cost, and competition to recycling. Haight is critical of the quality of emissions monitoring; says that the cleaner that scrubbers make the emissions, the more toxic the left over ash becomes; remarks that the prohibitive costs of building and operating the plants is better spent elsewhere; and worries about the competition they pose to recycling and composting.
In fact, much of the improvement in emissions comes from sorting what goes into the incinerators. But if one were to sort out items that cannot be burned because they are toxic, recyclable or compostable, not much is left over, argues the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Allan Hershkowitz, who opposes building incinerators. (Nearly half of what goes into the city’s trash bins is compostable and over a quarter is recyclable.)
While he concedes that some garbage is legitimately burnable, he says that if the waste is properly sorted, there is not enough left over to justify building new plants in New York. “Half of the material going into existing facilities shouldn’t go there in the first place. We should first increase the efficiency of what we have already,” before considering building more, he says. The 10 plants already operating in the state are sufficient enough, in his eyes, to handle incineration of the city’s waste.By Mike Muller on November 2, 2007, 12:37 pm
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