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Is waste-to-energy the answer, or does it lure cities away from recycling?

Marc Lefkowitz  |  05/03/11 @ 10:14am

An interesting debate has surfaced about what cities should do with trash ? follow Europe and Japan where they're spending millions to build plants that burn it, reclaiming the ash for fuel, or invest the same money on curbside recycling and composting programs?

Cleveland and New York City are just the latest to consider building municipal waste-to-energy (MSWE) plants. But, they face criticism from environmental groups who say the ledger of these facilities is hard to balance with what other cities are doing around recycling. Particularly in Cleveland which zeroed out its curbside recycling program a few years back, and where less than 20% of people are recycling.

For its part, the city sees this as a "two-fer"-generating a new revenue stream while reducing its ecological footprint. Cleveland estimates an MSWE plant will produce 380,556 fewer tons of CO2e emissions compared to hauling trash to a landfill where it will produce methane, a very intense greenhouse gas, during the time period of 2013-2030. Meanwhile, the city would avoid sending 150,000 tons of trash to the landfill (saving $6 million in tipping fees). The proposed Cleveland facility could 'gasify' up to 560 tons of trash a day, producing 500 tons of energy pellets which can then be sold.

For $180 million, the city estimates it can build the MSWE and hopes to take it a step further with a materials recovery facility (MRF) on the front end. Here they would first sort recyclables from household trash. (Medina County operates a central facility-one of these so-called 'dirty MRFs'-the promise being that you hire people to pull recyclables from trash, thus eliminating laziness from the equation).

In its presentation for the MSWE project, Cleveland promises the dirty MRF will boost the city's residential recycling rates to 34% (in 2009, Cleveland's residential recycling rate was 8.5%. By comparison, Portland and Seattle lead major cities with programs that achieve 75% recycling rates).

The city touts the MSWE as a way of routing funds from the sale of the pellets into a recycling program. Cleveland currently offers curbside recycling to a limited number of homes, but plans to eventually roll it out citywide.

Instead of a costly MSWE plant, environmental groups assert, Cleveland and New York could scale up their recycling and composting programs.

"I think the community should challenge the city with two questions," says Pam Davis. "Is a Waste-to-Energy facility the most sustainable investment that the City should pursue-what makes it sustainable? How will the facility impact a cultural shift to zero-waste and how will it impact economic development associated with recycling, reuse, composting, etc.?"

Davis is part of a coalition that includes Environmental Health Watch, Ohio Citizen Action, EarthDay Coalition and Greater Cleveland Air Campaign have deep connerns about the Cleveland waste-to-energy plant. The group says the MSWE will create more air pollution, a problem for Northeast Ohio which is already in 'non-attainment' for federal air quality standards. On its web site, the group has this to say:

In addition to proposing this 20 MW trash incinerator, Cleveland is also courting the company to build its headquarters in the city and a manufacturing plant to build gasification-type incinerators that would be peddled to other communities. Cleveland has already committed $1.5 million to the Princeton Environmental Group, which will be responsible for designing the power plant and employing its gasification technology. The city of Cleveland will receive assistance from the Cleveland Foundation, American Municipal Power and the American Public Power Association to pay the $1.5 million contract with Princeton.

Last week, the New York Times reported that Natural Resources Defense Council opposes New York City's MSWE proposal on similar grounds:

Right now the focus of the Sanitation Department should be on resurrecting the city's recycling program, finding better ways to handle food and yard waste and making the trash collection system more cost-effective and efficient," said Eric A. Goldstein, a senior attorney with the council.

In Europe, they note, countries like Denmark and Germany that use the technology burn only the trash that cannot be recycled.

The local coalition will discuss the Cleveland MSWE at a public forum on Tuesday, May 10 at 7 p.m. at the Cleveland Environmental Center, 3500 Lorain Avenue, with a presentation from Neil Seldman, President of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. Seldman is a national expert on recycling and economic development.

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