To Burn or to Bury: Is that the Question?

By DAVE FISHER/ecoRI News staff

It seems the seagull problem at the Central Landfill in Johnston has been rectified, at least temporarily, but the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation (RIRRC) continues to address the problem of odors emanating from the landfill and, given the fact that organic matter continues to be buried there, will probably be dealing with this issue well beyond the estimated 20-year remaining lifespan of the facility.

There also is no guarantee that, again given the amount of food the state needlessly buries, the seagulls won’t return. Meanwhile, the local environmental advocacy community and renewable energy business sector continue to fret over Rep. Jon Brien’s, D-Woonsocket, proposal to overturn Rhode Island’s ban on waste incineration and reclassifying any energy produced through the process as renewable.

There are many factors to consider when imagining long-term solutions to Rhode Island’s waste stream.

The short remaining lifespan of the state landfill is of paramount concern to taxpayers. When the landfill is closed — in about 20 years, if we continue our current disposal habits — Rhode Island will most likely have to ship its waste out of state, either by land or by sea, and that added transportation cost will undoubtedly cause the cost of waste disposal to skyrocket overnight.

Waste-to-energy (WtE) incineration may seem like a solution to some, but the burning of anything — whether it be landfill gases or garbage — carries with it a host of environmental problems. And as we learned last year with the failure of the gas collection system at the landfill, even the strictest environmental controls — like all manmade things — can, and usually will, eventually fail.

So, what does the future of Rhode Island’s waste stream look like? In two decades or so, when the Central Landfill is fitted with a permanent cap, will we be burning our trash in-state or will we be shipping our waste into Massachusetts, Connecticut or possibly even further to be burned or buried there?

Both WtE incineration and landfilling have their pros and cons, environmentally and economically. In this piece, we will look at the historical impacts of both these methods of disposal on our planet and collective wallets.

Environmental impacts

It’s no secret that waste incineration, as an industry, is historically notorious for polluting our air and water. The clouds of noxious gases that emanate from improperly controlled, monitored and/or maintained incinerators have racked up many a violation of the federal Clean Air and Water acts.

Just last year, three incinerators in Massachusetts — operated by Wheelabrator Technologies Inc. — settled a $7.5 million lawsuit brought by the state for alleged violations of the Clean Water Act and Wetlands Protection Act. The Massachusetts attorney general’s office accused Wheelabrator of improperly disposing of contaminated sludge and waste water at its plants in Millbury and Saugus, and improperly treating and disposing of ash at its plants in Saugus and North Andover. Not surprisingly, in settling the case, Wheelabrator admitted no wrongdoing.

Most of the Clean Water Act violations attributed to the WtE industry stem from improperly handled ash and water discharge.

Air emissions from WtE incinerators also are a serious concern. Volatile organic compounds (VOCs), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), nitrogen and sulphur compounds, carbon monoxide, mercury, lead, cadmium, methane, particulate matter and that big daddy of greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide, all escape from the stacks of WtE facilities. Dioxins (pdf) and furans (pdf) also are emitted through the immolation of any substance or gas.

However, a study by the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment showed that annual dioxin and furan air emissions from incineration were reduced by 87 percent from 2000 to 2005 (pdf). The study attributed the reductions mainly to the closure of older federal waste incinerators.

WtE incinerators, however, don't eliminate the need for landfills. Most of the ash that is produced by the industry is landfilled, but some states have issued beneficial use determinations for bottom ash, allowing it to be used for road building and, oddly enough, landfill cover.

Landfills carry their own set of ecological problems. Leachate from lined and unlined, closed and open landfills can contaminate ground and surface water. Most modern landfills have sophisticated leachate collection systems, but keep in mind that these systems can and do fail. Our own Central Landfill, according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Enforcement & Compliance History Online database, has been out of compliance with the Clean Water Act for the past three years.

Air emissions from landfills are a bit harder to quantify than those from WtE facilities, because they are area sources of emissions as opposed to point sources, such as the stacks of waste combustors. Still, that didn't stop the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 2002 from citing the operators of the Central Landfill under the Clean Air Act, forcing some $5 million in upgrades to the facility's gas collection system.

Since then, the EPA has attempted to quantify the emission of methane, which is 24 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide and lasts about seven times longer in the atmosphere, from landfills using three sites that were deemed typical of those found in the United States. The report found that methane collection efficiency ranged from 38 percent to 88 percent at these landfills, debunking previous studies (pdf) that concluded methane collection from landfills can reach 90 percent or higher.

Additionally, unlike WtE facilities, uncollected methane at U.S. landfills is flared off directly into the atmosphere, lacking any post-combustion emission controls.

Methane isn’t the only thing emanating from U.S. landfills. The same report showed that no less than 36 VOCs are currently rising into the atmosphere from landfills naitonwide.

Two EPA-sponsored models have been developed to examine life-cycle air emissions from different management methods of municipal solid waste: the Waste Reduction Model (WARM) and the Decision Support Tool (pdf). Both these models show that municipal soild waste combustion, because of avoided methane emissions from landfills, energy generation that offsets use of fossil fuels, metals recycling and emission savings from avoiding transport to landfills, actually reduces greenhouse gases in the atmosphere compared to landfilling. The savings are estimated at about a ton of greenhouse gases saved per ton of municipal soild waste combusted rather than landfilled.

According to the EPA, WtE facilities — in comparison to other emitters of airborne toxins, heavy metals and greenhouse gases — produce the lowest volumes of these substances, with the exception of mercury emissions. In that case, incinerators come in third behind fossil-fuel-fired energy plants and iron and steel mills.

Since the EPA enactedMaximum Achievable Control Technology (MACT) Standards in 1990, air emissions from WtE facilities have been reduced by 94 percent. The Covanta Energy WtE facility in Preston, Conn., which ecoRI News visited for the first installment of this series, has never been out of compliance with the Clean Air or Clean Water acts, and is a zero-discharge operation concerning wastewater.

In fact, a 2009 EPA report found that, on average, WtE facilities produces 10 times more electricity than landfill gas-to-energy facilities per ton of waste handled.

Economic impacts

The biggest economic turnoff to building a WtE facility is the initial, or capital, investment. As mentioned in the previous installment of this series, Covanta Energy LLC is building such a facility in Canada that will have the capability to process 165,000 tons of waste annually but will cost a whopping $250 million. However, WtE plants can handle more waste in a smaller spatial footprint than a landfill.

The cost of building a landfill is typically cheaper than building an incinerator. Also, on the jobs front, landfills have incinerators beat, assuming that some type of recyclable diversion effort is operating in conjunction with either of these facilities. While WtE plants operate 24 hours a day, they require fewer hands to do the job. The backhoes, front-loaders, graders and dump trucks used at a landfill all take manpower to operate, which, incidentally, increase toxin, particulate and greenhouse gas emissions associated with a landfill operation.

One of the major issues affecting the WtE industry today is the use of the “put or pay” contract that waste combustors typically have with communities that choose to burn their waste. In these contracts, communities are required to provide a certain percentage of their waste stream — sometimes upward of 60 percent — to the operator of the WtE plant. These contracts most certainly work against communities that are attempting to increase recycling and overall waste diversion rates. These contracts lead to recyclables and compostables being incinerated.

Some landfills have a per-ton tipping fee that differs for municipal and commercial waste, and a menu of other more specific disposal fees. Landfills that operate in conjunction with recyclable sorting facilities usually generate anywhere from three to five times more revenue from tipping and disposal than from the sale of recyclable materials.

Reduce, reuse, recycle, repair, compost

Waste is an unfortunate byproduct of modern society. Both landfills and WtE incinerators have their pros and cons, but related environmental disasters are due, in large part, to how these facilities are managed — or mismanaged, as the case may be.

The real question for Rhode Island isn't whether to burn or bury our waste, but how do we reduce our need for either of these options as we move forward? Producer responsibility, changing our approach from encouragement to enforcement of recycling laws in the business sector, composting food waste on a large scale and increasing our municipal recycling rates should be the focus.

After all, in a free market the best way to dissuade waste incineration companies or landfills from attempting to set up shop is to reduce their fuel supply/revenue stream.