All over America people are rallying against the construction of incinerators in their community. The more they rally — in the past three years nearly 100 incinerator proposals have been stopped — the more they realize the necessity and advantages of recycling waste instead of burning it.
Incineration is a major barrier to recycling which, as the latter advances, reduces the piles of garbage and other waste that the incinerators need to satisfy their voracious appetites 24 hours a day. Communities which are contractually tied into incinerators and have to supply the waste are caught in a conflict with the lip service that all governments now pay to recycling.
This problem scarcely bothers the incinerator industry whose members view the prospect of building more of these costly giant ovens as a sure-fire path to megaprofits. More than 100 new burners are under construction or planned. Many of them are concentrated in the eastern seaboard where tens of millions of Americans are already breathing air that violates the standard for photochemical smog.
Garbage incinerators release oxides of nitrogen, acid gases, mercury, cadmium, lead, dioxins, furans and other disease-producing contaminants of people’s lungs and bodies. Around 25 to 30 percent of the waste ends up in highly toxic ash or non-burnable waste which is dumped in landfills. And the more recyclable materials are burned, the greater the demand for mining, smelting and fabricating ores, which produce their own pollution, and the more trees which have to be cut down.
Although the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has declared that it “is simply common sense” that reducing the quantity of pollution-generating materials in incinerators will reduce the resulting air pollution, the agency has not properly acted on that knowledge. EPA still cozies up to the incinerator industry and even accords it a special status as far as counting its pollution is concerned.
Along with their opposition to incinerators, more communities are moving to set up alternative systems based on waste reduction, source separation, recycling and composting. These alternatives save health, dollars and the environment.
Pointing out that more than 80 percent of the waste pile is recyclable, Larry Shapiro of the New York Public Interest Research Group urges a pollution prevention policy that would place a moratorium on incinerator development and maximize recycling.
Neil Seldman, waste utilization director for the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, is optimistic. He says: “Over the next few years we’ll see recycling rates of 60, 70 percent and more because this is the only economical way to solve the garbage problem.” Seldman notes that some cities such as Seattle are well on their way to a 60 percent recycling goal and several towns have passed the 50 percent mark.
A newly formed coalition, called the Grassroots Alliance for Solid Waste Solutions, is mounting a campaign to persuade Washington either to aggressively advance the recycling goal, in all its dimensions, or get out of the way and let local and state governments do the job by themselves.
For more information on what leading communities are doing about solid waste, write to Neil Seldman, Institute for Local Self-Reliance, 2425 18th Street, NW, Washington, D.C. 20009.