US Slow to Embrace Waste-to-Energy; Europe Powers Ahead Says NY Times

Date: April 13, 2010

Source: News Room

As a paper of record, The New York Times created a stir with its story calling the US a laggard to Denmark's embrace of waste to energy. They pointed to Denmark's 29 plants which serve 5.5 million people and 98 municipalities, while the United States, a country of more than 300 million people, having only 87 trash-burning power plants, most of which were built 15 years ago.

Conspicuously absent were interviews with any waste industry executives who might have bolstered the case for responsible landfills, or reminded us that ash produced by burning must still be landfilled, or even shown us the math. If 29 waste-to-energy facilities serve 5 million there, then we would need between 1,000 and 1,800 such facilities here in the US. Collectively, Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands have 400 plants.

But obstacles to bringing more plants online in the United States are multifold, according to Matt Hale, director of the Office of Resource Conservation and Recovery at U.S. EPA. He cited the relative abundance of cheap landfills in the country, and opposition from state officials who fear the plants could undercut recycling programs and lead to a "negative public perception."

Waste-to-energy is expensive. Its capital costs have been a significant barrier to all but the most expensive markets in places where a high population density puts a large premium on available land. But even in New York, the article points out, whose Mayor Michael Bloomberg is a champion of various "green" projects, has shied away from pursuing the technology. His press secretary said that moving forward with such a project would take "years of hearings and reviews," largely due to debate over where to build.

A study last year spearheaded by EPA and North Carolina State University scientists concluded that waste-to-energy plants represent an environmentally beneficial alternative to landfills since the technology would lower greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and local pollution, while producing valuable energy. But not all environmental groups like it either. "Incinerators are really the devil," said Laura Haight, a senior environmental associate with the New York Public Interest Research Group. She said the priority should be pushing for zero waste and promoting recycling programs instead. Meanwhile labor unions have been giving money to environmental groups to fight waste-to-energy and landfills in favor of more job-creating recycling programs.

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