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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.

Columbia’s Earth Institute, which the engineering center is a unit of, has been the biggest advocate of waste-to-energy plants in the city. But many environmentalists here remain skeptical.


“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 on November 2, 2007, 12:37 pm
In category: Environment | 9 Comments »

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9 Responses to “To Burn, or Not to Burn”

  1. Jack Lauber Says:
    November 3rd, 2007 at 12:36 pm

    Psychologists tell us that brainwashed people are difficult to turn around. The people of Brooklyn were once told by some radical environmentalists in the 1980’s that they’d be exposed to deadly contaminants, and that the incinerators were similar to Hitler’s ovens,for the Brooklyn Naval Yard project,which was proposed with the new BACT dry scrubbers. The same fears and emotions prevail today. The calculated dioxin emissions then were equivalent to about 2 dozen trucks; today,with more controls, perhaps a few. Let the brownouts and landfill waste disposal costs,and taxes rise,and we’ll say we told you so. Sadly eco-Luddites are making things worse, by maintaining the status quo with long distance transport to expensive,polluting landfills,that are now banned in Europe because of global warming concerns.
    Recycling is wonderful for some waste components,but not for others like most plastics, besides a few select types.We must use what works well and dispel myths such as toxic ash, which can be turned into inert cement like materials, immobilizing metals, like a green wine bottle.
    Thomas Jefferson once said,”truth has nothing to fear from conflict, unless deprived of her natural weapons of free argument and debate ”
    Let’s decide whether to burn or not based on scientific facts, proven technology and environmental controls, not on emotion and fear.

  2. J C Presley Says:
    November 3rd, 2007 at 1:48 pm

    Certain mindsets cannot be overcome with logic; emotion is powerful and will have its way. The very mention of incineration draws to certain minds the image of dead landscape, sick people, etc, etc., never mind that this condition was caused by uncontrolled emissions and that a modern correctly designed and operated waste to energy plant actually, for the most part, puts out cleaner air than the process takes in. This statement will be ferociously challenged, but just check the EPA air quality and emissions method tests done on ambient air quality compared to the output allowed for new source emissions and will you be surprised. The NIMBY days are alive and well but we must consider all options or face some serious problems shortly. I always wonder what will happen when the brownouts start, like in California in the late 60’s, and wonder if the loudest no-no-never voices will become the most accusing voices of “how did this happen. “

  3. P Schmidt-Pathmann Says:
    November 4th, 2007 at 4:50 pm

    Dioxins are no longer a problem – the largest problem are the people opposing the right technology as well as the people proposing the wrong technology.
    Wrong: Gasification, Pyrolysis, Plasma arc (Exotics) etc. – claim they work but evidence strongly supports the opposite.
    What works is Advanced Thermal Recycling – only technology supported by the German Green Party.
    Sounds like I am biased – well I urge you to take a look at my website … I have a long working experience and a very good relationship with the German green Party and just about all mentions worthy environmental organizations in Germany (as they are the world leader in waste management – over 65% recycling of household waste and 99% of construction and demolition waste). Germany is at least 20 years ahead of the US and Canada in their research, understanding of the problem and what alternatives we have as well as their policy.
    Please consider that since switching from LANDFILLS to alternatives in waste management (largely waste to energy/thermal recycling or plain old incineration – it depends on the backend… how you clean your emissions) – Germany will not only be one of only two countries to reach its Kyoto objectives but also has had higher reductions in Greenhouse Gases than all other renewables (nearly 25,000 windmills over 1.5 GW of solar, geothermal, switching to more efficient light bulbs etc) combined!!!
    I recently read a statement that said …”the better the flue gas cleaning the more toxic the ash”… and that is a good thing as long as you don’t mix the fly/boiler and the bottom ash as the bottom ash is very usable (non-toxic and safe). When you mix the fly and/or boiler ash with the bottom ash becomes toxic as well and thus more or less useless. It sounds to me that rather than spreading all those toxics over a large area in a landfill (untreated) it is nice to be able to safely capture them in relatively small amounts (less than 2% of input waste) and be able to maintain the stuff properly or even make it benign in concrete or clay!
    So many people have so much to learn – and I apologize if I come across as arrogant or whatever you might call it but I trust the experts and the science used by these experts rather than making uneducated speculations.
    Check out http://www.wrsi.info as you will find a lot of info there and note … if someone today would tell you that in 20 years we will fly in an airplane (before the first flight took place) – you would probably not believe it but if someone would tell you that in another country they are flying very successfully wouldn’t you be curious?
    The utopian idea is as follows – one day all metals will be replaced by plastics from renewable sources and after they outlive their use they will be turned into energy to satisfy our energy needs – and this will be done CO2 neutral – i.e. Eco-power plants.
    We got a long way to go but to continue to waste a resource in a landfill (and later harvest – if someone actually should be that stupid – would be very toxic!) is the dumbest of all ideas and that is exactly what will happen/is happening as people oppose proven clean concepts.
    We should look at ourselves and wonder why we continue to produce 1/4 of the worlds Greenhouse Gases – probably because we listen to the wrong people or simply don’t understand the concept … it’s time to step outside the box and start realizing that the current way does not work. And for everyone who is offended by this … remind yourself: 1/4 of the worlds GHGs produced by the US!!!!
    All waste can not be avoided or recycled as that would produce much higher GHGs and toxic pollution than other more logical solutions i.e. Advanced Thermal Recycling!
    We need to start at the source … the average American produces 4 times the amount of waste as the average German! Next we have to look at our business practices – we should not allow plastics on the market that can not be reused as we need to move away from oil based products.

    Note: I am not trying to offend anyone but please remember – we all live on the same planet and no one is better than the other! Selfishness and uneducation as well as ignorance just make things worth.
    It’s time to wake up and get busy as we might not have much longer (at least not at the rate we are currently going).
    Think before you speak – think before you act!
    I wish us all that we do something soon – for the sake of our children and the human race – and as cheese as that might sound … it is in the end the truth!
    PSP

  4. Nickolas Themelis, Columbia University Says:
    November 7th, 2007 at 1:42 pm

    People who oppose energy recovery from solid wastes on the grounds noted by Laura Haight and Alan Hesrshkowitz in the above article are doing a real disservice to the environment and help perpetuate landfilling. As a result, the U.S. is now the world’s largest landfiller followed by China. However, China in the last ten years has built nearly 40 waste-to-energy plants and plans are under way for hundreds more. Apparently, the Chinese do not agree with Haight that WTE is too costly. Hershkowitz in his book on waste management in Japan, published some years ago, praised the Japanese for including WTE in their waste management system. Japan, after doing more recycling than most nations, combust over 70% of their MSW and landfill only the WTE ash. It is interesting that NRDC argues for decreasing carbon emissions to the global atmosphere and at the same time effectively supports landfilling that globally contributes about 4% of the anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions in the form of methane. NJT

  5. John L. Rose, P.E., DEE Says:
    November 8th, 2007 at 9:11 pm

    The best answer the Waste-to-Energy industry can give to opponents of WTE is to say “we have heard you and developed emission control technology that does not emit any pollutant in concentrations that are harmful to human health, as certfied by the USEPA. It is debatable whether the more stringent and more costly European Union standards produce any greater protection of public health, but in Europe, governments build the plants and the people are willing to pay the increased cost.

    Nobody is against recycling, but the more you recycle, the more energy is required to produce a product that can be used to replace virgin materials. Recovering recyclable components or diverting them from the waste stream is relatively easy; getting them back into the manufacturing process is much harder. Much of the paper that is collected for recycling winds up as fuel in a Far East power plant. The claim that 50% of municipal solid waste is compostable msy be true in the lsborstory, but in reality, the amount is much smaller. Even if we could compost that much, there are no markets for such amounts of low quality compost.
    The reality is that our choice is between landfilling and incineration, whatever you want to call it. Total solid waste generation is still increasing in the US, and so is the amount of solid waste going to landfills.
    At this point in time, with oil costing close to $100 per bbl, the most valuable component of solid waste, both environmentally and economically, is its energy content. We need to pay as much attention to the energy production systems of waste fueled power plants ( a better term than waste-to-energy plants) as we have to the emission control systems. We could easily produce, after allowing for in plant use, as much as 800 kWh of electricity from each ton of solid waste incinerated. For New York City, which has one of the highest energy costs in the US, this could translate into as much as one billion dollars in revenue per year. Alternatively, it could be used to supply low cost electricity to schools and hospitals, and maybe even the subway system, thus stabilizing the fare. At the same time we would be saving the fuel used by trucks to carry the waste to distant landfills, and reducing our greenhouse gas emissions and our reliance on foreign oil. Just think of the possibilities.

  6. John Nicholson Says:
    December 14th, 2007 at 7:13 pm

    In the article, Laura Haight of NYPIRG opposes incinerators on four points: emissions, the ash left over from burning, cost, and competition to recycling. She must have been unaware of the search conducted by the City of Los Angeles to manage its non-recycled municipal solid waste.

    The City of Los Angeles wanted to identify alternative waste processing technologies that would increase landfill diversion in an environmentally sound manner, while emphasizing options that are energy efficient, socially acceptable and economical.

    At the conclusion of its process, the City was left with five technology suppliers that were able to pass its two levels of screening. Interestingly, all were thermal treatment – one was mass burn waste-to-energy and others that were pyrolysis/gasification.

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  9. Alt Energy Says:
    August 2nd, 2013 at 12:03 pm

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