As a national leader when it comes to responsibly managing the solid waste materials remaining after all available efforts to reduce, reuse, and recycle, Connecticut has long served as a role model for sustainable waste management in the US, on a par with the environmental leadership of such European nations as Denmark and Germany. So, it’s frustrating to see a central technology that has enabled that success come under attack and be misrepresented by some in leadership positions.
That technology is waste-to-energy. These modern facilities provide vital sustainable waste management services to the state and keep waste out of landfills, minimizing the environmental impact from the waste we generate as a society. It’s a technologically advanced means of waste disposal that is recognized at the federal level and globally for reducing greenhouse gases – particularly methane – by eliminating emissions from landfills. Waste-to-energy facilities also provide a significant source of local renewable energy that powers homes and businesses and recover valuable metal for recycling – enough to build more than 40,000 cars annually.
Much of the misinformation about these facilities focuses on their environmental impact and emissions.
Study after study has indicated modern WTE facilities do not pose a significant health risk of any kind for those living in proximity. Focusing on WTE facilities as the culprit for adverse health effects in urban areas when its emissions are minuscule in comparison to other major source categories does a disservice to society by distracting efforts from the real offenders. For example, when evaluating particulate matter (PM10) emissions in Hartford County, the Bristol WTE facility accounts for 0.07% of emissions in the county, while 25% is generated by motor vehicle traffic and another 16% is generated by commercial cooking (i.e. restaurants). Yet, there is no opposition to these other emission sources. Why is that?
From what I can see, there is only one main difference that could account for why Waste-to-Energy elicits such ire, while these far more noxious culprits get a pass – perception.
WTE facilities are an easy target – immediately recognizable for what they are – industrial sites with noticeable chimneys prominently visible due in part to their strategic locations by the state’s busiest highways to ensure convenient access by refuse trucks. It’s understandable why these facilities are a popular focus of well-intentioned groups fighting for the health and well-being of their communities. While it’s natural to want to fight anything that has a stack, especially when feeding an emotional narrative, it simply should not take the place of conducting proper due diligence to determine the order of magnitude in which to address and deploy the appropriate resolutions to the environmental impacts that threaten the health of Connecticut’s residents. I urge you to avoid this familiar pitfall and instead follow the science.
Landfills are currently the only viable alternative to handle the waste that inevitably remains after recycling and they are major contributors to climate change. NASA scientists identified landfills as super-emitters of methane, a greenhouse gas that is 84 times more potent a climate-warming gas than CO2 over a 20-year period. Recognizing this for the public health threat it is, Connecticut long ago had the vision to move away from landfills in favor of a more sustainable solution to managing its residents’ waste. Now, however, with plans now in place to retire the Mid-Conn facility in Hartford next year, Connecticut will confront a new environmental challenge – significant disposal capacity shortfall.
But this challenge is as unnecessary as it is preventable. At a time when society as a whole is grappling with the urgent impacts of climate change, it makes no sense to turn the tables on a proven technology like WTE that has served our state so well for so many years. WTE provides tangible climate benefits while enabling us to manage the waste we generate, safely and reliably. If these plants were to shut down, it would mean significantly more emissions of GHGs from landfilling and trucking waste out of state to someone else’s backyard.
Perhaps it’s a failure of the waste-to-energy industry and the local municipalities that rely on these facilities for not doing more to educate our shared stakeholders on the benefits of the technology they have embraced and trusted these many years. We’ll take some of that blame, but rather than focus on the past, we must fix our sights on the future in order to meet the enormous and imminent challenge now confronting us.
Instead of demonizing these facilities and the dedicated and hardworking men and women who quietly and diligently go about the business of sustainably managing the waste each of us puts to the curb every day, our energy is better expended advancing sustainable waste and materials management solutions, continuing Connecticut’s leadership in this area. I urge policy makers to follow science and not hyperbole. We stand ready to work with you.
Ben Gassaway is the Asset Manager for Covanta’s Waste-to-Energy facilities in Bristol and Preston, CT. Covanta Energy LLC is included among the advertising sponsors of this website.
The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of CTNewsJunkie.com.