Environmentalists critique waste incineration in CLEAN Future Act

Enterprise file photo — Michael Koff
The Rapp Road landfill, in Albany. Representative Paul Tonko is being criticized by environmental groups for the inclusion of waste incineration in his recently-introduced CLEAN Future Act, rather than attacking waste accumulation at the production end.

ALBANY COUNTY — Environmental activists have a bone to pick with Representative Paul Tonko, a Democrat representing the Capital District, over the inclusion of waste incineration in his massive CLEAN Future Act, which aims to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions in the United States by 2050, and which he has touted as “bold and urgent federal climate action.”

Tonko, who is chairman of the Environment and Climate Change subcommittee, introduced the 981-page bill early last month together with Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman and Representative Frank Pallone Jr., a Democrat from New Jersey, and Energy Subcommittee Chairman and Representative Bobby Rush, a Democrat from Illinois. 

While the bill would address many environmental concerns by establishing clean electricity benchmarks, a carbon mitigation fund, and market reforms, among other things, more than 100 representatives from environmental groups — most from New York — signed an open letter that urges Tonko to drop the allowances made for waste incineration as a source of clean electricity, arguing that the practice doesn’t reduce the necessity of landfills as promised and pollutes the air all the while.

Waste incineration is a process that reduces the volume of waste, mitigating, in theory, the environmental impacts of landfills by vaporizing the products. Energy is generated in the process, and a 2013 case study of seven Japanese cities that burn municipal waste indicated that while burning waste naturally releases greenhouse gases, waste incineration could, under the right conditions, be a net greenhouse-gas reducer, making it preferable to the burning of traditional fossil fuels.

Referred to as “qualified waste-to-energy” in the CLEAN [Climate Leadership and Environmental Action] Future Act, entities that capture the energy generated through waste incineration would be rewarded with an electricity credit “equal to the product obtained” at a rate that factors in the average carbon intensity of the generator used, the bill states. In addition, generators would need to be certified by the Environmental Protection Agency Administrator every 18 months to ensure they meet emissions standards.

When reached with questions for Tonko about the concerns with waste incineration in the CLEAN Future Act, Tonko’s communications director, Matt Sonneborn, issued the following statement:

“The CLEAN Future Act is at the start of a long legislative road that will include numerous hearings, conversations with stakeholders — including representatives from some of these groups and other local organizations — and likely more than a few amendments. Congressman Tonko’s goal as chair of the Environment & Climate Subcommittee is to pass legislation that can hit an ambitious and unprecedented target of building a 100 percent clean U.S. electricity system by 2035. 

“In the CLEAN Future Act, he and his fellow Congressional leaders have crafted a bill that will get the job done while creating millions of jobs, flooding the market with clean, affordable energy, expanding recycling and reducing waste, and most importantly averting the worst outcomes of the long ignored climate crisis.”

“Representative Tonko has been an ally to residents on environmental issues, and constituents who have met with him and his staff have been very candid about waste, incineration, and environmental injustice problems we are facing, including our neighbor Wheelabrator trash incinerator in Hudson Falls [in Washington County],”Alexis Goldsmithtold The Enterprise in an email this week. She is the national organizing director of Beyond Plastics, a policy group headquartered at Bennington College in Vermont.



Goldsmith told The Enterprise that she thinks that waste incineration was included in the climate bill because lawmakers are “struggling” to accommodate the amounts of waste being generated.

“Incineration is attractive because the waste becomes out of sight, out of mind, and it can be rhetorically dressed as an environmentally sound practice,” Goldsmith said. “The reality is very different.”

In an overview of municipal solid, hazardous, and medical waste in the United States, the National Research Council estimated that in 1996 the country generated 209 million tons of municipal waste, of which medical waste made up between 0.3 and 2 percent, in addition to 276 million tons of hazardous waste. That year, the country incinerated an estimated 36 million tons of municipal and medical waste, and three million tons of hazardous waste.

“Burning municipal waste,” Goldsmith said, “doesn’t eliminate the need for landfills; for every 3 pounds of trash burned, 1 pound of toxic ash is produced. The fly ash is emitted into the atmosphere and readily contaminates the air, soil, and water. The bottom ash contains concentrated toxins and must be landfilled in someone’s community. 

“Burning plastic generates dioxin emissions,” she went on, “the same toxin in agent orange, as well as furans and heavy metals. Emissions from trash incinerators can cause life-changing and even deadly health conditions. The ANSWERS trash incinerator in Sheridan Hollow caused rare disease and cancer rates to rise sharply in that neighborhood. 

“It has always been obvious that incineration causes problems, but the industry, particularly the plastics industry, heavily lobbies for waste-to-energy schemes, because the alternative is to produce less plastic in the first place.” 

Compounding the issue, Goldsmith said, is that these incinerators are often located in “marginalized communities,” offering Black, non-English speaking, and low-income neighborhoods as examples of those at greater risk.


Reducing plastics

What Goldsmith would like to see, as would two Capital District residents who have written letters to the Enterprise editor, and all the organizations that signed the open letter to Tonko, is for lawmakers to look at the accumulation volumes of waste not as an issue of management, but of production.

“Nearly 400 million tons of virgin plastic is produced annually,” Goldsmith said, “and that amount is expected to triple by 2050. [Forty-percent] of new plastic is for single use packaging. The flood of material in the waste stream is overwhelming and unmanageable. Even with good waste management practices, plastic readily contaminates the environment. 

“The average adult,” she went on, “is ingesting a credit card's worth of microplastics every week from plastic pollution, and recently Italian researchers published findings on microplastics in human placentas. As well, because plastic is manufactured from fracked gas liquids, plastic pollution contributes to the climate crisis, releasing methane during every step of production. 

“As plastic breaks down into microplastics in landfills or the environment, it releases more methane,” Goldsmith said. “We can’t waste-manage our way out of this problem; we must reduce waste at the source.”

The coordinated effort by these environmental groups appears to be focused on a waste-reduction bill introduced in Congress last year and reintroduced this year by Representative Adam Lowenthal, a Democrat from California, called the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act.

The bill would phase out certain single-use plastic products, like utensils, and make the companies that produce certain plastic materials responsible for post-consumer disposal — altogether reducing the amount of plastic generated.

“The provisions laid out in the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act include the most comprehensive waste regulations ever introduced by Congress,” Goldsmith said. “The provisions include Extended Producer Responsibility, which would shift the financial burden of waste management from taxpayers to waste producers. The bill bans some of the most common single-use plastic items, such as plastic bags, polystyrene takeout containers, and straws except upon request. 

“The bill lays out requirements for beverage makers to use post-consumer recycled materials in plastic bottles and implements a nationwide bottle bill,” she went on. “The bill would spur massive investments in recycling and composting infrastructure, which is urgently needed, considering that 40% of municipal waste is organic waste by weight. As organic waste breaks down anaerobically in landfills, it releases methane, fueling the climate crisis. 

“The BFFPPA also puts a pause on permits for new and expanded plastic production facilities, which is urgently needed to protect frontline communities like those in St. James Parish [in Louisiana] and the Ohio River Valley. In short, incineration is a false solution, and to address the climate crisis we must address fracked plastic. All of these reasons are why we are urging Representative Tonko to remove incineration from the CLEAN Future Act and to cosponsor the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act.”

When asked on Wednesday morning whether Tonko, who is not listed as one of 94 co-sponsors of the plastic waste bill, would support it, Sonneborn said he would look into it, but did not come back with a response by press time that evening. 

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