Published May 1, 2005 | May 2005 issue
To the Editor:
Your March article, "A Burning Issue," ignores the significant benefits of waste-to-energy facilities, including clean, safe, reliable disposal of municipal solid waste that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rightly points to as producing electricity "with less environmental impact than almost any other source of electricity." Unfortunately, the advantages and progress of an entire industry are given a back seat to the author's shortsighted focus on isolated incidents.
The article fails to tell the whole story on several accounts. For example, the author points out that the number of combustion facilities in the United States fell from 171 in 1991 to 89 today, but fails to report that the industry's disposal capacity—about 30 million tons of trash each year—has remained fairly constant over this time. Why is that? The 171 facilities mentioned included older, smaller facilities that today have been replaced with 89 larger, modern and exceptionally well-run waste-to-energy plants. These are not incinerators, as the author likes to call them, but rather state-of-the-art power plants that serve a unique purpose: safe, clean trash disposal and reliable, renewable energy generation.
The author is correct when he notes that facilities supply power 365 days a year, 24 hours a day—typically at greater than 90 percent availability of installed capacity. But far from being a drawback, communities favor such constant, steady and reliable disposal and energy generation, as do the electric utilities that purchase the power from these plants. Contrary to the author's assertion that waste-to-energy is dying, facilities from Hawaii to Long Island to Florida have begun the process of expanding capacity in response to communities' needs for disposal capacity and the country's need for renewable energy generation. As referenced in your article, new plants are being considered too.
America's waste-to-energy plants avoid the annual release of about 30 million tons of greenhouse gases in the form of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, according to the U.S. EPA. Studies have shown that a plant the size of Hennepin County's facility reduces the equivalent of 270,000 tons of carbon dioxide annually that otherwise would have been released into the environment if the trash was sent to a landfill. Greenhouse gas reduction is an important benefit, but the primary reason communities first considered combustion of their garbage was safe, reliable disposal of their municipal solid waste that they could count on for the long term.
Waste-to-energy always has played an important role in integrated solid waste management, and the industry's contributions—from renewable energy generation to greenhouse gas reductions to increased recycling rates—are only getting better. It is unfortunate that the fedgazette has focused so narrowly as to ignore the real story.
Integrated Waste Services Association
To the Editor:
I would like to suggest some additional perspectives on the article, "Recycling—Righteous or Rubbish?" Mr. Clement compares the economics of recycling to the economics of waste disposal. Consider comparing recycled material to virgin material in manufacturing. There are more jobs involved in recycling than in landfilling the same amount of waste. These manufacturers want recycled materials because it is usually cheaper; because they bought capital equipment to handle this material; and because this material substantially reduces consumption of other costly inputs, namely, energy and water.
Recycling does conserve natural resources. Statistical models demonstrate that environmental benefits in manufacturing dwarf any environmental costs from recycling. Just in 2003, our state deferred the harvesting of more than 5.7 million trees, avoided the use of 232,000 tons of coal, reduced our greenhouse gas emissions by the equivalent of 2.3 million cars and didn't produce the equivalent amount of energy required to power 615,000 homes.
Mr. Clement also assumes that market entry and exit is costless. Just as a farmer cannot quit farming in the middle of the summer if commodity prices are weak, neither can a recycler stop accepting recyclables under unfavorable conditions. People who recycle often stop doing it when cities and counties turn recycling programs on and off.
Similarly, a purist's view that "accurate pricing and unfettered markets" will take care of the issue is simplistic. Residents and businesses have imperfect information; they rarely know whether the economics of recycling are good or bad. What does work are state commitments to have a comprehensive recycling infrastructure, supported in part by a modicum of evenly spread public dollars to attract private capital. This is why Minnesota has had a recycling rate of 40 percent or more for almost 10 years at a lower cost, with less government involvement and with less uncertainty than other states.
As for the sustainability of local recycling programs, tough budget times have revealed weaknesses where there is too much reliance on general budget revenues. Reliable programs rely on dedicated user fees and taxes. Minnesota has used these tools and has succeeded.
Recycling Association of Minnesota
St. Paul, Minn./p>