On March 17, 2021 students from the Solebury Environmental Action Club (SEAC) and Teach2Serve cohort 10 met with a representative from Leck Waste Services, Solebury’s waste hauler. The students had what may seem like an odd request for the Leck representative: to divert all of Solebury’s trash from so-called “waste to energy facilities” to landfill or a recycling center. To understand the reasoning behind the students’ request, it is important to understand how the waste management system works in this country. In recent years, and especially since China and other Asian countries stopped taking our recycling because the bails were contaminated with non-recyclable materials, waste management companies have been diverting waste from landfills to trash incinerators (or what are misleadingly called “waste to energy” facilities ). Trash incinerators burn the trash and recover energy, which is then used to power homes and businesses. While this may sound good in theory, scientific studies and analyses of trash incinerators versus landfilling, recycling, and other energy sources tell a very different story.
By burning our trash we increase the amount of dioxins, lead, mercury, and other toxic pollutants that are released into the air and damage the health of the residents in the surrounding areas. The incinerator that has been processing Solebury’s waste (until we asked them to divert it to landfills) is the number one polluter in Delaware County. While trash incinerators generate energy, according to an analysis in the Journal of Hazardous Materials, recycling and composting the same discarded materials saves 3-5 times as much energy as incinerators can recover. Trash incineration is the most polluting way to manage waste or to make energy. According to a report by the Energy Justice Network, incinerators, when compared with landfills, are 1.8 times as polluting in terms of greenhouse gases and 1.6 times as polluting in terms of health-damaging pollutants (such as carbon monoxide, hydrochloric acid, sulfur oxides, etc).
Incinerating trash also contributes to environmental racism largely because the majority of trash incinerators are located in minority and/or low-income communities. A report by the Tishman Environment and Design Center at the New School found that a staggering 79% of the 73 incinerators remaining in the U.S. are located in low-income communities and/or communities of color. Incinerators are responsible for some of the worst cases of environmental racism in the country, as is evident from the well-documented negative health outcomes of predominantly minority and low-income individuals living in the shadow of these hazardous waste facilities.
Most damning is that trash incineration is the dirtiest way to manage waste - worse even than landfills. The cleaner you make the air emitted from the incinerators (with more pollution control devices), the more toxic the fly ash created by the incineration process. The highly toxic fly ash is then sent to landfills, where it contaminates the air, groundwater, and soil. Air emissions from incinerators far exceed air pollution from landfills: a 2017 life cycle analysis of incineration vs. landfills showed that, for Washington, DC, incinerating trash in Fairfax County, Virginia was worse by most measures than trucking the trash 2-4 times as far to southeastern Virginia landfills. On a majority of the 10 environmental measures evaluated, incineration turned out to be worse than landfilling, even counting the extra emissions from diesel trucks hauling waste further to reach landfills.
This is why the students worked with Leck Waste Services to divert all of our non-recyclable trash to landfill. They also recognize that landfill is not the answer: source reduction and zero waste is. To this end, SEAC and Teach2Serve students have been educating the community about how to recycle correctly during Sustainability Week (April 5th to 9th) which also featured various speakers to inspire the community to be as sustainable as possible!
- The Covanta incinerator in Plymouth Township, Montgomery County and the Wheelabrator Falls trash incinerator in Falls Township, Bucks County are both are #1 air polluters in their counties. Data according to the PA DEP’s air pollution database and the U.S. EPA's National Emissions Inventory using the latest data available.
Morris, Jeffrey. “Recycling versus Incineration: an Energy Conservation Analysis.” Journal of Hazardous Materials, vol. 47, no. 1-3, 1996, pp. 277–293., doi:10.1016/0304-3894(95)00116-6.
“Incineration and Incinerators-in-Disguise.” Energy Justice Network, www.energyjustice.net/incineration