Our national recycling crisis has taken a dystopian turn.
Since China stopped accepting our recyclable goods last year, American municipalities have been challenged with a complicated choice about how to manage a back-up of plastics and other recyclable materials: revive and expand the old-fashioned practice of solid waste incineration (a short-term fix with long-term negative consequence) or invest in a new, more sustainable future.
Choosing incineration will have permanent consequences for the environment and move us further away from the practices and ideals of a circular economy, where waste and climate impact are reduced, and the value of products, parts and materials is increasingly retained.
When considering the option of incineration, local leaders will be tempted by the quick-fix nature of burning waste.
The incineration industry will tell them that turning “waste-to-energy” is a “win-win,” converting the problem of plastic waste to a desirable outcome of “renewable energy” worthy of long-term investment. But that messaging is a trap.
‘Win-Win’ for Cities?
The “win-win” municipalities are being sold requires long-term (up to 30-year) contracts and the issuance of significant public debt to build or upgrade waste-to-energy facilities.
This type of commitment will ensnare municipalities in a multi-decade environmental and economic downward spiral, where valuable material streams must be burned, and greenhouse gas emissions increased dramatically, all in order to service the contract and the debt.
According to a study by the Tishman Environment and Design Center, the fiscal stability of cities including Baltimore, Harrisburg, Pa., and Detroit have already been threatened by incineration industry debt and lawsuits. In Detroit, an incinerator financed with debt ended up costing taxpayers $1 billion over the course of 30 years.
The choice to put resources into incineration is also a default decision against innovation and long-term economic and environmental benefits.
Without the commitment and investment of states and municipalities, creative development of a robust recycling industry simply won’t happen. When you consider a circular economy is projected to be worth $4.5 trillion—versus decades of debt (and carbon emissions)—the better long-term choice becomes obvious.
Plastics provide us with a particularly vivid example of the consequences of choosing to subsidize incineration rather than investing in domestic recycling. When discarded plastic is burned, carbon emissions are released (along with other pollutants), and the product is destroyed.
Its value, apart from the tiny amount of energy that is produced, literally goes up in smoke because the material itself is gone. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates that $80 billion to $120 billion is lost on an annual basis when plastic packaging is only used once.
If recycled, the value of the material is retained, emissions are prevented, and the need to extract more resources out of the earth to produce more petroleum products is reduced.
This is not to argue against the recognition that some unrecyclable residual materials could be used for energy recovery in existing facilities. This is to argue against the long-term consequence of very expensive new investment in archaic waste-to-energy infrastructure whose full costs are borne by the public.
Local officials must be encouraged to make the best long-term choice: investment and innovation in domestic recycling.
Improvements in collection and sorting technology, combined with innovative practices like chemical recycling, will enable ongoing, economically viable solutions for our temporary recycling market disruption. Private-sector incentives, like the traceability of products, can round out the economic-end of recycling by reducing excess on the front-end of materials production.
The goal of a circular economy is widely held across the political spectrum, and with good reason. Municipalities will be rewarded over the long term if they choose to invest in technologies and strategies that will reduce waste, greenhouse gas emissions and the extraction of materials—all while recycling valuable commodities right here in the U.S.
While there is no such thing as utopia, infrastructure that supports a circular economy is the choice of a more perfect future; incineration belongs in our less perfect past.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.
Mathy Stanislaus served as the U.S. EPA assistant administrator for the Office of Land and Emergency Management during the Obama administration.