Broken LawsSustainability

EPA quietly creates toxic air loophole

Burning trash.

In a nutshell that is what the term “waste incineration” means. It sounds like the solutions to all of our modern problems. Need more energy to meet our demands? Concerned about the amount of waste going in our landfills? Recognize the need to transition away from coal? Waste incineration seems like a beautiful solution to all of these problems, yet hidden behind catchy slogans hides the dirty truth.

Quick history lesson of waste incineration:

  • Until February of 2013, waste incineration was regulated in the United States.
  • Burning trash, has long been known to produce highly toxic chemicals and byproducts. Think of all the things we put in our trash: old plastic water bottles, plastic bags, vinyl, electronics and other items that shouldn’t be in the trash in the first place.  When that is burned it creates toxic air pollution.
  • Waste incinerators have been located in communities across the country and are most often located in low income and communities of color.
  • Over the last decade community groups have successfully stopped nearly 40 waste incinerators from being built.

What is the EPA loophole?

  • It would allow facilities to burn mixed waste like tires, treated wood, plastics, coal or chemical byproducts.
  • What happens is companies make “pellets” of waste made up of toxic materials like the ones I mentioned above. They can burn these pellets as “renewable energy” and receive tax credits.
  • Once these products are turned into pellets, they are no longer considered waste and are therefore unregulated.
  • The result is that more toxic products can be burned and that burning is no longer regulated.

Why this matters, for everyone

  • There are over 1.5 million facilities in the U.S. that can now start burning waste and hazardous products, and there is no public disclosure if this switch to burning toxic trash will happen at the plant in your community.
  • Nearly every town in America has a facility that could start burning this newly defined “waste”.
  • Burning waste is dirtier than burning coal. There will be more toxic air emissions and less regulations on that pollution. Many of the toxic byproducts are substances like dioxin, which never leaves the environment or our bodies.
  • Health impacts are serious for workers and communities living near these facilities.
  • Our tax money is subsidizing this practice. Under the new rule companies are eligible for renewable energy tax credits.

The sales pitch around waste incineration gives a false solution to our waste, plastic and hazardous materials problem. If people think that their plastic consumption is no longer and environmental threat, they have no incentive to stop using plastic. The plastics and chemical industry would like to see this happen (but we won’t let them!)

To quote Dow Chemical:

We understand that some consumers view packaging as waste. We want to help consumers feel good about plastic packaging…” Jeff Wooster

What can we do?

  • Create less toxic waste. Avoid single-use plastic water bottles and shopping bags, bring your batteries, paint cans, and electronics to your local hazardous waste recycling facility. Avoid buying anything with vinyl, which creates toxic pollution from the creation to disposal of the product.
  • Find out if there is a waste incineration facility in your community. You can call your local municipal solid waste board and ask them if waste incineration takes place in your community and if they burn waste pellets. (The technically don’t need to answer these questions but by asking the question your county will know there is public concern around toxic air pollution.)
  • Earthjustice, an firm of environmental lawyers, has filed a lawsuit against the EPA to stop this loophole, which will likely be heard in 2014. Fingers crossed for a good outcome.

A bit overwhelming huh?

That’s how I felt, and then I was reminded that a grassroots movement over the last several decades has successfully fought waste incineration sites across the country. By working together we can win back health and environmental protections.

Nothing is set in stone, we have the right and ability to fight back. If anything, this underscores the need and importance for us to combat apathy towards our political process.

Congress is messy.

Politics is annoying.

But organizing works and there’s nothing we can’t take on if we’re fighting arm in arm.

Photo credit: Mac Ivan Flickr

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