Incinerators are toxic to surrounding communities and the climate. Incinerators emit high levels of mercury pollution and ultra-fine particulate matter, one of the most dangerous known pollutants to human health. Trash-burning also emits more carbon dioxide per unit of energy produced than does burning coal.
What’s wrong with waste incineration?
The incineration industry has tried to rebrand incineration as “waste-to-energy” in recent years. Unfortunately, trash incineration is currently included in Maryland’s Renewable Portfolio Standard as a Tier 1 renewable energy source.
Trash incinerators are a far cry from being a clean, renewable energy source. Aside from their frighteningly high mercury emissions, incinerators also release ultra-fine particulate matter, one of the most dangerous known pollutants to human health. Installing even the most cutting-edge pollution control technology does not eliminate toxins – it can only collect them into concentrated forms that must be landfilled. Also, waste incineration is terrible for the climate: per unit of energy (MWh), trash incineration produces more carbon dioxide than burning coal.
Trash-Burning Incineration in Maryland
Proponents of incineration claim that this technology is “green,” but this simply isn’t true. Instead, incineration relies upon the continued production of trash and the importation of trash from other states to keep incinerators running – burdening Maryland residents with the resulting pollution.
Incineration also undermines the strong clean energy laws that Maryland already has on the books. The state boasts a robust mandatory renewable energy portfolio standard (RPS), which requires that the state get 50% of its energy from renewable sources by the year 2030. This important legislation was passed with the hope of encouraging the development of clean, renewable energy throughout the state. Renewable energy sources are classified using a tiered system, so that the cleanest energy sources count toward the RPS goals more than others. Trash incinerators were classified as a “Tier Two” energy source under Maryland’s RPS until 2011, when new legislation moved incinerators up to “Tier One.”
As a Tier One energy source, burning trash competes with legitimate renewable energy sources like wind and solar and gains subsidies under the state’s clean electricity standard. This means that harmful, polluting incinerators will make up about three percent of the state’s renewable energy portfolio in 2020. (Wind, solar, and hydropower will make up 83 percent). Environmental and justice advocates, including CCAN, fought ferociously to close this loophole during the 2019 legislative session. We succeeded as part of a Senate version of the Clean Energy Jobs Act (CEJA) and we fought for two stand-alone bills in the House and the Senate to close the loophole. But none of our efforts garnered enough votes to pass out of the House Economic Matters Committee. In the end, the version of CEJA that passed both chambers did not close the loophole. Read more about it here.
Incinerators in Maryland
The BRESCO incinerator operated by Wheelabrator is Baltimore’s biggest stationary source of air pollution. Reducing local air pollution, and NOx in particular, is critical for public health in Baltimore. The Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) finalized a rulemaking process focused on Reasonably Available Control Technology (RACT) for NOx emissions at BRESCO in 2018 to establish stricter NOx limits at the facility in order to limit pollution in our city and protect public health from harmful emissions.
In addition to its high NOx emissions, in 2015, the BRESCO incinerator emitted roughly double the amount of greenhouse gases per megawatt hour of energy than each of the 6 largest coal plants in Maryland. Shockingly, Maryland’s Renewable Portfolio Standard currently classifies incineration as a “Tier 1” renewable energy source, which means that BRESCO receives millions of dollars in subsidies every year. CCAN is committed to cleaning up our RPS and removing incentives for incineration. Removing undeserved subsidies for this polluting facility while tightening its NOx emissions limits will demonstrate that incineration is no longer a viable industry in Maryland and that zero waste is the path toward a healthier population and environment.
The Montgomery County Resource Recovery Facility in Dickerson is a 24-year old trash incinerator and the largest polluter in the County – more than the nearby coal-fired power plant. The incinerator burns an average of about 570,000 tons of trash per year, turning it into 390,000 tons of air pollution and 180,000 tons of toxic ash that is dumped in Virginia landfills. Read more here.
VICTORY: Students, residents, and advocates successfully defeated Energy Answers’ plan to build the nation’s largest trash-burning incinerator in the Curtis Bay neighborhood of Baltimore in 2016. Click to learn more about the defeated incinerator in the Curtis Bay neighborhood of Baltimore.
The Future of our Trash
Removing public subsidies for trash incinerators is part of a larger effort to build a just transition from incineration to zero waste. 75% of what we dispose of is recyclable or compostable The leftover 25% can be redesigned to avoid.
Zero waste is a goal to divert as much waste as possible from landfills and incinerators through increased recycling, composting, reuse programs and other initiatives.
Here’s how the Baltimore City Council plans to get there:
1). Promote composting, including developing a composting facility.
2). Provide free recycling bins to all Baltimore residents and extensive education ; on what can be recycled.
3). Ban styrofoam and implement a plastic bag fee.
4). Develop a plan for a “Save As You Throw” program to incentivize reductions in the amount of household garbage placed on the curb.
…And much more! The zero waste goal is reflected in the city’s 2019 Sustainability Plan.
A number of cities across the country, such as San Francisco, Oakland, and Austin have adopted zero waste plans to improve their sustainability. It’s time for Maryland to follow their lead.
- “City Council Calls for ‘No More Cash for Burning Trash.'” The Real News Network. January 14, 2019
- “Stopping One Incinerator Wasn’t Enough for Baltimore Students.” Next City. June 13, 2018.
- Maryland moving to cut emissions from BRESCO trash incinerator. Baltimore Sun. July 5, 2017.
- How a trash incinerator — Baltimore’s biggest polluter — became ‘green’ energy. The Baltimore Sun. December 15, 2017.
- Victory in Frederick! County scraps plans for waste-to-energy incinerator. The Frederick News-Post. November 21, 2014.
- CCAN Memo: The Clean Energy Jobs Act: A Great Bill with Unfinished Business on Waste Incineration
- The Future Of Our Trash
- Factsheet: Taking Out the Trash in the Renewable Portfolio Standard
- Factsheet: Health Impacts of Trash Incineration
- Factsheet: Phasing out Waste Incineration
- Factsheet: How BRESCO’s Pollution Harms Baltimore
- Factsheet: Montgomery County Incinerator
- Factsheet: Incineration Vs. Landfills
- Resolution: Montgomery County Council Supports Expanding RPS to 50%, Removing Trash Incineration
- BRESCO Incinerator UMD Student Analysis
- Incinerators: Myths vs. Facts, Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) , Next City,
- Waste & Climate Resources, GAIA
- Stop Trashing the Climate report, Institute for Local Self-Reliance, eco-cycle, GAIA
- Incinerator report from our partners at the Environmental Integrity Project
- Incinerator factsheet on the Energy Answers incinerator