Next, no municipality gets 100 percent recycling participation. Post-recycled trash still contains millions of tons of metals that are sent to landfills. At a WTE facility, those metals are automatically captured and recycled by the facility as a part of its normal post-combustion filtration process. This saves the time, materials, energy, emissions and environmental disruption of mining for an equivalent amount of new minerals. The WTE operator Covanta Energy recycled 415,000 tons of ferrous metals and 16,800 tons of nonferrous metals in 2012 alone — enough steel to build 28 Brooklyn Bridges and enough aluminum to produce more than 1 billion beverage cans.

The aluminum that is reclaimed by WTEs from the already post-recycled waste is particularly important. Recycling one ton of aluminum prevents a whopping 13.7 tons of GHG emissions, compared to 4.3 tons for 1 ton of office paper and 2.5 tons for newspaper. Recycling a ton of ferrous metal prevents 1.7 tons of GHG emissions. None of this is recaptured when a truck tips its load into a landfill.

Additionally, WTE facilities are sited close to where waste is generated, in or near urban areas. This eliminates much of the carbon emitted by hauling waste to a distant landfill. In 2011, New York City spent more than $300 million transporting its trash by train and truck — roughly 12,000 tons per day — to landfills as far as 300 miles away, emitting tons more carbon and wearing down roads and vehicles in the process. In some cases, the U.S. is now even exporting its waste to developing countries, vastly compounding its carbon contribution.

The high temperature of WTE combustion completely destroys the chemicals, rendering them inactive and ensuring cleaner lakes, rivers and water supplies.

WTE facilities also generate heat and electricity, avoiding the burning of fossil fuels for those same purposes. For example, the Minneapolis WTE facility currently generates enough electricity to power 25,000 homes, and enough steam to heat 1,500. Their proximity also means less heat and electricity are lost in transport. And, according to EPA studies, burning municipal solid waste in WTEs emits less CO2 per megawatt-hour than burning fossil fuels, including natural gas. New gasification technologies coming online promise even greater energy capture and lower emissions than WTE incineration.

Chart of CO2 by fuel type

Cleaning up U.S. Lakes and Rivers

Leachate is a hazardous tea created when rain percolates through garbage. Landfills capture this leachate and pump it to a treatment facility, where pollutants are removed through biological and chemical processes before it is discharged into public waterways. But these treatment facilities rarely have the expensive reverse osmosis filters necessary to capture pharmaceuticals and other bioactive chemical products. These agents are turning up in groundwater throughout the U.S. and polluting even remote lakes and rivers. Their presence affects fish and other aquatic species, and they are now found in several municipal water supplies that are drawn from waters polluted with pharmaceuticals.

WTE facilities provide a safe way to destroy pharmaceuticals and other bioactive chemical products that are otherwise disposed of in landfills or that people flush down the toilet. The high temperature of WTE combustion completely destroys the chemicals, rendering them inactive and ensuring cleaner lakes, rivers and water supplies, and fewer pharmaceuticals and bioactive agents entering the food chain and affecting public health.

Time For a Change

So with all these benefits — efficiency, clean energy, reduced greenhouse gases, reduced transportation and road repair, reduced mining, freeing land space otherwise lost to landfills, protecting groundwater and public waters, keeping the food chain cleaner, recycling metals — why haven’t U.S. liberals, who control the politics in many metropolitan areas where WTEs should be built, been supportive of them as they have been in Europe? The answer lies in the history of the American public’s views toward science.

Suspicion of corporations and of hidden dangers to health or the environment have become core, and often unquestioned, assumptions of the liberal U.S. politics that grew up with environmental science and the environmental movement. But these days there is a growing rift between the science and the movement in areas related to energy, climate and waste management. While liberals are justified in their concern about the hidden dangers that pollution can pose, in the case of WTE plants that view has not kept up with the times. This has led to policies that are less effective than those in other countries when it comes to managing waste and fighting climate change.

It’s time for a change. American liberals and environmentalists who care about climate change need to reexamine the science and get behind expanded recycling and WTE programs. Fortunately for the sake of our children, a few bold leaders are starting to do just that. View Ensia homepage

Editor’s note: The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily of Ensia. We present them to further discussion around important topics. We encourage you to respond with a comment below, following our commenting guidelines, which can be found here. In addition, you might consider submitting a Voices piece of your own. See Ensia’s “Contact” page for submission guidelines.