The United States is ready to fire up its first commercial garbage incinerator in 20 years.
The US$670 million facility, located in West Palm Beach, Florida, is capable of turning 3,000 tons of trash a day into electricity for thousands of houses, the New York Times reported.
Similar waste-to-energy plants are being planned in Massachusetts, Nevada, Virginia, Wisconsin and other states.
Americans produce 4.4 pounds of trash per person per day, the most in the world, and the return to incineration is seen as an admission of defeat in the effort to reduce output and step up recycling, the newspaper said.
“People said 30 years ago there wouldn’t be a need to have waste-to-energy sites,” said Ted Michaels, president of the Energy Recovery Council, a trade association, recalling optimism over garbage reduction and recycling activities. Today, few other options are available.
The US Environmental Protection Agency has given its go-ahead for such plants, classifying them as renewable energy, just like solar and wind power. But the facilities are expensive and may pose pollution hazards.
Although the new generation of incinerators is much cleaner than its predecessors, environmental groups oppose their operation, saying the plants emit mercury, lead, dioxins and a variety of other toxic substances.
One such facility is being built in Curtis Bay, Baltimore, at a cost of US$1 billion, and concerns about its viability and health risks are mounting, the newspaper said.
The plant, which can process up to 4,000 tons of material per day, has received approval from Maryland regulators, but its private operator is having difficulties raising enough money for its completion.
Meanwhile, Curtis Bay is already being affected by the pollution coming from its 200-acre coal pier, a fertilizer plant, one of the nation’s largest medical waste incinerators, chemical plants, fuel depots, and an open-air composting site.
In 2009, Curtis Bay ranked among the top nationally for the release of toxic emissions — more than 13.6 million pounds, according to the EPA.
Baltimore, according to a 2013 report by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Laboratory for Aviation and the Environment, had the highest emissions-related mortality rate of 5,695 American cities studied.
The MIT report found that 130 of every 100,000 Baltimore residents were “likely die in a given year due to long-term exposure to air pollution”.
The proposed facility would be allowed to emit up to 240 pounds of mercury and 1,000 pounds of lead annually in a neighborhood with three schools and high rates of cancer and asthma.
The Florida plant, which has an 80-foot smokestack, has encountered far less opposition, though there has been dissent over a plan to accept trash from outside Palm Beach County for at least eight years.
Some residents have said the plant — and the garbage trucks going back and forth — could besmirch the area’s reputation and harm tourism.
“Do we really want to be the trash capital of South Florida?” the newspaper quoted a resident as saying.
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