Opinion

The Divide: Will recycling woes lead to new incineration plants?

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The Divide:  Will recycling woes lead to new incineration plants?

My neighborhood in the city of Albany was just added to the automated single-stream bin recycling program. It got me to thinking about where we are today in respect to recycling. Sorry to say, what I discovered was not very promising.

In January of this year, China stopped importing two dozen kinds of material, including plastics and mixed paper, from Europe and the United States. Then, this past April, the board of the Ulster County Resource Recovery Agency announced plans to stop taking single-stream, or commingled, recyclables in 2019. Just three weeks ago, the City of Albany Common Council’s General Services, Health and Environment Committee was told that, unlike in years past, the city no longer gets paid for its recyclable materials. Instead, the city pays for electronics disposal, commingled recycling, and household hazardous waste collection.  

So, what is the future of recycling? Will the divide between the necessity to recycle and reuse our waste and the lack of places that are willing to take these products lead to a renewed push for mega-incinerator plants to burn this waste?               

China’s leaders, facing a growing trash problem from within the country, decided to focus the country’s recycling capacity on its own mounting trash problem. In order to do this, and to “become world leaders in recycling,” China stopped importing all plastic materials from other countries. It also imposed stringent limits on the impurities in paper and cardboard that are acceptable–limits so refined that most countries are not able to meet the new standards, therefore effectively ending the importing of paper/cardboard other nations collect at curbside. China’s action has led to the countries in Europe and the municipalities in the United States scrambling for space and solutions for their recyclables.

Europe, which has been held up as the leader on environmental issues, now finds itself facing an immediate problem: What to do with its now growing mountains of plastic and paper waste? According to a February 2018 article in Politico, Europe can no longer depend on the “out of sight, out of mind” approach in confronting its waste problem. In other words, Europe has for years prided itself on its high percentage of recycling, when in reality, all Europe was doing was exporting its trash elsewhere, then claiming a “green success” for the lack of trash sitting unrecycled and un-reused. According to the federation of French recyclers, “All the sorting centers are clogged… All European plants are full, saturated.”

In order to help solve the lack of places to send plastic and paper and the subsequent stress on storage facilities for those products, the European Union (EU) presented a vision for the future of plastics. The EU’s European Commission announced that all plastic packaging must be recyclable or reusable by 2030. The Commission estimates that this will create 200,000 jobs and cost as much as 16.6 billion euros.

On our side of the Atlantic, the ban on plastic imports by China has caused many municipalities to re-think their curbside recycling programs. The lack of other countries willing to take our waste has hit local governments where it hurts the most: the taxpayers’ wallets. As the cost of storing plastics and paper that can no longer be exported rise, the increased costs will be passed onto the taxpayer. A recent story in the Boston Globe, “New China policies spark disarray in region’s recycling industry,” should be required reading for all local government officials. The article relates the effect China’s new policy on limiting the importation of plastics and paper has already had, and will have, on the cost of recycling. For example, in Rockland, Mass., residents who a year ago were paying just $3 per ton to have their recyclables collected, are now paying $70. In Abington, the cost went from free to $62 per ton. Some Massachusetts municipalities, such as Plymouth, citing the rapid and huge increase in the cost of curbside recycling, have eliminated the program entirely. Other local government elected officials are going to face the same tough decision as Plymouth, either eliminate curbside recycling, or cut other municipal services in an effort to keep taxes from rising to unacceptable (read that: un-re-electable) levels.

Closer to home, the tougher restrictions on recyclables by China, and other Asian nations, have caused the Ulster County Resource Recovery Agency (UCRRA) to announce that starting in 2019, it will no longer accept single-stream or commingled recyclables. Agency board member Jack Hayes told the Daily Freeman, “We’re just reacting to a global situation where the rest of the world is saying the quality of [single-stream materials] has got to go up.” ‘Corrupted’ recyclables turn recyclable materials into solid waste products that have to be landfilled.

The UCRRA charges $20 per ton for recyclables, but noted that the true cost is three times that amount. In addition to the proposed restriction on commingled recyclables by the UCRRA, two collection centers in the Hudson Valley have already closed, and a third one may soon follow suit. The proposed action by the UCRRA has me wondering if Sierra Processing, the company that Albany contracts with for its recyclables, will follow the UCRRA and stop accepting commingled paper, plastic, and glass.

The recycling woes are causing many people to reevaluate using mega-incinerators to burn waste. The incineration process would also create energy so that the incinerators could at least appear to be environmentally friendly. Incineration is already the path taken by Sweden to deal with its waste issue. Sweden currently has 32 incineration plants and incinerates 50 percent of its municipal solid waste, including some recyclables, and uses the energy produced to ease its dependence on fossil fuels. Three tons of waste equals one ton of fuel oil. However, while saving on fossil fuel use, incineration plants release 1.3 times the amount of carbon dioxide per megawatt generated than coal does. When you factor in the other chemicals released through the incineration process, the environmental “good” resulting from incineration is not good at all.

In New York State, Circular enerG has proposed building a trash incinerator in the Finger Lakes. Public opposition has been strong, including Governor Cuomo, who has come out against the project as “not consistent with… goals for protecting our public health, our environment,…” However, if the escalating problem of what to do with our recyclable waste continues, will government leaders look to incineration as the answer? Incineration just might be the next big issue up for debate in the environmental and public health arena.     

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