Garbage at the Cedar Hills Regional Landfill in Maple Valley. FILE PHOTO

Garbage at the Cedar Hills Regional Landfill in Maple Valley. FILE PHOTO

Why burning our trash may not be as bad as it sounds

Understanding waste-to-energy’s financial and environmental impact in King County.

King County officials are proposing and exploring more sustainable alternatives to the massive Cedar Hills Landfill, including the burning of waste through waste-to-energy systems.

Questions and concerns have been raised regarding some of the potential externalities WTE could have on the surrounding environment as well as its effectiveness as part of a more sustainable waste management system.

Waste-to-energy operates by essentially burning waste in a closed system. That system utilizes the energy created through combustion while also filtering the most dangerous emissions created by the burned waste.

Marco Castaldi helped author a scientific report advocating for waste-to-energy as a preferable waste management strategy. Castaldi’s report was cited by the city of Spokane, which manages one of the only other WTE facilities currently in the region.

Castaldi said the air pollution control systems utilized by WTE facilities typically reduce emissions far below the regulatory levels allowed by the government. He said they continuously monitor what is being emitted by the burned waste and reduce regulated emissions to less than 85-99 percent of what is legally allowed.

The report also found no evidence of adverse health impacts from waste-to-energy.

He said WTE has the added benefit of material recovery. When waste is burned, virtually all of the carbon material is incinerated while certain metals such as glass, aluminum, copper, iron and zinc can be recovered from the ashes using tools such as magnets to sift out materials that could be used again.

When considering if a WTE facility is a more sustainable option for a community’s waste management system, Castaldi said all factors should be determined on a case-by-case basis. Ultimately, the system as a whole should be considered.

He said having to add or extend transportation routes, or having to transport waste from one facility to another, can have external impacts such as increased net emissions that ultimately could affect whether the system as a whole is sustainable.

Alternatives to burning

Sustainable waste management advocacy group Zero Waste Washington has taken a staunch anti-WTE position on the issue, according to executive director Heather Trim.

She called waste-to-energy a “large environmental justice concern across the country,” explaining that even though WTE emissions may be under the legal levels, they are still greenhouse gas emitting facilities.

Trim said WTE is extremely expensive and once implemented, it requires waste to be generated in order to “feed the beast,” hindering waste prevention and diversion efforts that Zero Waste Washington believes are a dire need.

She said King County has cited that 70 percent of the community’s waste stream could be diverted from the landfill either by recycling, composting or being prevented from entering the waste stream in the first place.

Instead of WTE, Trim advocated for better recycling infrastructure, a reduction in the high rate of food waste and an expansion of composting to help sustainably manage organic waste.

“Even a small percentage adds up quite a bit,” Trim said of the potential for waste diversion in the county.

Philipp Schmidt-Pathmann is the board chairman, founder and CEO of the Institute of Energy and Resource Management, and is a tireless advocate for waste-to-energy systems. Schmidt-Pathmann was a part of a 2017 study of the potential for WTE in King County and he led the team that ended up winning the proposal for a new WTE in Los Angeles.

Schmidt-Pathmann agreed that there is a high potential for increased waste diversion in King County and that the county needs better recycling infrastructure. He said WTE can be a part of an improved integrated waste management system that is both more economical and more sustainable than the use of landfills.

“What is important in this discussion is considering what the alternatives are,” he said.

Landfills, according to Schmidt-Pathmann, are “archaic and antiquated,” and so are the laws used to regulate them. He said landfills themselves are relatively large greenhouse gas emitters, citing that 40 percent of California’s methane emissions come from landfills alone — more than the levels produced by the livestock industry.

He said landfills present residual public health effects over time, particularly with people who live close to them. He said when people notice the hard-to-detect environmental impacts that landfills are creating, it is usually too late.

“King County might say we have the best landfill,” said Schmidt-Pathmann. “But there are no good landfills.”

The power of waste

The implementation and operation of a WTE facility may seem relatively expensive at first, but that is because the cost represents the “true” value of managing waste, he said.

Landfills may be initially cheaper at face value than to implement a WTE system, but Schmidt-Pathmann said landfills have no return-on-investment like what a WTE system could create. WTE facilities provide value through material recovery and energy generation, which he said would generate enough revenue over time to have the facility pay for itself.

He estimated the cost of the facility would pay itself off within 20 years of its creation, while a landfill will never recover the same kinds of costs.

Spokane’s Solid Waste Services claim their WTE facility processes 800 tons of municipal solid waste a day and can generate 22 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 13,000 homes. They sell the electricity generated to Avista Utilities and make close to $5 million annually.

Schmidt-Pathmann said a WTE in King County would be able to fully power the region’s light rail system.

He believes WTE could be, and should be a part of an integrated waste management system which creates value from waste management and more effectively diverts waste and recycles material. He also believes it is a scalable solution.

In Hamburg, Germany, where Schmidt-Pathmann is from, over 1.8 million people live there, yet he says the community has achieved zero landfill waste since the 1990s because of their adoption of integrated waste management and WTE technology. He also said King County pays more per capita for waste management than the average German despite Germany’s avoidance of landfills.


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