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Chapter 2

The Downstream Benefits: Decreasing Garbage and the Need for Landfill Space


The most obvious and well-known advantage of recycling is that it leads to less garbage being buried in landfills, and environmental problems are the major reason more than 10,000 landfills have closed in the United States in the past fifteen years. Among the listed Superfund sites, the nation's most hazardous and contaminated locations, more than 20 percent are former municipal landfills.[81] The Reason Foundation dismisses concerns about the environmental impacts of landfills by claiming that "properly sited and operated, landfills pose little threat either to human health or to the environment."[82] Predictably, John Tierney concurs. Here's how he put in "Recycling Is Garbage":

[T]he simplest and cheapest option is usually to bury garbage in an environmentally safe landfill...[T]here's little reason to worry about modern landfills, which by federal law must be lined with clay and plastic, equipped with drainage and gas-collection systems, covered daily with soil and monitored regularly for underground leaks.[83]

The Facts Landfills are neither simple, cheap nor environmentally safe. Landfills generate hazardous and uncontrolled air emissions and also threaten surface and groundwater supplies. Landfills have contaminated aquifer drinking water supplies, wetlands, and streams throughout the United States -- indeed, throughout the world -- and many continue to do so. As detailed below, the list of toxic and hazardous chemicals emitted as gas or leaching as liquid from literally thousands of landfills defines a waste management option with wide-ranging pollution impacts. Among these documented pollutants are cyanide, dioxins, mercury, volatile organic compounds, methane and non-methane organic compounds, greenhouse gases, hydrochloric acid, sulfuric acid, lead, and many others.

Hazardous Air Emissions

In March 1996, less than four months before the Times published John Tierney's pro-landfilling tract "Recycling Is Garbage," the EPA published a regulation, based on years of research, that determined that currently operating "municipal solid waste landfills cause, or contribute significantly to, pollution that may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare."[84] The EPA regulation certified that public health threats caused by currently operating landfills include documented emissions of "known carcinogens"; it also noted "many documented cases of acute injury and death caused by fires and explosions related to municipal landfill gas" which occur "both on and off-site."[85] Specific air pollutants listed by the EPA as a concern from currently operating landfills include volatile organic compounds, hazardous air pollutants, methane, odorous compounds, and more than a hundred non-methane organic compounds, including known and suspected carcinogens such as toluene, benzene, chloroform, carbon tetrachloride, vinyl chloride, trichloroethylene, and methylene dichloride, to name just a few.[86] Landfill gas emissions include high concentrations of methane, which is produced when recyclable yard wastes, food wastes, and papers decompose in a landfill. In fact, U.S. landfills are among the single greatest contributors of global methane emissions. Methane produced by landfills is characterized by the EPA as "a major greenhouse gas...[that] is 20 to 30 times more potent [in its greenhouse effects] than CO2 on a molecule-per-molecule basis." [87] Methane is also a prime contributor to ozone formation, which causes "alterations in pulmonary function, aggravation of pre-existing respiratory disease, damage to lung structure, adverse effects on blood enzymes, the central nervous system and endocrine systems, reduced plant growth, decreased crop yields, [and] necrosis of plant tissue."[88]

Controlling dangerous air pollutants produced by landfills is anything but "simple" and only about one-third to one-half of currently operating landfills attempt to do so.[89] Complicating matters, the long-term effectiveness of landfill caps -- which are supposed to prevent gas emissions and leachate from landfills after they cease operation -- is unknown. Summarizing some of the facts pertaining to the use of landfill caps to control hazardous air emissions at landfills, the chairman of the New York State Bar Association's Environment Committee stated:

The long-term integrity of landfill caps is in serious doubt. A landfill, once closed, cannot be simply abandoned. Erosion will eventually wear away the caps, and burrowing animals are known to eat holes in the caps [allowing gas to escape]. A few state environmental agencies have required the creation of perpetual care funds, but most states are content with only 20 or 30 years of post-closure care or monitoring. [However, the] landfill's contents will remain toxic for centuries or millennia, imposing a maintenance obligation on our distant descendants.[90]

Despite the confidence antirecycling interests have in the construction design of landfills, debate certainly still exists about how to best design landfill caps to control hazardous air emissions. Although compacted clay has to date been the technology of choice for capping landfills, its long-term integrity is in doubt, and other types of capping are undergoing review as a potential replacement technology for clay caps. Landfill conditions vary (reflecting variations in precipitation, temperature, geologic conditions, etc.) but one recent analysis determined that the standard design of clay caps is "virtually monolithic, with little specification of functional properties."[91] Consequently, geosynthetic alternatives to compacted clay are being promoted as a better landfill cap technology. However, the integrity of these alternatives is also uncertain and still being reviewed. Hazardous air emissions from landfills are far from "safe" and far from effectively controlled.

Water Pollution

It also is not "simple" to protect against the surface water runoff or groundwater pollution that landfills typically produce. Despite assurances to the contrary by the Reason Foundation and John Tierney, two-thirds of currently operating landfills do not have synthetic liners and groundwater-monitoring technology. As the Wall Street Journal recently reported:

[L]iners are installed at only about one-third of the nation's dumps...[O]nly 960 of the nation's 2,931 active dumps have synthetic liner systems.

The liner installation shortfall arose as the EPA delegated to states the implementation of dump rules, and allowed the states to exempt many disposal facilities from any synthetic-liner requirement.

This shows how even a simple environmental safeguard -- itself far from an absolute protection against fouling groundwater -- ends up being watered down as the EPA, states, local government and the waste industry all get involved in the implementation of federal rules.[92]

The broad range of exemptions from landfill liner requirements make it impossible to claim, as antirecycling interests do, that currently operating landfills do not threaten surface water and groundwater. Another important reason so few landfills are effectively lined is that "today's stringent regulations" for landfill liners and groundwater monitoring referred to in "Recycling Is Garbage" do not come fully into force under U.S. federal law until October 9, 1997.[93] (Ironically, antirecycling interests invariably neglect to mention that one of the principal justifications enunciated by Congress for the landfill-liner rule is "to increase recycling nationwide" by forcing landfill operators to shoulder their appropriate share of the cost of pollution control.[94])

Despite claims that landfills are now "environmentally safe," antirecycling interests have yet to report on how many currently operating facilities now comply with the referred-to federal requirement, which does not take effect until late 1997.[95] Available evidence indicates that to date, very few do. In addition, groundwater protection requirements apply for some landfills and not for others. Thanks to the Land Disposal Program Flexibility Act,[96] approximately 800 currently operating landfills -- more than 25 percent of all landfills now operating -- "will receive an exemption from ground-water monitoring requirements...reinstating a provision that had been suspended due to court action in 1993."[97] And beyond these 800 exemptions, scores of other operating landfills will be exempt from the U.S. federal rule governing landfills if they are located in EPA "approved states" or on Native American land. In those cases the original rule itself gives them the right to implement "site-specific alternatives to conventional ground-water monitoring that are relatively low in cost" [98] and which vary from the technical specifications the EPA requires "everywhere" else.

Questions also remain about the environmental integrity of even those landfills that won't be exempt from the EPA's landfill rule. As one landfill specialist, G. Fred Lee, Ph.D., P.E., a former professor with more than 30 years' experience in landfill design, commented regarding the EPA's current landfill design rules:

[The EPA's landfill design criteria] are not safe and they represent short-term, politically expedient approaches...to have cheaper-than-real-cost solid waste management that misleads the public into believing that today's landfills are managing their wastes in a technically valid, cost-effective manner.[99]

Groundwater monitoring and protection technologies that are supposed to reduce the dangers inherent in landfilling also face threats that might arise during years of daily use. One solid waste specialist familiar with this situation reported:

Some MSW [municipal solid waste] landfills have shown themselves to be structurally unstable, and have physically collapsed during filling activities. These collapses have typically occurred when the force of waste on the side of a slope exceeded the bearing strength of the slope, causing both the waste and the liner to slide down, ripping the containment layers and spreading garbage over a large area. The most recent example of this occurred...at the Rumpke Landfill in Ohio...The Kettleman City Landfill in California experienced a similar collapse in the late 1980s.[100]

"A Disgrace To Any Civilized Society"

No discussion of the false hope continued landfilling of wastes out for the nation, and New Yorkers in particular, is complete without a recognition of the problems New York City's dump -- the Fresh Kills landfill -- has created during the past fifty years, and continues to create:

The city's Fresh Kills landfill is reportedly the world's largest. It stretches over western Staten Island for nearly 3,000 acres and it receives over 14,000 tons a day of residential and commercial refuse. It is home to roughly about a third of the total waste now being landfilled in New York State.

The world's biggest landfill, however, has no state operating permit. Uncontrolled pollutants streaming into surrounding water is one reason. For example, black plumes of leachate containing cyanide and other toxins have...been observed snaking their way from Fresh Kills into the nearby waters of the Arthur Kill.

Despite some improvements at the beleaguered dump, however, Fresh Kills remains open largely for one reason -- there is simply no other major city facility to handle so much garbarge.[104]

According to New York State Governor George E. Pataki, the Fresh Kills landfill "is a disgrace to any civilized sociey."[105]

Two workers at the Rumpke landfill were hospitalized "because they did not have tolerance for the waste odors" resulting at the "MSW slide" that occurred on March 9, 1996. The collapse raised fears among the landfill's operators of air emissions (causing the adoption of "around-the-clock air quality monitoring") and methane explosions "within the Township's 45 square miles." [101] Methane detectors were distributed to residents in the Township to address concerns of increased methane levels in homes.

More significant, and again contrary to the impression one gets from reading antirecycling reports, even those landfills that do use liners to protect against subsurface water pollution report troubling problems. A recent summary of industry experience with landfill liner technology drew the following conclusions: "Early experience in the use of geomembrane-lined sites showed that many leaked. More recent experience indicates that even with strict construction quality assurance supervision, many still leaked."[102] Another review drew similar conclusions: "The effectiveness of landfill liner systems in preventing leachate migration is compromised after installation, and will deteriorate over time allowing increasing amounts of leachate to pass through the liner into the groundwater system hydraulically connected to the bottom of the landfill."[103] Moreover, the leachate collected by the groundwater protection technology has to be captured, stored, pumped into a transport vehicle, and taken to a private or publicly owned sewage treatment plant. None of this is cheap or without its own environmental problems.

Landfill Capacity in the United States

In addition to mistakenly claiming that landfills are environmentally safe, those who argue against recycling contend landfill space is widely available and cheap. According to the Reason Foundation, "The landfill crisis is a political crisis, not an environmental one."[106] As John Tierney reported in the York Times Magazine, the argument is similarly straightforward:

[T]here's no shortage of landfill space...America today has a good deal more landfill space available than it did 10 years ago.[107]

The Facts The three most substantial reasons accounting for the increase in landfill availability are: (1) recycling has grown and now diverts almost 24 percent of the nation's municipal waste stream to other, economically productive uses, (2) developers invested in new landfill capacity, anticipating very high financial returns as thousands of facilities closed due to environmental problems, and (3) recycling of yard waste has grown from virtually zero to 20 percent between 1985 and 1993. (Yard waste which, after paper,[108] accounts for the second-largest component of the nation's waste stream, has been banned from landfills in twenty-three states.[109]) Recycling thus accounts for two of the three most important causes that have produced new landfill capacity. Elaborating on this, the National Solid Waste Management Association concluded that among the three "key developments" accounting for the increase in landfill capacity is the fact that

commercial waste management companies and local government -- motivated by state and local policies as well as business opportunities -- launched new residential, commercial and institutional recycling programs, which helped boost [landfill] capacity.[110]

It is ironic that the recycling policies being attacked as unnecessary are precisely those that are creating the increase in landfill capacity that the antirecycling crowd encourages municipal officials to rely on.

Landfill capacity is not the same as "number of landfills operating." Capacity relates to landfill space legally available to accept waste. The slight increase in the number of states with landfill capacity extending beyond the next five years rose from forty-two in 1986 to forty-eight in 1995.[111] Viewed from this national perspective, existing landfill capacity in the United States today is indeed not all that different from that in 1986. What has changed since 1986 is that thousands of environmentally dangerous landfills have closed, so the proximity of landfills to waste generators has been reduced. (As discussed earlier, this results in more vehicle miles traveled to dump garbage, more costly time on the road for haulers, increased wear and tear on trucks, etc.)

Over the last decade the number of landfills forced to close because of environmental problems has been increasing. From 1988 to 1991 the number of landfills in the United States declined 24 percent (-1,849 landfills). From 1991 to 1995 the number declined 49 percent (-2,833), while the overall decline between 1988 and 1995 in the number of landfills was 62 percent (-4,682).[112] According to the National Solid Waste Management Association, the "dramatic change [reduction] in the number of landfills in the United States over the last seven years is primarily attributable to the promulgation of the federal [environmental law] RCRA part 258 criteria."[113] Nor is this reduction expected to subside since federal landfill regulations are still not effective for all municipal solid waste landfills.[114] Also, the ownership of landfills is concentrating among fewer firms. This is likely to increase the financial risk and logistical uncertainty plaguing waste management strategies that rely heavily on landfills.

Even if landfill capacity were as cheap and available as some insist it is, it would be unwise to bury valuable, already refined materials that took energy, resources, and money to produce when they can instead be productively recycled.

Exporting Garbage

Among the threats to landfill based solid waste management strategies is the well-developed opposition throughout the United States, indeed, throughout the world, to garbage imports -- that is, the shipping of wastes produced in one jurisdiction to a landfill or incinerator in another. Opponents of garbage imports -- who include governors, senators, members of Congress, and mayors as well as average citizens -- argue beyond the immediate issues relating to environmental threats and express moral outrage, concern about property values, and dismay about localities being stigmatized as repositories for garbage. However, those who favor landfilling instead of recycling reject those concerns. As stated in the New York Times Magazine:

Why assume that New Yorkers have a moral obligation to dispose of their garbage near home? Most of the stuff is shipped to the city from factories and farms elsewhere. What's wrong with shipping it back out to be buried in places with open land?[115]

The Facts Tierney's argument suggests that the same communities that bear the adverse environmental consequences produced by oil refineries, plastics production facilities, food processors, paper mills, or other types of manufacturing plants should also bear the adverse environmental consequences of waste disposal. Would you welcome trains and trucks from faraway places coming into your town or county to deposit garbage? The export argument also ignores the fact that much of the "stuff shipped from elsewhere" is imported from abroad and, because of the Basel Convention, an international treaty to which the United States is a signatory, cannot be shipped back as garbage.[116] With or without the Basel Convention, less developed countries that export consumer goods to the United States do not want to receive its garbage. For example, China, a major U.S. trading partner, has a campaign to "strike hard against foreign garbage," and "since inspectors found trash from the United States in a dump outside Bejing in early May [1996]" the country has "turned away some 200 ships carrying waste from abroad."[117]

Dumping on the Poor

Recently the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), another Washington D.C.-based antirecycling organization, has argued that the United States should withdraw from its participation in the Basel Convention, which prevents the dumping of hazardous and other types of wastes in less developed countries. The CEI argues that the treaty "Restrict[s] trade in secondary materials and hazardous wastes [that] would unfairly deprive developing countries of billions of dollars in trade."[118] The Basel Convention was the outcome of a multiyear, multinational investigation and negotiation, and most of the countries that comprise the UN are signatories. The convention documented dumping of hazardous wastes -- often in the guise of "trade" -- in many poor countries that have neither the economic structure, the environmental laws, nor the administrative and enforcement mechanisms needed to protect citizens or the environment from the dangers inherent in the management of wastes. Dumping municipal or hazardous wastes in less developed countries is an inequitable and potentially deadly form of "trade." The CEI has proposed no mechanism to assure the environment integrity of the facilities it wants U.S. garbage shipped to. It's more than doubtful that any of the hundred poorest countries in the world, where the per capita income was lower in 1996 than it was fifteen years ago, [119] can marshal the technological and capital resources required to safely manage hazardous wastes. More than 60 percent of the planet, 3l3 billion people, live on less than two dollars a day.[120] It would be a moral and environmental travesty for the United States and other industrialized countries to send them our municipal or hazardous wastes. The signatory status of the United States to the Basel Convention should not be repealed.

To the distress of many communities in Pennsylvania, Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, Texas, Oklahoma, and other states, New York City and the rest of the northeastern United States is already a net exporter of garbage, and New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani has announced plans for the city to increase the amount of waste shipped out.[121] Residents outside the Northeast are seeing capacity at recently developed and invariably unwelcome landfills being dedicated to garbage produced in other, often faraway states. According to Indiana [Republican] senator Dan Coats:

In the heartland of this nation, there is no environmental concern more pressing...In Indiana, there was no [landfill] capacity crisis before convoys of trucks and cargo trains imported it. This is not a case of Indiana crying "not in my backyard." We are taking care of our own trash. We simply ask that every state be responsible environmentally and accountable for the trash it generates. We seek immediate relief [and] our patience, as net importers of trash, is wearing thin.[122]

Should people care about the health and well-being of fellow citizens in distant states who live near garbage that their own community has bequeathed to them? Is it morally "wrong" for New Yorkers, for instance, to ship thousands of tons of their putrefied garbage to huge landfills in other states, posing documented public health threats to the landfill community? Do exporting communities always assure their wastes are being shipped to one of the few state-of-the-art facilities that maintains the entire panoply of protection technology needed to reduce the threats from landfilling? Though there may be disagreements about the answers to these questions, it is likely that regional prosperity would be enhanced if every community were more self-reliant, if it purchased its food and consumer goods from local producers as much as possible and recycled locally. More money would circulate locally, auto and truck vehicle miles traveled would be reduced, food would be fresher, requiring fewer chemical preservatives, and local jobs would be more secure. Recycling waste locally encourages regional economic benefits, whereas shipping mixed waste to landfills out of the region does not. Moreover, long-hauling waste is certainly not very smart or realistic planning for the long term.

On May 16, 1996, the U.S. Senate overwhelmingly passed a bill, by a vote of 92 to 6, that would permit local and state legislators to restrict imports of solid waste.[123] In fact, more than twenty bills to limit interstate transport of wastes have been debated in both houses of Congress in the past eight years, and with each passing year, legislation limiting interstate transport of wastes gets closer to passing. So far, northeastern legislators in Congress have successfully fought to maintain the status quo, whereby most of the region's waste is sent out of state. But that position is perilous and is already undergoing changes. Communities receiving imported garbage are increasingly successful in imposing limits or punitive fees on waste imports, even as New Jersey and Massachusetts now prevent the development of new landfills and New York City must by law close its sole landfill, the Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island, by the beginning of the next century. Whether landfill proponents think so or not, residents in communities hosting landfills that receive imported wastes do believe there is a moral obligation on waste-exporting cities to recycle as much as they can before exporting. According to the director of public works in Charles City County, Virginia, which hosts the Reason Foundation's model landfill that was later described in "Recycling Is Garbage," "Charles City County strongly supports recycling."[124]

Numerous electoral races have turned on the issue of waste imports. Assumptions about the public and political embrace of regional landfills by proponents of garbage long-hauling are misplaced. Even if they lead to some jobs and nominal revenue, new landfills with imported garbage -- especially from New York City -- may only match Fresh Kills, the world's largest landfill, for their local popularity. For example, after recently reporting that New York City's Mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, has developed plans to export more of the city's garbage to other states, the New York Times observed "the plan faces considerable obstacles; the most daunting is finding a place that will accept New York City's garbage."[125] Tom Ridge, the Governor of Pennsylvania, one of the states targeted to receive more of the city's garbage, responded by saying that "New York City should not be looking to export more waste to Pennsylvania" unless it is explicitly accepted by local communities. The Commissioner of that state's Department of Environmental Protection said she "hoped to have federal action" stop it.[126]

It is specious to suggest that new, unused diapers, food, vegetables, and other new consumer goods shipped into New York, for instance, are materially similar -- and pose the same public health threats -- as used and soiled diapers, discarded and putrefied food waste, broken glass, empty contaminated food containers, discarded packaging, and spent batteries. Can we really claim, as John Tierney did, that the receipt of garbage is morally identical to the receipt of new consumer products? Recycling paper, plastics, and metals and composting food and yard waste provides public health benefits. Depositing these materials as waste in a landfill generates public health threats.

One Big Garbage Dump for the Country?

The United States produces between 12 and 14 billion tons of waste annually. This includes mining waste, oil and gas waste, agricultural waste, hazardous waste, food-processing residues, demolition debris, incinerator ash, and medical waste, in addition to municipal waste. The management of most of this waste is not regulated by U.S. federal law -- it is exempt -- and of the total, municipal waste accounts for only about 210 million tons.[127] Consequently, those who argue against recycling claim that environmentalists are making much too much of the country's municipal solid waste problem, that municipal waste is only a small percentage of the total amount of waste produced, and if citizens really set their minds to it and didn't cave in to short-term political considerations, the United States should have no problem managing all its garbage in one neat little place. A report by the Reason Foundation concludes:

All of the garbage Americans will produce for the next 1,000 years would fill an area 44 miles on each side and about 120 feet deep.
A super landfill this size would occupy less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the surface area of the continental United States.
Anyone who has looked from an airplane at the western part of the United States knows there is plenty of land where we might store the next 1,000 years' worth of garbage with little inconvenience or health hazard to nearby communities.

As recycled by John Tierney in the New York Times, the argument goes like this:

[I]f Americans keep generating garbage at current rates for 1,000 years, all their garbage [could fit ] in a [square] landfill 100 yards deep...35 miles on each side. This doesn't seem a huge imposition in a country the size of America.[129]

The Facts The imaginary gargantuan landfill presents an unsettling prospect. It could never be developed "with little inconvenience or health hazard to nearby communities" as the Reason Foundation has claimed. The football-field-deep landfill would be the size of the state of Rhode Island. Adding the land buffer required by U.S. federal law might make it about the size of New Jersey. Developing a facility of that magnitude would require suspension of the very environmental laws that landfill proponents now claim protect us from landfill hazards. Finding an appropriate site that could meet federal or state landfill siting and buffer requirements and conform with democratic processes would be virtually impossible: there could be no wetland anywhere on the 35-mile-square site, no stream or river, no floodplain, no geologically unstable area, no fault line, no nearby airport, no major downward slopes, etc.[130] To suggest that this landfill development plan would be accepted by residents in any state or that it could offer economic, social, or health benefits to Americans is folly. But even if one accepts it as a concept, and imagines it in place, it requires no great leap of the imagination to see how truly illusory, even nightmarish, such a facility would be. Tens of thousands of trucks and railcars would arrive each week to deliver millions of tons of waste to the same site each year. Loading and off-loading would create next-to-impossible technological logistics. Hundreds of thousands of additional trucks would have to bring in daily cover from as-yet undeveloped clay mines. (Technically, the clay would be classified as intermediate cover rather than daily cover because a facility receiving such huge amounts of waste could never close.) Thousands of additional tanker trucks would need to continually collect and transport leachate for removal to as-yet undeveloped waste water treatment facilities. An enormous leachate collection and processing plant would need to be co-located with the landfill, but where would it discharge the collected contaminated effluent? Federal law prevents landfills from being located close to navigable water bodies, the only types of water bodies large enough to accept such huge amounts of treated leachate. A huge area encompassing thousands of acres would have to be lit every night for round-the-clock operation.

Concentrating all of America's municipal solid waste in one location would create an unprecedented amalgamation of the most heterogeneous mixture of waste ever co-disposed in one facility. As a consequence, this hypothetical landfill would produce unprecedented amounts of hazardous, carcinogenic, and explosive gas emissions. Fire departments and emergency personnel would have to be on continuous alert. But if there's no town nearby, as the antirecycling interests who endorse such a "super landfill" posit, where would these emergency personnel come from? No water- or air-pollution control technology has ever been developed to operate at such an enormous scale. No private sector firm (or municipality, for that matter), could financially guarantee the facility's safe operation and closure, as required by federal law,[131] and only the government could provide credit and insurance guarantees for such a risky venture, belying the antienvironmental movement's professed commitment to so-called free-market solutions. Could anyone reasonably expect that any politician -- or informed American -- would come out in favor of such an unworkable plan?

Incinerators: Solution of the Past

Once seen as a panacea, waste incineration plants face seemingly insurmountable economic and logistical problems. While trying to accommodate a patchwork of regulatory and legal requirements, as well as extraordinary local opposition, the cost of incineration has become, in the words of John Tierney, "disastrously expensive."[132] Attempts to adopt European and Japanese technological designs in the United States failed for a number of reasons, including: (1) while the installation and operation of advanced pollution controls and monitoring technology in Europe and Japan has been routine for decades, incineration vendors in the United States fought against regulations that would require adoption of these technologies, arguing they were prohibitively expensive. In doing so, they undermined the performance of and public confidence in the technology; (2) the absence of high recycling rates, like those in Europe and Japan, especially for materials that do not burn or release dangerous emissions if they wind up in an incinerator (such as batteries, noncombustible materials, and household hazardous wastes), worked against achieving good combustion practices. This also undermined public confidence in the technology; and (3) supportive management and sophisticated worker training programs, essential to the success of combustion projects abroad, were never developed effectively in the United States. Moreover, because incinerators still rely on landfills for the substantial amounts of contaminated ash they produce and because garbage burning is a net energy loser when compared with recycling, its benefits as a waste treatment technology are now viewed as marginal, even while its costs are great. (See The Energy Bonus.)

In fact, recycling is usually supported even by those who still find waste incineration a useful waste treatment technology. As one in-depth study of good combustion practices recently concluded, certain "steps are necessary for achieving state-of-the-art incineration...First, wastes that can be recycled, reused, or composted, those that do not burn well, and those that contain toxic materials or pollutant precursors must be kept out of the incinerator."[133] Unfortunately, the report confirms, most incinerators have been planned without due regard to these issues.

In contrast to recycling, municipal waste incinerators -- like landfills -- generate a wide range of toxic air pollutants -- including dioxins, furans, heavy metals such as mercury, cadmium, and lead, acid gases, and fine particles -- as well as contaminated ash. Indeed, given the heterogeneity of municipal waste, incinerators generate a wider range of air pollutants than any other combustion technology. High-volume recycling helps reduce overall incinerator emissions (in volume and toxicity). As with landfills, the composition of the waste stream sent to incinerators is one of the most crucial factors determining how successful incineration might be as a pollution-limiting waste treatment technology. A waste stream full of noncombustible materials (e.g., glass and metals), materials saturated with metallic compounds or chlorides (e.g., paper and plastics), or high moisture/high nitrogen materials (e.g., food and yard wastes) will increase a municipal waste combustor's overall production of acid gases, organic toxics, heavy metals, and greenhouse gases. These require costly controls at incineration facilities and lead to higher construction, financing and operating costs for pollution-control technologies.

Introducing noncombustible, often recyclable materials into combustion units also works against incineration facilities' achieving the very high combustion efficiency required by most states and impairs the volume-reduction efficiency of the technology, resulting in more contaminated ash residue. According to the EPA, approximately 65 to 70 percent of all residue being generated by U.S. incinerators results from the introduction of noncombustible glass and metals into furnaces.[134] Largely because a majority of Japanese municipalities recycle noncombustible materials, modern combustors in that country routinely generate one-half to one-third the amount of ash residue produced by U.S. incinerators.[135]


81. Standards of Performance for New Stationary Sources and Guidelines for Control of Existing Sources: Municipal Solid Waste Landfills, March 12, 1996, 40 CFR 51, 52 and 60 at Federal Register Vol. 61, No. 49, p. 9909. (Hereafter referred to as 40 CFR Parts 51, 52 and 60.)

82. Environmental Myths, at p. 4.

83. Tierney, at pp. 24 and 28.

84. March 12, 1996, 40 CFR Parts 51, 52 and 60 at p. 9905 and passim; and Solid Waste Disposal Criteria; Final Rule: October 9, 1991, 40 CFR Parts 257 and 258, Federal Register Vol. 56, No. 196, at pp. 50978 and passim. (Hereafter referred to as 40 CFR Parts 257 and 258).

85. 40 CFR Parts 51, 52 and 60 at pp. 9905, 9906 and passim.

86. Same as above.

87. Same as above.

88. Same as above.

89. "Plastic Dump Liners Have Been Slow in Coming," Wall Street Journal, November 14, 1996, at p. A4.

90. Letter dated July 29, 1996, from Mr. Michael Gerrard, Esq., Arnold & Porter, to Allen Hershkowitz, NRDC.

91. Impact of Municipal and Industrial Non-Hazardous Waste Landfills on Public Health and the Environment: An Overview, G. Fred Lee and Associates, May 1, 1994, cited in Solid Waste Report, July 18, 1996, at p. 230.

92. "Plastic Dump Liners Have Been Slow in Coming," Wall Street Journal, November 14, 1996 at p. A4.

93. 40 CFR Parts 257 and 258 at p. 52338.

94. 40 CFR Parts 257 and 258 at p. 50981.

95. 40 CFR Parts 257 and 258 at p. 52338.

96. Signed into law by President Clinton on March 26, 1996.

97. U.S. EPA, Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response, Reusable News, August/September 1996, at p. 4.

98. 40 CFR Parts 257 and 258 at p. 50980.

99. Letter dated July 31, 1996, from G. Fred Lee, Ph.D., P.E., DEE, to Allen Hershkowitz, NRDC, at p. 1.

100. Letter dated July 29 ,1996, from Mr. Michael Gerrard, Esq., Arnold & Porter, to Allen Hershkowitz, NRDC.

101. Cause Unknown for Rumpke Landfill Slide, Waste Age, April 1996, at p. 8.

102. "Landfill Leaks Detected Following Installation," Pollution Prevention, Feb. 1994, at p. 58. Emphasis added.

103. Impact of Municipal and Industrial Non-Hazardous Waste Landfills on Public Health and the Environment: An Overview, at p. ii.

104. The New York Environment Book, Eric A. Goldstein and Mark A. Izeman (Washington, D.C: Island Press, 1990), at pp. 10-11.

105. Governor George I. Pataki, remarks before the Green Group, NRDC, New York, December 9, 1996.

106. Environmental Myths, at p. 5.

107. Tierney, at pp. 24 and 28.

108. Characterization of Municipal Solid Waste in the United States: 1995 Update (Washington, DC: EPA, 1996), and Characterization of Municipal Solid Waste in the United States: 1990 Update (Washington, DC: EPA, 1990).

109. 1996 State Recycling Laws Update: Year End Edition (Riverdale, Md: Raymond Communications Inc., 1996), at Appendix I, Table 9.

110. 1996 Update: Municipal Solid Waste Disposal Trends, National Solid Waste Management Association (NSWMA) 1996, at pp.6-7.

111. NSWMA 1996, at p. 5.

112. NSWMA 1996, at p. 2.

113. NSWMA 1996, at p. 3.

114. NSWMA 1996, at p. 3.

115. Tierney, at p. 28.

116. The Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal, which entered into force on May 5, 1992, prohibits export of hazardous wastes and garbage to less developed countries, including those that supply the United States with many of its consumer goods.

117. "Keeping Only the Pick of Foreign Litter," New York Times, December 8, 1996, at p. 3.

118. Cited in Solid Waste Report, November 21, 1996, p. 361.

119. Economic Development and Equitable Human Development: The Launch of the 1996 Human Development Report (statement of James Gustave Speth, Administrator, United Nations Development Programme, Washington, D.C., National Press Club, July 16, 1996), at p.3.

120. Same as above, at p.5.

121. "Planning to Close Its Landfill, New York Will Export Trash," New York Times, November 30, 1996, at p. 1.

122. Testimony before the House Subcommittee on Transportation and Hazardous Materials hearings on Interstate Transportation of Solid Waste, April 30, 1991.

123. S. 543, Interstate Transport of Municipal Solid Waste Act of 1995.

124. Mr. Jack Miniclier, Director of Public Works, Charles City County, Va., per. com. July 17, 1996.

125. "Planning to Close Its Landfill, New York Will Export Trash," New York Times, November 30, 1996, at p. 1.

126. Quoted in Solid Waste Report, December 5, 1996, at p. 379.

127. Characterization of Municipal Solid Waste in the United States: 1995 Update, at p. 2.

128. Environmental Myths, at p. 3.

129. Tierney, at pp. 24 and 28.

130. 40 CFR Parts 257 and 258 at p. 50980 and passim.

131. Same as above.

132. Tierney, at p. 26.

133. Burning Garbage in the US: Practice vs. State of the Art, Marjorie J. Clarke, Maarten de Kadt, Ph.D., and David Saphire (New York: INFORM, 1991), at p. 9.

134. The Solid Waste Dilemma: An Agenda for Action (Washington, DC: U.S. EPA Office of Solid Waste, February 1989), Appendix B "Other Contributions to the Waste Stream: MSW Combustion Ash," at p. B-5.

135. Garbage Management in Japan: Leading The Way, Allen Hershkowitz and Eugene Salerni (New York: INFORM, 1986), at p. 76.

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