The Trouble with Trash

Stephen DeAngelis

August 20, 2009

In a post entitled Of Diamonds and Dumps, I discussed the issue of trash disposal and the need for better recycling. I had previously discussed this topic in a post entitled Pollution in Asia. One of the articles cited in the latter blog reported that “Japan burns more garbage in the heart of its big cities than any developed country” [“Japan’s Trash Technology Helps Deodorize Dumps in Tokyo,” by Blaine Harden, Washington Post, 18 November 2008]. Harden was reporting on disposal facilities like Tokyo’s Toshima Incineration Plant. He observed:

“It doesn’t smell like a dump. If it did, there are a quarter-million neighbors to complain about Tokyo’s Toshima Incineration Plant, which devours 300 tons of garbage a day, turning it into electricity, hot water and a kind of recyclable sand. … The Toshima plant is one of 21 factory-size incinerators that operate around the clock amid Tokyo’s 12 million densely packed residents. Remarkably, this does not create a big stink, literally or politically.”

As I commented in that post, “One of the benefits of Enterra Solutions’ Development-in-a-Box™ approach is that it can be used to demonstrate to emerging market countries that adopting best practices and international standards is in its best interests both short- and long-term. … Development-in-a-Box was built on the premise that making avoidable mistakes is both foolish and costly. And there is no more foolish path than trading the long-term health of a nation for short-term economic gains when better alternatives exist.” Japan has proven that there are better ways to dispose of trash than methods more widely used around the world, but countries like China aren’t benefitting from those lessons [“China’s Incinerators Loom as a Global Hazard,” by Keith Bradsher, New York Times, 11 August 2009]. Bradsher begins his report in Shenzhen, China.

“In this sprawling metropolis in southeastern China stand two hulking brown buildings erected by a private company, the Longgang trash incinerators. They can be smelled a mile away and pour out so much dark smoke and hazardous chemicals that hundreds of local residents recently staged an all-day sit-in, demanding that the incinerators be cleaner and that a planned third incinerator not be built nearby. After surpassing the United States as the world’s largest producer of household garbage, China has embarked on a vast program to build incinerators as landfills run out of space. But these incinerators have become a growing source of toxic emissions, from dioxin to mercury, that can damage the body’s nervous system. And these pollutants, particularly long-lasting substances like dioxin and mercury, are dangerous not only in China, a growing body of atmospheric research based on satellite observations suggests. They float on air currents across the Pacific to American shores.”

The Japanese have demonstrated that incinerator plants need not be toxic. In fact, nearly 200,000 people annually visit the Toshima Incineration Plant. Harden reports that most of the visitors live in the plant’s neighborhood and come to swim and exercise in its handsome and affordable fitness center. Bradsher observes that China can do better and has demonstrated that it knows how.

“At the other end of Shenzhen from Longgang, no smoke is visible from the towering smokestack of the Baoan incinerator, built by a company owned by the municipal government. Government tests show that it emits virtually no dioxin and other pollutants.”

The question is: Why do the Chinese continue to build plants like the Longgang incinerator when they have the know-how to build plants like the Baoan incinerator? You have probably already guessed the answer — money. “The Baoan incinerator cost 10 times as much as the Longgang incinerators, per ton of trash-burning capacity.” Of course, those costs don’t include costs to the environment and long-term health costs. The policy of building incinerators that pollute is both short-sighted and wrong-headed. But even in parts of the country where policies are more enlightened, decades of poor governance and lack of transparency have jaded peoples’ views of political promises.

“For years Chinese government regulators have discussed the need to impose tighter limits on emissions. But they have done nothing because of a bureaucratic turf war, a Chinese government official and Chinese incineration experts said. The Chinese government is struggling to cope with the rapidly rising mountains of trash generated as the world’s most populated country has raced from poverty to rampant consumerism. Beijing officials warned in June that all of the city’s landfills would run out of space within five years. The governments of several cities with especially affluent, well-educated citizens, including Beijing and Shanghai, are setting pollution standards as strict as Europe’s. Despite those standards, protests against planned incinerators broke out this spring in Beijing and Shanghai as well as Shenzhen. Increasingly outspoken residents in big cities are deeply distrustful that incinerators will be built and operated to international standards.”

The Japanese were smart when they built their incinerators in Tokyo by including facilities that neighborhoods needed like fitness centers and swimming pools. The Tokyo complex also has a health clinic for the elderly. Sweetening the facility to include needed or desired facilities followed the old adage that “a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.” The Japanese facilities were costly, but the people there believe the costs were worth it. The Baoan incinerator did come with one sweetener; it “generates enough power to light 40,000 households.” Chinese citizens have a right to be skeptical of their government because further inland (away from the educated masses who might protest) the government, according to Bradsher, continues to build “far dirtier incinerators.” Such actions imply that government policies are made for expediency rather than out of self-enlightenment. Of course, it’s not just Chinese citizens who are negatively affected by poorly constructed and operated incinerators. Everyone downwind from the incinerators (which means everyone eastward of China) is also affected.

“Incinerators play the most important role in emissions of dioxin. Little research has been done on dioxin crossing the Pacific. But analyses of similar chemicals have shown that they can travel very long distances. A 2005 report from the World Bank warned that if China built incinerators rapidly and did not limit their emissions, worldwide atmospheric levels of dioxin could double. China has since slowed its construction of incinerators and limited their emissions somewhat, but the World Bank has yet to do a follow-up report. Airborne dioxin is not the only problem from incinerators. The ash left over after combustion is laced with dioxin and other pollutants. Zhong Rigang, the chief engineer at the Baoan incinerator here, said that his operation sent its ash to a special landfill designed to cope with toxic waste. But an academic paper last year by Nie Yongfeng, a Tsinghua University professor and government adviser who sees a need for more incinerators, said that most municipal landfills for toxic waste lacked room for the ash, so the ash was dumped.”

Incinerators, even dirty ones, are attractive to governments because most places are running out of space for landfills — and landfills have there own problems.

“Decay in landfills … releases large quantities of methane, a powerful global warming gas, said Robert McIlvaine, president of McIlvaine Company, an energy consulting firm that calculates the relative costs of addressing disparate environmental hazards. Methane from landfills is a far bigger problem in China than toxic pollutants from incinerators, particularly modern incinerators like those in Baoan, he said.”

Bradsher concludes, “Critics and admirers of incinerators alike call for more recycling and reduced use of packaging as ways to reduce the daily volume of municipal garbage.” In China and elsewhere in the developing world, however, people have shown little interest in recycling. As a result mountains of trash continue to pile up. Take, for example, a country like Senegal [“In a Senegal Slum, a Building Material Both Plentiful and Perilous,” by Adam Nossiter, New York Times, 2 May 2009]. Senegal, of course, has significantly fewer resources than China to apply against the challenge of its mounting trash. The affects of exposure to toxic substances coming from trash heaps, however, are just as tragic on Senegalese citizens as they are on Chinese citizens. Nossiter begins his report by relating the story of a 7-year-old boy who drowned while playing on what he thought was solid ground in Guédiawaye, Senegal. The “ground” turned out to be several feet of trash floating on water through which the young boy fell. He continues:

“Garbage might have seemed safe to the boy because it is everywhere in this forlorn, dun-colored slum abutting Dakar, the capital. Delivered on order for a few pennies a load by rickety horse-drawn carts speeding through the dirt streets of the Médina Gounass neighborhood of Guédiawaye, it is as pervasive as the hot midday sun in which it bakes. The people use it to shore up their flood-prone houses and streets in this low-lying area near the Atlantic coast; they have no choice. Garbage, packed down tight and then covered with a thin layer of sand, is used to raise the floors of houses that flood regularly in the brief but intense summer rainy season, and it is packed into the dusty streets that otherwise become canals. The water lingers for months in the low-lying terrain of this bone-dry country. Garbage is a surrogate building material, a critical filler to deal with the stagnant water — cheap, instantly accessible and never diminishing. The plastic-laden spillover from these foul-smelling deliveries pokes up through the sandy lots, covers the ground between the crumbling cinder-block houses, becomes grazing ground for goats, playground for barefoot, runny-nosed children and breeding ground for swarms of flies. Disease flourishes here, aid groups say: cholera, malaria, yellow fever and tuberculosis.”

Clearly building expensive, non-polluting incinerators in an impoverished country like Senegal is a dream beyond reach. Recycling, too, would appear to be a process that has little hope of catching on because in Senegal “garbage is sought for and dumped among homes” to be used as building material. However, there are processes that can turn garbage into building materials [“Plant turns rubbish into building materials,” by Katherine Andraneda, The Philippine Star, 26 July 2009]. Andraneda reports that a hazardous waste treatment facility in Manila “is not only reducing garbage volume, it is also transforming some of the rubbish into concrete-based materials that can be used for construction and other applications.”

“Gennix-Pathogenesis, a division of Pathogenesis Inc., treats and processes commercial and industrial waste into hollow blocks, roof tiles, wall panels, paving slabs, road dividers, curbstones, as well as artificial reef blocks that are as strong as the same items manufactured and sold commercially.”

Interestingly, Gennix-Pathogenesis indicates that the process is not yet commercially viable, so the company gives its products to charity so that they can build structures like schools. In a place like Senegal, it would probably take a public/private partnership to deal with the enormous trash problem. The benefits of turning trash into building material, of course, would be enormous. People would get the building resources they desperately need, the environment would be cleaned up, and the fatalism that now grips the people could be replaced with hope. Gennix-Pathogenesis is not the only company that hopes to turn trash into building material. For example, TerraCycle, a New Jersey-based “upcycling” company, plans “to create building materials made out of trashed bags” from companies like Frito-Lay [“TerraCycle Wants Frito-Lay’s Trash,” by Jonathan Bardelline, GreenerBuildings, 12 May 2009].

“Early next year TerraCycle plans to take a leap into the building materials market with a few new processing techniques it’s developed, one of which fuses together shreds of bags, wrappers and pouches, turning them into a thick slab that can be used as tile, insulation or other study material.”

In the meantime, “TerraCycle hopes to collect 5 million Lay’s, Doritos, Tostitos, Cheetos and Fritos snack bags over the next year, and will turn them into tote bags, purses and pencil cases for sale later this year at retailers like Walmart. Frito-Lay is funding the collection and reuse of its bags, donating 2 cents per bag to charities chosen by the snack bag collection brigades.” Such efforts create win-win scenarios. One of the things I like most about TerraCycle’s planned process is that it may be able to use household rubbish, not just commercial waste, to create building material. The developing world, as well as the developed world, needs better and cheaper ways of disposing of waste. Recycling, of course, is one of the best ways.