Rachel's Democracy & Health News #863  [Printer-friendly version]
July 13, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: In the U.S. and worldwide, waste incinerators
are once again popping up like poisonous mushrooms. As each new
incinerator is built, the hope for a sustainable economy fades
further into the distance.]

By Peter Montague

Across the U.S. -- and, indeed, across the world -- waste incinerators
are making a comeback. Why? Because there's a huge amount of money to
be made.

Globally, government officials are proposing to spend hundreds of
billions of tax dollars to build a new generation of incinerators. In
some cases, government officials are merely naive about the huge
problems incinerators create, but in other cases officials seem to
have been seduced by all that money.

During the 1980s, every state in the U.S. was targeted for several
waste incinerators -- "waste to energy" plants, as they were known at
that time. (The incinerator industry has always called its machines
something besides "incinerators.") These incinerators burned garbage
or medical waste and they were filthy, dangerous, expensive,
unreliable, materials-destroying, energy-wasting contraptions -- and
citizen groups all across the country got organized and managed to
stop more than 90% of the proposed incinerators. It was a huge victory
and a convincing demonstration that sensible change can occur when a
loose coalition of committed, organized citizens makes it happen.

Now a new generation of incinerators is being proposed, but the name
has been changed again. Instead of "waste to energy" plants we now
have proposals for gasification plants, pyrolysis machines, and plasma
arc facilities. These are nothing more than "incinerators in disguise"
-- which is the title of an important new report from Greenaction
and GAIA -- the two best-known and most effective incinerator-
fighters in the U.S. and arguably around the world. (Greenaction is
run by Bradley Angel with offices in California, Arizona and Utah.
GAIA is run by Manny Colonzo, with offices in Quezon City,
Philippines, and Berkeley, Calif.)

There are basically two problems with incinerators -- no matter what
name you may give them. First, they produce dangerous wastes in the
form of gases and ash, often creating entirely new hazards, like
dioxins and furans, that were not present in the raw waste.

Secondly -- and even more importantly -- incinerators destroy
materials that must then be replaced. If I burn a piece of paper
instead of recycling it, someone has to manufacture a new piece of
paper from raw materials. This is tremendously wasteful because
manufacturing one ton of paper creates 98 tons of waste
products.[1,pg.51] On average, for every ton of products destroyed in
an incinerator, 71 tons of waste must be created somewhere else to re-
create those products -- mine wastes, forest wastes, transportation
wastes, energy wastes, and so on.[2] ("Waste to energy" incinerators
don't even make sense from an energy perspective. For every unit of
energy recovered by one of these machines, three to 5 units of energy
could have been saved by recycling the products instead of destroying
them in an incinerator and then replacing them with new ones.[3, pg.

By destroying useful resources that must then be replaced,
incinerators -- including plasma arc, pyrolysis, and gasification --
make our waste problems far worse then they would otherwise be.
Incinerators prevent us from adopting sensible modern ways of doing
business, namely "zero waste" and "clean production."

This is why fighting incinerators is so crucially important --
incinerators are dinosaurs that prevent us from making the transition
to a modern lifestyle based on resource conservation and clean
production. If we don't win the fight against incinerators -- in the
U.S. and worldwide -- we will never be able to make the transition to
a sustainable economy.

People who think we can make the transition to a sustainable economy
without stopping incinerators (in all their forms) are badly mistaken.

Once you build an incinerator, you must "feed the machine" for the
next 40 years to get your investment back. Once you build an
incinerator, resource conservation, recycling and waste reduction
become "the enemy" because the machine must have a new load of fresh
garbage every day. The machine needs waste, so its very existence
serves as a major deterrent to less wasteful life styles and ways of
doing business. In sum: incinerators promote waste. They thrive on
waste. They need waste. They demand waste, Incinerators are a major
deterrent to clean production, full recycling, resource conservation,
zero waste, and a sustainable economy.

So why would anyone in their right mind want to build an incinerator?
The answer is simple: money. Lots of money.

An incinerator costs anywhere from $100 million to $500 million to
build. For argument's sake, let's say an incinerator costs $200
million. That money comes from the public treasury. Local governments
do not often see such large bundles of money flowing their through
budgets -- so an incinerator offers a unique opportunity for local
politicians and their friends to take their cut, and it's perfectly
legal. Bankers, accountants, lawyers, engineers, consultants, realtors
and political "fixers" can all scoop off their small percentage. Even
one tenth of one percent of $200 million is $200,000 dollars. So an
incinerator project causes money to slosh around in the local economy
in ways that no other public works project is ever likely to do. At
election time, some of that money may kick back as campaign
contributions to the officials who made the decision to incinerate
local waste. All perfectly legal. But not good for democracy, human
health, the natural environment, or the future.

People who are engaged on the front lines of an incinerator fight will
want to get a copy of the new report from Greenaction and GAIA,
"Incinerators in Disguise." (And they will also want see the earlier
report from GAIA and the Institute for Local Self Reliance,
Resources Up in Flames.)

The "Incinerators in Disguise" report offers case studies of modern
incinerator technologies and how they are "sold" to communities. As
you read through this report, a pattern emerges: the people selling
gasification, pyrolysis, and plasma arc incinerators all seem to use
similar techniques:

1. They are likely to claim that their machines produce no pollution
whatsoever. Obviously this is physically impossible, but this does not
stop them from making the bogus claim. Often local officials accept
these impossible claims without question.

2. Government officials often exempt these machines from laws
requiring environmental assessments. The machines may be given
licenses to operate without an examination of any performance data
whatsoever. (Could this be the money effect at work? It's a fair

3. Some companies are selling machines with which they have absolutely
no experience. They are selling something that is entirely unknown and
experimental, though they may claim (or imply) that they have years of
experience with similar machines. Deep skepticism is justified.

4. Companies may describe their machines as "commercial successes"
even after their machines have failed to operate properly during
multi-year tests and have been permanently shut down and abandoned,
incurring major financial losses for the companies.

In sum, every industry has some "bad apples" who cut corners,
misrepresent the truth, and falsify information. But the incinerator
industry seems to have far more than its fair share of "bad apples."
This was as true 25 years ago as it is today. For some reason --
perhaps it's just the easy money -- bad apples seem to dominate this

This is especially regrettable because this is an industry whose
money-making schemes can prevent us all from reaching the world we are
all working to achieve -- the world of resource conservation, zero
waste, and sustainability.

Hats off to Greenaction and GAIA for once again blowing the whistle on
these nefarious junkyard dogs!


[1] Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins, and L. Hunter Lovins. Natural
Capitalism; Creating the Next Industrial Revolution. And see 

[2] John E. Young and Aaron Sachs, The Next Efficiency Revolution:
Creating a Sustainable Materials Economy. Washington, D.C. Worldwatch
Institute, 1994, pg. 13.

[3] Brenda Platt, Resources Up in Flames; The Economic Pitfalls of
Incineration versus a Zero Waste Approach in the Global South. Quezon
City, Philippines, 2004), pg. 26.