Trash incinerators feel the Bern

August 2019 saw US Senator Bernie Sanders launch his Green New Deal. This is a wide-ranging set of environmental policy proposals which cut across many areas of economic activity. It’s certainly radical, having been costed by the Sanders camp themselves at US$16.3 trillion.

One of those areas is of course the waste management field. The plan calls for the establishment of a nationwide materials recycling programme, in which companies are made responsible for ‘taking back’ materials from products they manufacture, in order that these materials can be recycled. The green energy sector itself should make more use of such recycled materials when constructing infrastructure:

‘To prevent an outsized impact on the environment from harvesting raw materials, we must build the wind turbines, solar panels, new cars, and batteries we need with as many recycled materials as possible.’

The other waste area specifically mentioned in the Green New Deal is waste-to-energy, although only briefly:

To get to our goal of 100 percent sustainable energy, we will not rely on any false solutions like nuclear, geoengineering, carbon capture and sequestration, or trash incinerators. (editor’s bold)

That’s about as briskly dismissive as it’s possible to be, and contrasts sharply with much of Europe or Asia, where waste incineration is seen as not only as the best solution to dealing with waste, but also environmentally sensitive if done correctly. But the Sanders plan dismisses ‘trash incinerators’ as a false solution.

In the wider scheme of things regarding sustainable energy, maybe Sanders is right and maybe he isn’t. Either way it’s a view which is not wholly uncontested within the US. The country has never really embraced waste-to-energy. Incinerators tend to be concentrated in the industrial east and north, and many states and cities make no use of WtE at all.

But here’s an example of an opposing view. Also in August 2019, the US Department of Energy release a new report through its Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. My colleague Ian Taylor made mention of it last week. Entitled Waste-to-Energy from Municipal Solid Wastes’, it explores how greater use might be made of WtE in the US. The report defines WtE as standard incineration, more advanced methods such as gasification, and anaerobic digestion/biogas. The report notes that ‘high operating costs and high-level of competition from alternative sources make the production of heat and power from MSW economically challenging’ (page iv), but that several R&D initiatives could help to improve the efficiency of the sector. These include better sorting of waste, better construction/maintenance to reduce operating costs, new methods of biogas development, greater use of gasification technologies, and more investment in biofuels from, for example, discarded plastics. I’ll look at it in more detail in a future article.

Senator Sanders would, I think, reply that much of the above is neither desirable nor necessary. His focus after all is not on waste management but on a total reshaping of US environmental policy. However, amid the wider environmental clash of ideas, treatment of waste cannot fail to be affected by the broader direction of policy, whichever way it goes. Some form of change is certain; I’ve already discussed in previous articles how exporting of waste to China and elsewhere is dying off, so domestic solutions will need to be found. You can tell a lot about where a person or organisation stands by the language they use… ‘trash incinerator’ is a very different-sounding term to ‘waste-to-energy’.

What chance does the Sanders Green New Deal have of being implemented? On the face of it, very little; there’s a lot of public sector and collectivist proposals in it which are going to be a hard sell to the US electorate. But the Senator deserves to be taken seriously. The very name Green New Deal deliberately refers to the 1930s New Deal under Franklin Roosevelt which controversially (even to this day) but successfully expanded the role of the federal government in the management of the economy. Sanders is certainly to one side of the political debate, but he was a credible candidate for the Democratic nomination in 2016 and was only narrowly defeated by Hillary Clinton. He will be a candidate again in 2020. Who is to say he won’t win and then go on to challenge President Trump for the White House? I don’t think I’d quite put money on a President Sanders just yet, but stranger things have indeed happened.