Even if every New Yorker suddenly devoted themselves to rinsing out bottles and saving food scraps for compost, the city would still have a hard time achieving zero waste without new technology.
According to New York’s Department of Sanitation, more than 20% of the city’s residential waste is currently unrecyclable. Many items that are discarded on a daily basis—plastic foam, toothpaste tubes, disposable razors—are made of materials that just aren’t cost-effective to try and recover. Reducing consumption and reusing materials is always preferable, but some level of leftover refuse is inevitable. With landfill burial a last resort, this leaves waste-to-energy as a controversial yet increasingly viable option.
Marco Castaldi, director of the Earth Engineering Center at City College, has studied these technologies for years and said people often miss the true meaning of recycling.
“If you think about recycling really in its holistic form you must include energy,” said Castaldi.
He argued that recycling doesn’t have to necessarily mean turning a plastic bottle into another plastic bottle. It can also mean capturing the inherent caloric energy of an object for reuse: In Europe, there's actually a standard classifying waste-to-energy facilities as “recovery” rather than “disposal” if they meet certain criteria.
The term “waste-to-energy” includes anaerobic digestion for food waste as well as many other prototypes that can break garbage down to its most elemental parts—of these combustion, i.e. incineration, is still the most commonly used option. Yet these incinerators, which burn trash to create electricity or heat, also face big opposition in New York. Convincing people that it may sometimes be more “green” to burn their plastic rather than send it to a recycling facility will be difficult.
It's also not impossible to imagine a day when landfills in other states no longer welcome New York’s trash. Last year, Senator Bill Casey of Pennsylvania proposed a bill that would require states to meet higher standards in order to ship their trash to other states. Communities in upstate New York have also begun to push back against accepting the city’s waste.
The European Model
Experts point to Europe as a model for New York to follow. European countries face the same challenges of limited space for landfills, densely populated urban areas and old infrastructure. Inspired by a strict directive from the European Union that limited landfill use starting in 2001, many countries have had to get creative.
The E.U. has more than 400 active waste-to-energy facilities with others on the way. Paris, Vienna, and Copenhagen all create significant portions of their district heating from incinerators located within city limits. In Copenhagen, a new waste-to-energy facility will have a ski slope on top and even puff out a smoke ring every time one quarter-ton of carbon dioxide is emitted.
Critics often say that when people have the option to burn trash they will recycle less, but the numbers show otherwise. For example, Sweden recycles 49% of its waste, incinerates 50% and landfills 1%.
Dr. Ella Stengler, managing director of the Confederation of European Waste-to-Energy Plants, said that limited space in landfills doesn’t have to be the only reason for making a change.
“Even if you are less densely populated, there are reasons enough to take landfill diversion as an opportunity rather than a burden,” she said.
Stengler added that many facilities provide direct heating for nearby buildings and can reduce costs for all involved. Unlike people in the United States, many Europeans have no issue living around these plants. Though Stengler said that changing people’s minds wasn’t easy.
“It has a longer tradition in Scandinavian countries,” she said. “It takes time and awareness and education and a lot of information.”
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, World Economic Forum, and U.S. Conference of Mayors have all recognized waste-to-energy as playing a role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The emissions created in the process outweigh those that would be generated by producing electricity in standard power plants or letting waste sit in landfills.
Despite its successes, waste-to-energy has also been called into question lately. Some European facilities have been faulted for not accurately disclosing their emissions and multiple cities in the United States and Canada have chosen not to continue using incinerators because landfills are cheaper.
At the same time, other countries are doubling down on the technology. China recently announced plans to build the world’s largest waste-to-energy facility in Shenzhen. It will have a one-mile circumference and be capable of burning one-third of the city’s trash per day.
New York City has none of these facilities within its borders, though it does send 23% of its garbage to incinerators in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and upstate Niagara Falls.
Ironically, New York is credited with building the country’s first incinerator, located on Governors Island, in 1885. Many other city-run plants and unregulated units in apartment buildings followed over the years. It wasn’t uncommon to see thick, black smoke streaming from roofs across the skyline. In 1951, a law was passed that actually required new apartment buildings to have their own incinerators. Due to mounting health concerns these facilities were all eventually shut down.
The last real effort to get waste-to-energy facilities built in the city happened during the early ‘90s. The plan would have put one in every borough, but bad memories of unfiltered incinerators and the smoldering resentment over Staten Island’s massive Fresh Kills landfill created enormous community opposition. A proposed plant in the Brooklyn Navy Yard became a focal point and the fight dragged on for years. After being debated in local media, the City Council, and all the way up to the state capital, the plan eventually fell apart.
Norman Steisel, a former sanitation commissioner and deputy mayor, was the plan’s main proponent. Even now, with so many advancements in technology, he still doesn’t see an incinerator ever getting built locally.
“There’s just a tremendous amount of skepticism about anything that’s burning waste,” he said. “I think those fires, so to speak, have been fueled by overzealous environmental advocates.”
Steisel has never given up on waste-to-energy, and is intrigued by the possibilities of anaerobic digestion, but is resigned to what he sees as hypocrisy among the groups resisting it.
“The same environmentalists who argue against some of these technologies are making exactly the same arguments they would scold climate change deniers for,” he said.
The Future of Waste-to-Energy Plants
Since 1990, federal emissions standards for combustion have been much more strict, but the technology still carries the stigma of its dirty past. The residual ash it produces is toxic. While some alternative uses have been found, such as covering roads, much of it is still buried in landfills.
Castaldi has done extensive research at the Earth Engineering Center to try and allay people’s fears about modern waste-to-energy plants.
“All the data and analysis show, actually, traffic causes more pollution than these things,” he said. “Just because we can measure it down to the parts per billion and we can do an analysis on what the probability is to contract some sort of sickness doesn’t mean it’s going to happen.”
The most common concern brought up by environmental activists is dioxin—a highly toxic chemical that can be found in emissions.
A recent study by Castaldi’s partner in the center, Nickolas Themelis, showed a dramatic drop in dioxin emissions from combustion over the past 25 years. Controlled source emissions decreased nearly 96% between 1987 and 2012 and now represent just 0.54% of industrial dioxin emissions. Landfill fires, forest fires and backyard burning make up the vast majority of all dioxin emissions today.
Castaldi said it’s not up to him to advocate for specific solutions. All he can do is keep vetting new technologies as they come along. Some of the more prominent new ideas seem like they belong in a science fiction novel.
Plasma gasification turns waste into gas—reducing its volume by more than 75% with no emissions—and has been tested by the city of Portland, Oregon. Biomass gasification uses a similar technique on wood and cardboard. Pyrolysis—a process that can reduce plastic into a petroleum byproduct—has been successfully used by companies such as Golden Renewable Energy in Yonkers, New York. A new plant under construction by Entsorga West Virginia will employ a method called mechanical biological treatment to turn carbon-based materials into an alternative fuel that can be used in cement plants.
While some of these technologies are new or untested, Castaldi said it’s important to keep an open mind if New York ever wants to achieve its zero waste dreams.
“A community that’s willing to see what the best thing to do with their waste is will look at all possible solutions,” he said.
This is the second of four articles exploring the future of waste in New York. Next: How to reduce the amount of waste we produce. The first article in the series was "Trash tubes, compost islands, and the future of waste in America’s biggest city."
Cole Rosengren is a garbage enthusiast, Mainer and Brooklynite. He covers local government and environmental issues in New York.