I realize all of us want our trash to be taken away when we place it at the curb. However, there is no such place as “away”. There is only air, water or land to dump into.
When we incinerate 100 tons of trash, it turns into 30 tons of ash and 70 tons of air pollution. The 30 tons of ash is mostly toxic heavy metals and needs to be buried in a landfill, eventually to seep out into our groundwater.
Because much of our trash is now plastic, it’s even worse to burn than in years past. Because? Because of the toxins, and because this adds to the carbon already responsible for the climate crisis.
You may say.. but look, the incinerator also generates electricity. Isn’t that a good thing? No. The greenhouse gas emissions from an incinerator are much more than from even a coal power plant.
So, we shouldn’t be incinerating our trash. We could bury our trash in landfills. It’s a better option, for now.
Having spoken to several national consultants, I’ve found that we need to look at this problem systematically. We need to ask…
- What in our society creates trash?
- How do we reduce it?
- How do we repair broken items and extend their life?
- How do we recycle better, even up to 50% of our trash?
- How do we encourage economic development?
- How can we do better to educate?
- How do we develop pilots for items not previously recycled?
By signing these contracts, we end up with corporate interests in charge of our municipal solid waste. We need professional environmental planners in charge of our zero waste goals. These broader questions are beyond the scope of the Streets Department, tasked with hauling and delivering the collected materials to private landfill and incinerator operations.
What should we be doing? We need a commitment to Zero Waste. This means divert, or do something, with 90% of our trash, and allow no more than 10% to be landfilled. Incineration is ..not… an option.
Knowing that landfills are better than incineration, we could continue landfilling our trash, for now. And then… we could consider a Pay As You Throw program — a program where recycling and compost pickup is free, and residents are charged per bag of trash. Pay As You Throw has been proven to reduce the trash people put out by 44%. We’ve been told there’s no significant increase in illegal dumping. Surprising, yeah!
Meanwhile, we close the loop with
- local recycling facilities that process the collected material,
- local composting facilities to process our organic waste, and
- convenient neighborhood sites for repairs and to drop off bulky and hazardous materials.
Specific to the contracts on the table today, I’d like to point out that there was a resolution 190114 asking for public hearings about the recycling contract. I don’t think there was a public hearing.
Instead, we have this contract with Waste Management to receive our recyclables for $104 per ton, at a cost of about $10.8 million annually. This contract says a lot about contamination rates, but not how to reduce these rates. We notice a reference to an education fund, but it’s unclear how much that would be, or who manages it to ensure lower contamination rates.
On the trash contracts, the disposal fee has been left blank. I refer you to pages 52 and 51. Just because we need need our trash to go away doesn’t mean we write a blank check for it to be incinerated! It’s also unclear why the pilot for organic waste is capped at 400 tons per day.
Zero waste means never having to say we’re burning our trash, not even at waste to energy plants.
Above was Meenal’s testimony on June 5th, 2019, at a hearing of Philadelphia City Council’s Streets Committee