Climate change deniers are an easy (and appropriate) target when searching for reasons why there has not been more movement around climate issues in this country. But, surprisingly, some of the most troubling stumbling blocks to reducing greenhouse gases don’t come from Tea Party members or Republicans, the groups most often in the denial camp. Instead, urban liberals and left-leaning environmental groups who oppose burning municipal solid waste to produce energy are standing in the way of a technology that could have profound effects on GHGs.

When new waste-to-energy plants are proposed in California, for example, they run into buzz saws [pdf] of liberal opposition. Plans to increase the volume of waste burned at a Minneapolis WTE facility have been blocked for four years, and the issue recently divided the Democratic candidates for mayor. From New York to Massachusetts to Rhode Island to Pennsylvania to Maine, opposition has delayed or stopped WTE plants across the nation, largely in liberal-controlled urban areas.

But the opposition is misguided. Today’s WTEs are not your granddaddy’s trash burners, and some liberal groups, like the Center for American Progress, are starting to look at the actual science [pdf] and reevaluate long-held assumptions in light of new information and increasing concern over climate change. When they do, they are finding that today’s WTE plants look surprisingly good for the environment and for fighting climate change [pdf].

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle — Then What?

Americans generate about 390 million tons of trash every year — as much as 7 pounds per day for every man, woman and child. Waste ranks with energy, food, population and the economy as one of the biggest issues humans need to tackle to create a sustainable world. The U.S. recycles and composts about 94 million tons of that waste, or roughly 24 percent, but could do much more.

Waste management hierarchy

Waste Management Hierarchy. Image courtesy of Shawn Otto.

But, even if the U.S. doubled its rate of recycling, there would still be hundreds of millions of tons of post-recycled, post-composted solid waste. What you do with it is the question, and there are two options: dump it in a landfill or burn it/gasify it for energy.

Concern that WTEs reduce recycling rates does not appear to be borne out by the evidence, which shows that they actually tend to be associated with increased recycling effort.

Liberals, overwhelmingly, are choosing to dump, which science shows is the most polluting alternative. Because of liberal opposition, almost no WTEs have been built in the U.S. in 20 years, despite the classification of WTE as clean energy by the EPA and 31 state environmental agencies.

Things are very different in green-conscious Europe. While the U.S. has just 89 WTE facilities, Europe [pdf] has around 420 and is building more. Northern Europe, the most environmentally conscious part of the continent, is also where the most WTEs are located.

WTE construction in the U.S. is being held back by fears that burning trash will cause people to reduce their recycling effort [pdf] or will put dangerous toxins into the environment. But are those fears supported by the evidence?

Recycling and WTE Are Complementary

Of course recycling should be maximized in order to remove all recyclables and compostables before waste is disposed of in a landfill or a WTE facility. But concern that WTEs reduce recycling rates does not appear to be borne out by the evidence, which shows that they actually tend to be associated with increased recycling effort.

The five European nations with the highest recycling rates — Germany, the Netherlands, Austria, Belgium and Sweden — have among the highest WTE usage, to the point that they have reduced landfill use to less than 1 percent of their waste. Sweden even competes to import waste. While this is questionably desirable, it does not appear to have reduced the country’s recycling effort;  its rate of recycling is higher than 22 other European nations.

Graph of the percent of waste to energy, recycling/composting and landfilling in the United States and Europe

The United States if far behind Europe on recycling and waste to energy. Image courtesy of Shawn Otto.

In America, by contrast, where environmental groups frequently portray the issue as an either/or choice [pdf] between recycling and WTEs, both rates are much lower. A whopping 69 percent of U.S. municipal solid waste winds up in landfills. As in Europe, though, communities in the U.S. that do have a WTE plant show higher recycling rates than the national average.

WTE community average recycling rate vs. national average

Finally, recycling itself is not without waste. For example, recycling of mixed paper leaves a 15 percent residue that still has to be disposed of somehow.

Clearly, recycling and WTE can and do go hand-in-hand in a responsible waste management plan, and co-promotion by environmental groups would likely increase both WTE and recycling, both of which are preferable to landfilling in the waste management hierarchy.

Clean Air Technology Cuts Emissions To Near Zero

While trash burners once did put dangerous toxins into the air, in the past 10 years WTE pollution control technology has become so advanced that the most common and dangerous toxins have been almost completely eliminated [pdf], something that the environmental groups who still oppose WTEs rarely mention.

WTE emission reductions