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================== Electronic Edition ==================

---June 10, 1992---
News and resources for environmental justice.
Environmental Research Foundation
P.O. Box 5036, Annapolis, MD 21403
Fax (410) 263-8944; Internet:


Do you remember the organization Keep American Beautiful from the 1960s? Few people knew it was an industry association formed by America's largest corporations. Their symbol was a proud Indian with a tear in his eye. Their main focus seemed to be an anti-litter campaign. But there was more to it than that. According to the conventional wisdom of the day, to keep the postwar economy expanding, waste disposal capacity would need to keep growing. To develop and maintain a throw-away society, you needed to have plenty of "away" places. By 1960 anyone familiar with water pollution literature could see that burying waste in the ground was guaranteed to cause trouble. (See RHWN #97, #98.) In the late '60s Keep American Beautiful formed a non-profit research group called the National Center for Solid Waste Disposal. This soon became the National Center for Resource Recovery. Resource recovery meant incineration.[1] Industry had found its answer to the solid waste problem.

By the early 1970s, this industry association had EPA [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency] convinced that incineration made sense for solid waste disposal. After the first energy crisis occurred, in 1973, the federal Department of Energy (DOE) came on board; DOE became enthusiastic about "energy recovery" from the incineration of municipal solid waste.

As the '70s progressed, landfill rules were getting stricter, so landfilling was getting more expensive. The 1976 Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) greatly increased the costs of landfilling. In 1980 there were 20,000 landfills but by 1986 there were only 6000 remaining; during this period the "landfill crisis" emerged.

Simultaneously, by the mid-'70s the nuclear power industry had come upon hard times. The industry received no new orders for nuclear power plants after 1975; by 1979 when the Three Mile Island disaster occurred, the handwriting was visible to investors everywhere. Companies that built nuclear power plants had teams of people skilled at making large machines, and the four big nuclear manufacturers--Combustion Engineering, Babcock & Wilcox, General Electric, and Westinghouse--began to manufacture solid waste incinerators.[2]

DOE's goal was to build 200 to 250 new solid waste incinerators by 1992, or 4 to 5 in each state. According to a 1980 plan, these would burn 75% of the nation's trash and would require a capital investment somewhere between $11.5 billion and $21.5 billion, or roughly $50 million to $100 million per incinerator.

In 1980 DOE projected that by 1987 there would be 160,000 tons-per-day of incineration capacity in the U.S. and double this by 1992. But in reality in 1988 incineration capacity was only 50,000 tons per day,[3] and it was expanding at a snail's pace. In 1985 there were 42 new incinerators ordered, but by 1987 it was down to 25 and by 1989 new orders has dropped to 10. In 1987, for the first time in recent memory, more capacity was canceled (35,656 tons per day) than was ordered (20,585 tons per day).[4] The incineration industry had hit a wall.

That wall was made up of local grass-roots citizens concerned about many aspects of solid waste incineration: dollar cost, hazardous air pollution, toxic ash, destruction of material resources, waste of energy, the political corruption that accompanies multi-billion-dollar public works projects, and the gobbling up of small, local waste haulers by the incineration giants.

Citizens took on the incineration industry in many ways. They organized a frontal assault to kill incineration proposals one by one, but, equally importantly, they developed waste reduction, recycling and composting programs that starved incinerators by diverting trash. Eighty percent of solid waste can be recycled and composted, or it can be incinerated--but it it's an either/or proposition. If you build an incinerator, you foreclose your recycling and composting options for the lifetime of the furnace (20 years or more).

Incineration has been defeated at the local level. But the battle is not over. The incineration industry and its friends in government are doing their best to make an end run around local decision-makers. In California the industry has lobbied hard to have incineration included in that state's definition of recycling. In Ohio, the industry has lobbied to allow toxic incinerator ash to be "recycled" for roadway construction. In Michigan and New York, compliant state governments have allowed toxic ash to be exempted from hazardous waste rules. In Connecticut, state government obliged the industry by overriding local zoning laws to make it nearly impossible for citizens to oppose the siting of incinerators.

But the demise of the nuclear power industry showed that even America's leading corporations, heavily subsidized by government handouts, cannot keep a bad technology alive. Municipal solid waste incineration is not thriving for the same reasons: despite enthusiastic support and subsidies by federal and state governments, and enormous backing from private corporations, incineration is a bad idea, doomed to fail.

Meanwhile alternative technologies--which, together, go by the name of "materials recovery"--are expanding rapidly. The Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) in 1991 published BEYOND 40 PERCENT highlighting 17 communities that are recycling and composting up to 57% of their total household, commercial and institutional solid wastes.[1] The leader is Berlin Township, N.J., a town of 5629 people. But even a large city like Seattle (population: 497,000) has already achieved 36% and is steadily climbing toward its goal of 65%. Rural communities, suburban communities, and large urban areas can all recycle upwards of 50% of their solid wastes. ILSR expects communities will ultimately learn to recover more than 75% of their trash.

Having examined the materials recovery programs in many towns and cities, ILSR makes these observations about key elements of successful programs:

  1. Comprehensive composting programs--year-round collection of many types of yard waste at curbside, and incentives for landscapers to compost their yard waste.

  2. Mandatory participation. Successful materials recovery programs are not voluntary; a law must be passed requiring people to participate.

  3. Materials must be recovered not only from single-and multi-family homes, but also from commercial and institutional establishments.

  4. A wide variety of materials must be targeted for recovery, not just metal cans, glass, and paper. The most successful programs aim to collect aluminum, batteries, brush, corrugated cardboard, christmas trees, ferrous (iron-containing) cans, glass, high-grade paper, leaves, mixed paper, newspapers, oil, plastics, scrap metal, tires, white goods [appliances and furniture], and wood waste.

Food waste and construction debris are other categories that are being recovered in some locales.

The Center for the Biology of Natural Systems (CBNS at Queens College in Flushing, N.Y.) is currently running a successful pilot program composting food waste from the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn, demonstrating that urban composting programs are viable.

In Baltimore, the Loading Dock is a non-profit organization set up to receive sinks, bathtubs, cabinets and other construction materials removed from homes during remodeling as well as excess materials from contractors, manufacturers and distributors. They sell these materials at 25% to 35% below retail price to other non-profits, and for low-income housing. Presently, good are donated to them from as far away as West Virginia and New York. Begun in 1984 with a $35,000 seed grant, they became self-sustaining after seven years. Their budget last year was $346,000. They figure they've kept 20,000 tons of building materials out of local landfills.

Their latest experiment is to park a truck at the local landfill to collect throw-aways from do-it-yourselfers who are remodeling. At the Howard County (Md.) landfill on a recent Saturday they collected 2.5 tons of materials in four hours. They're now negotiating to park trucks at other area landfills.

They're also computerizing their inventory, in preparation for cooperation with similar organizations in other cities, perhaps as far away as Mexico and Canada. "They've got a sizable donation of light fixtures; we've got a lot of doors, so they'll send us down a truck full of lights and pick up a truckload of doors," says Ted Rouse, the Loading Dock's vice-president. For further information contact Hope Cucina, director, The Loading Dock, 2523 Gwynn Falls Parkway, Baltimore, Md. 21216; hone (410) 728-3625.

One of the most interesting experiments is called Wastewise, a community resource center for the town of Halton Hills (population: 40,000) just east of Toronto, Canada. Wastewise was begun as a protest against proposals to fill a local quarry with 20 to 30 million tons of garbage, and to build a large solid waste incinerator. Rita and Len Landry and some friends started Wastewise to demonstrate that people could do something sensible with trash.

Begun with a $250,000 government grant, Wastewise now has 3 full-time employees, six summer students, and 60 volunteers. Wastewise inhabits a warehouse with four sections: (1) Information and exhibits on waste reduction and waste avoidance--"This is our main function," says project manager Diana van de Valk. (2) a giant flea market where they sell reusable goods for 50 cents a pound (25 cents for furniture); (3) a repair shop where volunteers fix appliances, bikes and anything else repairable; and (4) recycling of cans, newspapers, and bottles. Waste reduction is their real passion, and they're off to a promising start.

Wastewise is the subject of a new 30-minute video, WASTEWISE: A COMMUNITY RESOURCE CENTER, from: Video Active Productions, Rt. 2, Box 322, Canton, NY 13617; phone (315) 386-8797. $25.00.

--Peter Montague


  1. Brenda Platt and Others, Beyond 40 Percent, Record-Setting Recycling And Composting Programs (Washington, DC: Island Press, 1991), pgs. 2-5. Paperback: $25.00. To order any book from Island Press phone 1-800-828-1302, 8 to 5 Pacific time.

  2. Louis Blumberg and Robert Gottlieb, War On Waste; Can America Win Its Battle With Garbage? (Washington, DC: Island Press, 1989), pgs. 50-52.

  3. Richard A. Denison and John Ruston, Recycling And Incineration; Evaluating The Choices (Washington, DC: Island Press, 1990), pg. 67.

  4. Brenda Platt, cited above, pgs. 3-4.

Descriptor terms: keep america beautiful; national center for solid waste disposal; doe; incinerators; nuclear power; recycling; ilsr; cbns; the loading dock; wastewise; incineration;

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