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To Burn or Not To Burn

How to purify the community of defilement (specifically, trash)? If communities said "every man for himself," bonfires of disposable diapers, plastic bags, old clothes, oily rags, newspapers, and raked leaves would quickly flare up on street after street, and empty lots and parks would amass huge piles of cans and glass. So we purify the community by trucking the "evil"?our garbage?to landfills for unceremonious burial, or to crematoria called incinerators, or to the hinterlands (when there are hinterlands).

But the purification we seek has proven illusory. Landfills leak into our drinking water and their toxins return in fish. Incinerators belch hazardous gases and concentrate hazardous residues in their ash. The hinterlands protest against or charge heavily for burying foreign garbage. The story of "frustrated purity" solidified in the now-legendary barge plowing the Atlantic with Long Island's trash for two months, 6,000 miles, in 1987. Turned away at every port, it returned from exile, its cargo back in the Big Apple. The trash languished for four more months in Brooklyn before a final incineration and burial.

Since 70 to 90 percent of all city waste (65 to 75 percent by weight) is burnable, purification by fire has had its boosters, fans, and grubstakers. They point to dwindling landfill sites, NIMBY fights over new sites, and rising tipping fees as dumps become scarce commodities. They promote the latest in pyrolysis, the clean burn that destroys dioxins and furans, and point to new devices to limit harmful fly ash from spreading over the neighborhood. Garbage is no longer evil, they hard sell, but a new-found fuel, a resource for the creation of energy and electricity. You don't just incinerate, you generate. Extreme pyros claim that incineration is one hell of a lot easier?and cheaper?than sorting through the trash (recycling). It's a one-stop pickup and then out-of-sight, out-of-mind.

Pyro trash-handlers began to confront recyclers, worried citizens, and financial conservatives in the mid-1980s. Recyclers looked garbage in the eye and dreamed of a trash-free future. They're damned thoughtful and they've begun to replace fire rituals of leaf burning and incinerating in backyard metal drums with sorting rituals (glass, paper, aluminum, yard clippings, trash). But their trash-free community remains a dream. Even the best programs, such as Seattle's (see next page), have to date achieved only a 50-percent trash reduction. In the absence of government requirements, like Germany's, to reduce packaging and manufacture 100-percent recyclable consumer goods?anathema to most don't-tread-on-me Americans?it is hard to believe in an American willingness or capacity for a zero-waste lifestyle. Until then, the burn-it-or-bury-it rituals and pol-itics thrive.

To recyclers, incinerators appear as hungry ghosts. To generate energy efficiently depends on a steady fuel stream. Will incinerators' constant, insatiable hunger dampen enthusiasm for recycling? Will the Big Burner stop progress toward manufacturing products made of totally recyclable materials, and make America even more apathetic toward laws to stop wasteful packaging? Does burning save enough landfill space to be worth the cost? You must still dump the ash and the non-burnables like construction demolition sheetrock.

Meanwhile, the fiscal conservatives wonder whether incinerator fires burn more money than they're worth. Who pays the very expensive initial price tag? Do citizens get to vote on the bond issues? If the incinerator can import trash/fuel, what's the equitable tipping fee? What if the communities can't provide the anticipated volume of trash/fuels, will they have to pay for the lost electricity production? And, if the regulations insist, will there be still be costs for the landfill, export of ash, and recycling?

To burn or not to burn plays on local stages. Europe?with less landfill acreage?has been friendlier to Big Burners. European promoters willingly horse-trade job guarantees for permits to build. The US, with more acreage and poor communities willing to accept other communities' garbage, has less predictable preferences. Take Spokane and Seattle, two cities in Washington State:

  Seattle: After considering incineration, the city decided that high-level recycling plus lower-level landfilling is cheaper and less environmentally damaging. They achieved a 50-percent reduction, focused on commercial trash. They continue to encourage recycling, but have shifted the emphasis to waste reduction. Total waste generation (recycling plus disposal) continues to inch up, and the King County landfill is moving toward capacity; Seattle's non-recyclable waste is shipped by train to Oregon.

  Spokane: Over a fifteen-year period, and despite every style of citizen opposition, the city council has supported?and continues to have enough votes to sustain?closing local sanitary landfills, building an energy-recovery incinerator, and exporting excess trash and ash by train to a landfill 200 miles away. Recycling efforts in Spokane were not very effective in lowering garbage collection costs, or in eliminating the perceived need for the incinerator.

Fire has returned to the city consciousness, and confused urbanites have yet to choose which rituals (earth burial, combustion, mindful sorting) best purify the neighborhood.