By Sarah Nichols
I nearly spit out my coffee when I read the recent commentary falsely stating that burning trash is the best way to save the planet. Burning trash pollutes the air and destroys precious natural resources. Waste-to-energy facilities are hungry trash monsters that need to be fed a steady flow of waste, so there is a perverse incentive to create and import more waste, and that is bad for our environment. For instance, the facility in Orrington has been importing plastic waste from the UK to keep it properly fed, which unfortunately resulted in a massive spill of plastic pollution into Penobscot Bay last December.
In 1989, Maine adopted the Solid Waste Management Hierarchy as a framework for how to best manage our waste and protect our environment. Topping that hierarchy are waste reduction, reuse and recycling. The bottom rungs are burning followed closely by landfilling.
With the hierarchy in mind, the only good thing I can say about burning trash is that it’s the least worst when compared to landfilling, but even that’s debatable when you look at the big picture. Incineration reduces the volume of wasted material needing to be landfilled by around 80 percent, which saves valuable landfill space. When we can recover energy from that process, we are making the best out of a bad situation, but it’s not even close to being a clean, renewable form of energy like wind and solar.
Recovering energy from trash is a net energy loser when you consider all the energy, water, resources and pollution embodied in the waste itself. Globally, the production and incineration of fossil fuel-derived plastic alone produces more than 850 million metric tons of greenhouse gases — equal to the emissions from 189 five-hundred-megawatt coal power plants, according to the Center of International Environmental Law. And a recent study out of Bennington College reports that plastic is on pace to replace coal as a top greenhouse gas emitter by 2030. We need to be making and burning much less plastic, not more.
Recycling is absolutely a good thing to do for the environment because it conserves our natural resources and saves a lot of energy and greenhouse gas emissions. I’ve calculated that reaching our state’s longstanding 50 percent recycling goal would be greenhouse gas reducing equivalent to taking 166,000 passenger cars off the road.
But asking people to recycle isn’t enough. We need to make sure corporations reduce unnecessary packaging and design packaging with recycling in mind, and also that towns can afford to have a recycling program. Luckily, with the leadership of Rep. Nicole Grohoski of Ellsworth, Maine is on track to do just that with the passage of the bipartisan, groundbreaking Extended Producer Responsibility for Packaging law that will force big corporations to help reduce and manage packaging waste and save taxpayer money.
We also have a responsibility to conserve our remaining landfill space. That’s why NRCM has joined with organizations across the state to urge passage of LD 1639 to close a loophole in state law that allows out-of-state waste from being dumped in state-owned landfills. Juniper Ridge Landfill in Old Town was purchased by Maine taxpayers to prevent it from being filled with out-of-state waste, but because of this loophole in our laws about 30 percent of the waste going there each year is from out of state. We need to protect that landfill space for the people of Maine, as it was intended. Visit www.nrcm.org to learn more about the out-of-state waste loophole.
If we are to protect Maine’s clean water and healthy air for our quality of life and robust outdoor economy, we need to support policies and programs that reduce waste and increase reuse and recycling. That includes eliminating unnecessary uses of plastic, like plastic shopping bags and foam clamshells, and making companies that produce all the waste responsible for cleaning it up. Ramping up wasteful and inefficient approaches to waste management, like burning trash, won’t create the change we need. It just digs the hole deeper at a time we can least afford it. Maine must do better for its people and environment.
Sarah Nichols is the Sustainable Maine director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine. She is a nationally recognized waste policy expert with a B.S. in environmental resource economics, a master’s degree in environmental science and management and 11 years of professional experience in the field of waste management.