Burning and Burying are Bottom-Barrel Fixes

By DAVE FISHER/ecoRI News staff

The proposal by Rep. Jon Brien, D-Woonsocket, to overturn Rhode Island’s ban on waste incineration, reclassify the energy produced as renewable and allow the city of Woonsocket to build a waste-to-energy (WtE) facility has become a political hot potato.

Environmental advocates have expressed strong opposition to waste incineration of any kind, and the renewable energy sector has lambasted the proposal, insisting that burning trash isn’t green, clean or renewable. Brien meanwhile continues to push the legislation, and the House is set to convene a commission to study the proposal.

In fact, the rhetoric surrounding this issue has been incendiary at times. When Brien first proposed the change in state law to the House Committee on Environment and Natural Resources last year, he said, “Rhode Island will never get to a 70 percent recycling rate,” and, “I’m sure that this proposal won’t pass this committee.”

ecoRI News recently sat down with Brien to discuss those comments — many folks in the local environmental community found the first quote insulting — and his thoughts on waste incineration.

“I never meant it to be insulting, but it’s true,” he said. “We’re already well behind our projected goals for recycling. By the time we get to 70 percent, it’ll be the year 3000. I just want to give the people of Woonsocket the opportunity to decide for themselves what is right.”

The Rhode Island chapter of Clean Water Action has an online petition to maintain the state's incinerator ban on the front page of its website. The petition states that incineration is “dirty, dangerous and burns resources that could otherwise be recycled.” Given that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has placed WtE incineration higher in the waste hierarchy than landfilling, ecoRI News contacted local Clean Water Action Director Jamie Rhodes and asked the question, “Couldn’t the same be said of landfills, substituting the word buries for burns?”

He agreed. “We know that WtE works for certain scenarios, and the EPA data is compelling, but we believe people and politicians should be focusing on diverting waste from either of these options (landfills or incinerators) through extended producer responsibility, higher recycling rates and composting.”

John Rumpler, lead legal counsel for Environment Rhode Island, echoed Rhodes' sentiments. ecoRI News asked him what Environment Rhode Island’s official stance was on Brien’s proposal? Rumpler responded via e-mail that “Environment Rhode Island strongly supports maintaining a ban on solid waste incineration.  There is so much more we can and should be doing to reduce, reuse and recycle before we even consider allowing this dirty and polluting option back on the table.”

Again, the language here is the rub. Modern waste incinerators are largely less hazardous to human health than landfills, according to the EPA. There also is a greater data set regarding the environmental and human health implications of incinerators. The data on the impacts of landfills in these arenas are less widely and less specifically known. Just from a quality-of-life perspective, the people of Johnston must think the landfill is a pretty lousy idea.

Burn notice

The WtE facility ecoRI News visited in Preston, Conn., for this three-part series has never been in violation of the Clean Air or Clean Water acts. The facility also is a zero-input/zero-discharge facility concerning wastewater, according to Covanta Energy LLC, which owns and operates the incinerator.

“There are a lot of misconceptions about our industry,” said James Regan, Covanta’s manager of corporate communications. "The environmental advocacy community seems to think that we want to burn up everything, including recyclables. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Plastics, in particular, are bad for our operations. They burn too hot and create way too many toxins when burned. This disrupts our optimum temperature guidelines and our environmental controls.”

The most illuminating sight at the Covanta facility in Preston was the presence of recycling bins in every common area of the plant. If all the company wanted to do was burn everything, why would it be diverting its own waste from the incinerator?

However, the so-called “put-or-pay” contracts that most WtE facilities sign with communities puts a dent in the armor of incinerator operators when it comes to their commitment to source reduction and recycling. These contracts force communities to provide a guaranteed percentage of their waste stream to the incinerator — sometimes 60 percent or higher. If communities don’t reach this agreed-upon goal, they can have fees levied on them by the incinerator operator for breach of contract.

These contracts certainly don’t work for communities that are trying to recycle and divert their waste to the maximum extent.

“The real issue at hand when we talk about our waste stream is the fact that nearly all disposal costs in the U.S. are externalized,” Rhodes said. “The consumer and taxpayer are saddled with these costs in almost every case. The first step we should take in internalizing these costs for the manufacturers of goods is with source reduction through producer responsibility."

Legislative burnout

The problem, as many see it, is that the discussion at the Statehouse revolves around the wrong issues when it comes to the future of waste in Rhode Island.

Fortunately, there is some discussion about enacting extended producer responsibility laws, largely due to the work of the folks at Clean Water Action and a few forward-thinking members of the General Assembly. On the other hand, however, there is no discussion about changing the way waste haulers contract with businesses.

Note: Most businesses in Rhode Island have fewer than 50 employees. There are no reporting requirements for these businesses.A business’s Dumpster is tipped, empty or full, for the same price as frequently as stated in the contract. Couple that with the fact that the state Department of Environmental Management (DEM) merely encourages compliance with these laws rather than actively enforcing them means that businesses largely get a pass on recycling. There hasn't been a business of any size fined by DEM for not properly sorting its recyclables since 2006.

This lack of compliance and enforcement is a slap in the face to any Rhode Island resident who lives in any of the 25 communities that enforce a “no bin, no barrel” or “pay-as-you-throw” residential recycling policy.

There also is little discussion at the Statehouse about diverting organics from the Rhode Island waste stream, even on the heels of last year’s seagull-and-stankapalooza at the Central Landfill. The Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation (RIRRC) recently announced the organic certification of the compost it creates in Johnston, but its yard-waste-only compost doesn't contain one iota of diverted consumer food waste.

In fact, the current RIRRC management team is now promoting a product that, in the mid-1990s, landfill officials fought against accepting. In a rare bout of the long view, the General Assembly at the time decided that yard and leaf waste was in fact a resource to be recovered. Couldn’t that same argument be made today for the tons of compostable food scraps that get landfilled daily?

However, it really isn't in a landfill's best financial interest to divert food scraps. For example, food scraps in Rhode Island represent 12 percent to 15 percent of our waste and keeping it from being landfilled would represent a corresponding reduction in the RIRRC's revenue stream, the lion’s share of which — nearly $40 million in fiscal 2011 — is generated through solid waste tipping fees.

The EPA places waste incineration with energy recovery above landfilling — currently Rhode Island's only option for our municipal waste stream — in the waste hierarchy, but the federal agency places source reduction, recycling and composting above both of those options. Brien’s proposal to move to an option that’s only one step up the EPA waste ladder seems shortsighted at best.

With RIRRC gearing up for an expensive switch to single-stream recycling and increased momentum behind producer responsibility and statewide composting, it seems that overturning the state ban on waste incineration would be putting the cart before the horse.