America’s Starting to Burn Trash Again Because We Make Too Much of It

America's Starting to Burn Trash Again Because We Make Too Much of It

Remember the 1970s? The good old days when we were naïve enough to think that disco was good music and that burning trash had no consequences. Well, it seems we didn’t learn the lesson on either fronts: Disco has been back for some time (did it ever leave?), and so are trash incinerators.

Trash incineration is returning to communities like West Palm Beach, Fla., where the first new commercial garbage incinerator in 20 years has fired up, burning as much as 3,000 tons of trash per day. In Baltimore, a $1 billion waste-to-energy plant is in the works to process 4,000 tons of trash per day in the Curtis Bay neighborhood.

According to the New York Times, the trash will be turned into electricity for local homes. But does that mean it’s safe? “Environmental groups oppose them, saying that although cleaner than the incinerators of the past, waste-to-energy plants still emit mercury, lead, dioxins and a variety of other toxic substances,” the Times reports. “And the history of incineration offers a cautionary tale, producing alarm among some who live nearby.”

But our waste problem needs some help, with Americans producing more than 4 pounds of trash per person per day—more than any other country in the world. We also have overflowing landfills, ineffective recycling programs and miniscule efforts to compost food scraps. So incineration, it seems, is suddenly back in vogue.

Still, cities like Portland, San Francisco and Seattle are leading the way in reducing residents’ trash output. Seattle and Portland say they recycle 60 percent of trash and San Francisco says it diverts 80 percent of garbage away from landfills. In Oregon, the city of Portland collects garbage every other week, but collects food scraps and recyclables weekly. Seattle just passed a law that will impose fines on city residents who don’t compost their food waste.

But those cities are known for progressive policies, some that are often mocked by the rest of the country as leftist hippie bullshit, particularly when they mention climate change slowing benefits.

And while trash incineration is being touted as an “alternative” energy source for the residents of West Palm Beach and Curtis Bay, the New York Times reports that the air pollution could prove deadly for residents, citing an MIT report that found that “130 of every 100,000 Baltimore residents ‘likely die in a given year due to long-term exposure to air pollution.’”

According to the Times, the Curtis Bay facility would be allowed to emit “up to 240 pounds of mercury and 1,000 pounds of lead annually,” in an area where cancer and asthma rates are already high.

If other, cleaner solutions to our massive trash problem aren’t considered in the very near future, there could be even more trash incinerators being put into commission around the country, putting more communities at risk.

Find Jill on Twitter @jillettinger

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Garbage truck image via Shutterstock

Jill Ettinger

Jill Ettinger is a Los Angeles-based journalist and editor focused on the global food system and how it intersects with our cultural traditions, diet preferences, health, and politics. She is the senior editor for sister websites OrganicAuthority.com and EcoSalon.com, and works as a research associate and editor with the Cornucopia Institute, the organic industry watchdog group. Jill has been featured in The Huffington Post, MTV, Reality Sandwich, and Eat Drink Better. www.jillettinger.com.