Burning Waste No! Zero Waste Yes!
Paul Connett, Ph.D., professor emeritus of chemistry and environmental toxicology, and an international activist against incineration, spoke against the proposed capacity increase of the HERC garbage incinerator to an enthusiastic crowd on Sept. 17 at Mayflower Church in South Minneapolis.
“I didn’t intend to be fighting incinerators for the past 28 years, but, as John Lennon said, ‘Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans.’ ”
“We are living on this planet like we have another one to go to!”
According to Connett, “We would need four or five planets if everyone consumed as much as the average American ... Meanwhile countries like India and China are copying our consumption patterns. And they are also building incinerators. China right now is building the largest incinerator in Asia in Beijing and planning 300 more ... Something needs to change. And it needs to start with how we handle waste.”
“Landfilling and incinerating unwanted refuse is a way to hide the evidence of over consumption,” he said. “Zero Waste is a stepping stone to sustainability.”
"Zero Waste is a
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Connett described the energy and environmental cost to systems that feed consumption. “We use a huge amount of energy in the extraction of the raw materials and another huge amount transporting them halfway around the world” to feed demand by industry. More energy is used to produce goods and then even more energy to transport them. “The first two processes produce 70 times more solid waste than what you see in your curbside garbage cans,” along with “air pollution, water pollution, carbon dioxide, destroying the forests, polluting the oceans, and all of this CO2 contributing to global warming.”
Once most of these products are consumed and eventually discarded as “waste,” decisions regarding how to handle this refuse have long-ranging consequences for the sustainability of the planet and the health of our people and ecosystems. Connett explored the alternatives.
“You can put this material in a landfill—but then you must start all over again with extraction of raw materials, transport, manufacturing, etc., for any new goods. Worse—no impacts are mitigated when organic waste is put in landfills.” When organics are not separated out for composting, “Landfills are the worst for global warming due to methane: Molecule for molecule it is 25 times worse than CO2 when it comes to global warming.”
Alternately, “If you burn something, then you also have to start all over again.” So you are no better off than with landfills when it comes to wasting resources—and you have created toxins and toxic emissions in the bargain. “If you trap the discussion only to incinerators vs landfills, then you have to accept a false dichotomy” for the best resource/waste management choices. “Incinerators create CO2 and landfills create methane, it is true. But the moment incineration and landfills have to compare themselves with recycling, composting, reuse, repair and waste reduction, then they are absolutely finished” as a credible sustainable waste management strategy.
“Recycling materials saves energy on the extraction and transport of raw materials. This conserves the embedded energy of these products. Reusing saves the energy necessary for the extraction and transport of raw materials, as well as the manufacture of new products.” He charged that the Minneapolis contract guaranteeing tons of refuse to HERC was holding the city’s recycling rates down. “We need to end this contract when it expires in 2018 and stop this proposed capacity increase now.”
Connett touted the benefits of composting, which “avoids the use of high energy fertilizers.” Compost “holds on to carbon, helps soil hold onto water, puts nutrients back into the soil, and helps to fight global warming.” The amended soil encourages “more plant growth to take up more CO2 to fight global warming. Carbon will be held by compost for a long time” before slowly breaking it down into CO2. On the other hand, “Incineration turns organics into CO2 immediately.”
He cited San Francisco’s composting program. “Since 1992, San Francisco has composted 1.2 million pounds of organic waste,” saving “the equivalent of all the cars’ CO2 emissions going both ways across the Bay Bridge for 3.5 years.” He concluded, “If all U.S. cities had comparable programs, we could reduce the United States’ contribution to global warming by 20%.”
On the other hand, “Incineration wastes valuable material resources: cardboard, paper, plastics.” He cited a study on the resale price of recyclables in the Pacific Northwest from the 1980s to the present, in which the value of recyclables has climbed consistently and “the baseline price of recyclables has gone up to over $100 per ton. Why would you pay a lot of money to burn something that you can actually sell?” County Commissioner McLaughlin, Carl Michaud, and other Hennepin County Burner promoters have stated repeatedly in the public record that they need to burn tons of mixed solid waste at HERC to pay for recycling programs.
In summary, “Every ton of waste that we incinerate takes us in the wrong direction. Whereas every ton we compost, reuse, recycle or avoid takes us in the right direction towards sustainability.”