By Donella Meadows
–July 30, 1987–
American municipalities will spend $35-50 billion over the next four years for trash incinerators, but incinerators are not the best solution to the garbage problem, says Neil Seldman. They cost too much, they pollute, they waste resources, and they funnel money away from the community instead of back into local jobs and businesses.
Neil Seldman is President of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Washington D.C. He works with a lot of cities and a lot of trash. He describes the garbage decision-making process like this:
A city manager or a town selectman finds that garbage is high on the municipal agenda. The community produces the stuff by the ton, summer, winter, Christmas, Fourth of July. Someplace must be found for it to go to, someplace nobody has to look at or live near. Otherwise a horde of angry citizens will arise.
There is a landfill, it’s worked for years, it doesn’t cost much. But the state is bearing down on groundwater pollution. And the hole is almost filled up. No one wants the hassle of creating another one, even if the pollution-control people would permit it.
The manager calls in consultants. They say, “Get a mass-burn incinerator. No muss, no fuss, a private company builds and runs it. Here’s their card. Expensive, yes, but what choice have you got?”
Angry citizens appear anyway when word of an incinerator gets out. They yell about air pollution and toxic ash. “We’ll fight that incinerator every step of the way,” they say. “Let’s have recycling instead.”
The manager asks the consultants about recycling. They laugh. “Are you going to make people buy five garbage cans and separate beer bottles from banana peels? Are you going to set up garbage police to be sure they do it right? Do you have time to go peddling rusty cans down the interstate? Forget recycling.”
So, sighs Neil, because public officials are busy, because citizens don’t know enough about recycling to make their case, because an industry with $35 billion at stake is the main information source for city governments, recycling, which is cheaper and less polluting, which creates local jobs, is never seriously investigated.
Neil is just back from a garbage tour of Europe. Europe, like Japan, is ahead in the technology of trash disposal — populations are so dense there that landfills became hard to find long ago. Incinerators are widely used, but they have been found to be major sources of air pollution and hazardous waste. So now Europe is pioneering high-tech recycling.
Neil tells me about a government research facility in West Germany that assembles, tests, and demonstrates new machinery from refuse-processing firms. He tells me about a trade fair in Munich where 2000 vendors show off the latest in trash technology.
There are trommel-mills that separate mixed trash without contaminating burnables like paper with dangerous pollutants like cadmium from batteries. (U.S. incinerators use hammermills that crunch all the garbage together.) There are machines that make refuse-derived fuel pellets, which are burned in fluidized-bed combustion chambers with high efficiency and low pollution. There is a gasification system that turns organic waste into methane, a clean fuel. That system produces, per ton of trash, one-tenth the pollution of an incinerator and one-fifth as much ash at one-third the cost.
Because of sensible bottle-return and packaging practices, Europeans generate half as much trash per person as Americans do. They are finding it is not beyond their ability or beneath their dignity to separate trash in their households. All kinds of imaginative recycling systems are starting up.
Creative recycling is going on in foresighted American cities too. Pennsauken NJ started a recycling program in January 1987. Within six months 90% of the households were participating, and the town’s garbage flow was reduced by 28%. Rockford IL has a Trashman in a Trashmobile who inspects the garbage of one randomly-selected household a week and awards $1000 if the newspapers and aluminum cans are properly segregated. Citizen participation in this program is enthusiastic!
Chester PA is setting up a recycling program that will create 1000 local jobs. The state of Oregon offers tax incentives on equipment that processes or uses recycled materials and now recovers 25% of its trash. Eden Prairie MN has a Swiss Buhler-Miag processing system — plastic wastes are used by a furniture manufacturer, organic waste is composted for fertilizer, metals and corrugated cardboard are reclaimed, paper is made into fuel pellets. All these activities recycle cash into the community economy.
Solid waste can become wealth. Metal, glass, food waste, and paper are relatively easy to make into useful products. New technologies are available for recycling rubber, plastics, and oil. Incinerators to turn burnables into energy may be part of the picture, but Neil Seldman sees incineration as a last resort. He says the energy and labor already invested in materials should be reused, rather than burned up.
So how does the busy city manager learn about and set up a workable recycling system? Citizen support is the first step, Neil says. You can work constructively with your public officials, not against an incinerator, but for recycling. There are consultants in every part of the country who can provide technical help in setting up recycling systems. You can get a list of them, plus plenty of other information, from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, 2425 18th St. NW, Washington DC 20009 (telephone 202-232-4108).
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1987