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Sending a city's garbage up in flames

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As municipal landfills were closed and capped back in the 1980s and 90s, communities across the US built big incinerators to get rid of the trash. Some, like St. Lawrence County, decided "no" for environmental and economic reasons. But many of the massive furnaces were built, financed by bonds and waste contracts just now being paid off. Now that those debts are off the books, some municipalities are having to think, all over again, about whether burning trash makes environmental and economic sense. Sarah Hulett reports.

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Sarah Hulett
July 20, 2009

Back in the 1980s and 90s, dozens of communities across the US built incinerators to get rid of their trash. Many of them financed the massive furnaces with bonds they're just now paying off. And now that those debts are off their books, some cities are re-thinking whether burning trash makes environmental and economic sense. Sarah Hulett reports:

About 300 garbage trucks dump their loads each day at the nation's biggest municipal incinerator.

"You see the conveyor house going across, that's conveying the fuel to the boilers."

That's Brad Laesser. He's the chief engineer at the Michigan Waste Energy facility in Detroit.

The "fuel" he's talking about is shredded-up trash.

And he says that's the beauty of facilities like this. They produce electricity.

"So right now we're putting out about 50 megawatts. But we can go to here."

Laesser points to 70 on the output gauge. That's enough electricity to power about half the homes in Detroit. And the leftover steam is used to heat and cool more than 200 buildings downtown.

Sounds great, right?

Well, Brad Van Guilder of the Ecology Center says not so much.

"Be wary of people coming and talking to you about large, expensive magic machines that are going to dispose of your waste for you."

Van Guilder says municipal waste incinerators are major contributors to smog, and spew dangerous pollutants like dioxin, lead and mercury.

And he says huge furnaces like Detroit's make it nearly impossible to get viable recycling efforts off the ground.

"Think about what's in the trash that you throw out every day. One of the most important components is paper and plastic."

Both can be recycled. But Detroit has not had a curbside recycling program for the past 20 years. That's because the contract with the incinerator required that all trash picked up at the curb be used to keep the furnaces burning.

That changed this summer, though - when the contract expired. Now about 30,000 households are part of a curbside recycling pilot project. And there are drop-off sites where people can take their recyclables.

(sound of recycling center)

Matthew Naimi heads an organization that runs several drop-off sites, and - maybe surprisingly - he's okay with the incinerator. Naimi says he sees trash disposal and recycling as two separate industries.

"I realized that if we shut the incinerator down before we got a good established recycling program running, we'd be burying our recyclables instead of burning them."

And officials with Covanta - which runs the Detroit incinerator - agree that recycling and incineration can work together.

Paul Gilman is the chief sustainability officer for Covanta. He says landfills are the problem - not recycling.

"Landfills and energy-from-waste facilities, that's where the competition is. It isn't at the upper step of recycling."

He says cheap landfill space makes the economics of incineration difficult.

But he's hoping that could change with the passage of a climate change bill in Washington. Gilman says in Europe and Asia, trash incinerators like Detroit's don't get treated the same way as power plants fueled with coal or natural gas.

"So in Asia, under the Kyoto protocols, a facility like this actually generates what are called greenhouse gas credits. They're reducing greenhouse gasses by the act of processing solid waste and keeping it from going to a landfill."

Where trash produces methane - a potent greenhouse gas.

But the people who want the incinerator shut down say they don't believe burning trash is the greener way to go. They want the city to landfill its waste while it builds an aggressive recycling program.

So far, they're not getting what they want from city leaders.

The board that oversees how Detroit handles its trash recently voted to go with incineration for at least the next year.

For The Environment Report, I'm Sarah Hulett.

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