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Minimizing Waste, Opposing Incineration, Promoting Sustainability

Full article from The Folded Crane, Spring 2010 edition

May 14, 2010
Author: Joseph Miller, PhD

Oregon PSR has been active in opposing incineration of municipal and medical waste in Marion County; in opposing incineration in disguise pyrolysis proposals in Tigard, and plasma gasification proposals [1] in Arlington and other communities; and in promoting expanded programs for waste prevention and reduction, reuse, recycling, composting and community education. We work with members, groups and individuals in Oregon and beyond to educate officials, leaders and the public about issues and options related to meeting our inter-related resource, energy, waste, environmental and health needs in a sustainable and just fashion.


Concisely stated, we believe that well-documented reasons and options exist for communities to conserve energy and resources, minimize the production of wastes, avoid the construction of new incinerators or incinerators in disguise (e.g., plasma gasification), phase out existing incinerators, and reduce and minimize waste sent to landfills. In addition to the preceding, by embracing such options communities will create jobs, reduce pollutants and global warming gases, reduce health impairment and health care costs, and reduce direct and indirect financial threats to citizens, businesses, and governments.




Incinerators pose major economic threats to communities [2,3]. The mayor of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, for example, recently indicated that the city could run out of money in three months, largely because of payments due on $288 million in debt the city had incurred across time on its "waste-to-energy" incinerator and incinerator retrofits [4].


Oregon PSR co-sponsored a series of three forums in early 2009 in Salem led by the League of Women Voters addressing the Solid Waste Management Plan being developed by the Marion County Solid Waste Management Advisory Council. Last September and this January, respectively, we submitted testimony to the Salem City Council and Marion County Commissioners applauding many of the recommendations in the Plan [5], but opposing: 


-- continued reliance upon the Marion County Covanta "waste-to-energy" incinerator in Brooks beyond 2014 

-- a new agreement with Covanta that would include "the potential to add a third combustion unit" to the incinerator, and provisions "to supply waste to a future alternative technology" 

-- evaluation of "beneficial uses" for incinerator ash


The financial status of any city or county that owns an incinerator (or adds a third combustion unit, i.e., Marion County) will be at increased risk as federal and state officials tighten regulations on large industrial combustion facilities to reduce emissions that contribute to global warming, smog, and health impairment. Such regulatory improvements will require improved pollution controls, and thus additional expenditures and debt.


Incinerators demand waste. Continued generation of waste, however, is at odds with resource and energy conservation, reduction of pollutants and greenhouse gases, and sustainability in general. Reuse, recycling, and composting programs contribute to sustainability and create many more jobs, but only if resources are recovered rather than destroyed.


Contracts with operators (e.g., Covanta) and the need to pay operational expenses and retire debt require that incinerators be fed at least a stable and minimum amount of waste. Communities that are unable to generate their contractual minimum have several options -- none of which are good:  pay higher tipping fees, import waste from greater distances, scale back recycling programs, begin accepting more toxic types of waste, and/or pay financial penalties. 




Both the national and Oregon PSR are signatories along with hundreds of national, state/regional, and local organizations to the "No Incentives for Incinerators Sign-on Statement" [6]. The statement asserts, in part, that: "Incinerators are a toxic technology. Even the most technologically advanced incinerators release hundreds of distinct hazardous byproducts including dioxins, heavy metals, and halogenated organic compounds in the form of toxic air emissions, particulates and ash." 


An extensive and growing literature exists on the health impairing effects of the pollutants emitted from municipal waste incinerator stacks and present in incinerator ash. Contributing to this literature have been organizations such as the British Society for Ecological Medicine [7]; Prevent Cancer Now [8,9]; the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives [10]; the Irish Doctors Environmental Association [11]; and a coalition comprised of the Pembina Institute in collaboration with the David Suzuki Foundation, Sierra Legal, Toronto Environmental Alliance, Canadian Environmental Law Association and Great Lakes United [12].




The most health impairing and deadly forms of particulate air pollution -- ultrafines -- are neither regulated nor measured under current regulations, and are released in vast quantities by incinerators. Such nanoparticles are incredibly small (between 1 and 100 billionth of a meter -- 1/100,000th to 1/1000th the width of a human hair!) and have a very large surface area relative to their volume. Airborn toxins attach to this surface. Such ultrafines then get lodged in our lungs, or enter our blood stream creating asthma, pulmonary disease, cancer, heart attacks, strokes, and sometimes death. [13]


More and more such ultrafine particles are being emitted from incinerators, because more and more products containing nanotechnologically engineered ultrafine sized materials are entering the waste stream. There are currently more than 1000 such products [14]. As these products are discarded and incinerated, there is every reason to believe that the increased levels of ultrafine particulates that are emitted, and the properties of these ultrafines, will create increased levels of health impairment. 


Because of their nano size and unique properties, and because they are unregulated, many groups have called for urgent precautionary research, regulation and oversight of engineered nanomaterials throughout their cycle of production, use, and disposal. These groups include the Environmental Working Group, the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (UK), the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, the ETC Group, Friends of the Earth Europe, Food & Water Watch, the Soil Association (UK), and the Science & Environmental Health Network [15], as well as former EPA official J. Clarence Davies [16] and insurance company officials [17,18].




The above descriptions reflect just a sampling of Oregon PSR's efforts to minimize waste, conserve resources, promote jobs and health, and oppose incineration. Our work is both reactive and proactive, and while progress in these complex and sometimes contradictory areas is slow, progress is definitely being made.




[1] No Plasma Gasification op-ed in The Oregonian, Resources on Plasma Gasification


[2] Incineration of Municipal Solid Waste: Understanding the Costs and Financial Risks (Fact Sheet 4) - Pembina Institute in collaboration with the David Suzuki Foundation, Sierra Legal, Toronto Environmental Alliance, Canadian Environmental Law Association and Great Lakes United 5/07


[3] A Burning Issue - fedgazette - The Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis 3/05


4] Harrisburg Mayor Linda Thompson inherits a city that's running out of money, according to a consulting firm - The Patriot-News 1/5/10


[5] Solid Waste Management Plan - Marion County Solid Waste Management Advisory Council (SWMAC) 12/23/09


[6] No Incentives for Incinerators Sign-on Statement - Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) 2007


[7] The Health Effects of Waste Incinerators: 4th Report of the British Society for Ecological Medicine, Second Edition 6/08


[8] Incineration and Links to Cancer - Prevent Cancer Now 1/09


[9] Health Effects of Incineration - Prevent Cancer Now 1/09


[10] Incinerators Trash Community Health - Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) 6/08


[11] Incinerators and their Health Effects - Irish Doctors Environmental Association 6/15/06


[12] Incineration of Municipal Solid Waste: An Update on Pollution (Fact Sheet 2) - Pembina Institute in collaboration with the David Suzuki Foundation, Sierra Legal, Toronto Environmental Alliance, Canadian Environmental Law Association and Great Lakes United 5/07


[13] The Deadliest Air Pollution Isn't Being Regulated or Even Measured - Peter Montague - Rachel's Democracy & Health News #915 7/12/07


[14] Nanotechnology Consumer Products Inventory- The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies


[15] Resources Promoting Waste Minimization and Opposing Incineration: Section 9 - Precautionary Concerns about the Potential Adverse Effects of Incinerating Engineered Nanoscale Materials in the Waste Stream - Joseph Miller - Oregon PSR 1/09


[16] Former EPA Official Calls For New Environmental & Consumer Protection Agency: Technological Advances Require New Oversight - Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies 4/28/09


[17] Nanotechnology: The Smallest Big Risk - Joshua Hackett - Endurance Reinsurance Corporation of America  Fall/09


[18] Insurers scrutinize nanotechnology - Environmental Science & Technology 9/24/08


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