So last night I had another garbage dream and I knew you’d want to hear about it.
In this dream, I was at the house of a friend, but for some reason there were huge, stinky garbage bags all over the place. Suddenly, as happens in dreams, we realized that the garbage bags were going to explode, sending garbage shrapnel everywhere! So we had to quickly get them all outside before that happened. Then we figured out that if you threw the bags into the air and shot them, they’d disintegrate. Then a large bear lumbered into the doorway and further panic ensued. Someone shot him and he deflated like a punctured balloon and…
Well, that was the end of the garbage portion of the dream, anyway.
But I liked the dream-idea that it might be possible to vaporize our garbage into nothingness, if we could just find the right way. And in the country, back before the invention of plastics, there was a way to do this. It was called the “burn barrel.”
Because I grew up in the suburbs, I’d never heard of burn barrels before moving to Vermont. Essentially you put all your trash into a 55-gallon drum and light it on fire. In our town the subject had come up because it’s illegal, yet people we doing it anyway, primarily because every other way of disposing of trash here costs money, but burning is free.
This might’ve been relatively fine a century ago, but when you introduce plastics to the mix all kinds of terrible things happen. Burning plastics create dioxins, PCBs, and something called furans, all of which are all kinds of bad— toxic, endocrine disrupting, carcinogenic— not to mention leaving behind heavy metals such as lead, mercury and arsenic.
Okay, so burning garbage is bad. Got it.
Except, since this project began I’ve learned that the two ways contemporary society deals with garbage are landfilling and incineration. Wait- but what about the furans? What about reproductive, immunological, and developmental problems? What about the frogs biologists keep finding with both sets of genitals and three legs?
Turns out the reason it is ostensibly okay for some people to burn garbage— but not you at home in your backyard— is that compared to an industrial incineration facility the temperature in a domestic burn barrel is relatively low. Which, experts online say, means more stuff gets vaporized out of existence. Plus they have fancy filters that “scrub” the exhaust emitted.
I don’t know about you, but I’m skeptical. Three legged intersex frogs don’t lie.
Even if higher temperatures burn cleaner than a barrel in my backyard, that still doesn’t mean they burn clean. Everyone seems to agree that there is always some degree of VBS (Very Bad Stuff) left over from incineration of garbage, which ends up both as gasses in the air and as ash in the landfill.
As if all this toxic plastic burning weren’t bad enough, what’s worse still is that there is clear evidence that incinerators are much more likely to be built in low-income communities and/or communities of color. So apparently we’re fine with putting poison into the environment, as long as it takes place in someone else’s neighborhood?
The good news is that incineration plants are wildly unpopular, not to mention extremely expensive to install and maintain. (The Tischman Environment and Design Center produced a whole report about the decline of waste incineration which you can read here.) Where there used to be hundreds of industrial incineration plants across the country, there are currently only 73 left in the United States, and the number is falling all the time. In 2017 only 13% of U.S. trash was incinerated.
The bad news, however, is that there’s an effort underway to change all that. Since 2018 when China decided to stop taking recyclables from the United States, the plastic and incinerating industries have been ramping up promotion of something called “chemical recycling” using “plastic-to-fuel” technology.
A gaggle of major corporations, including PepsiCo, Exxon Mobil, Proctor and Gamble and Shell, have combined to form the Alliance to End Plastic Waste (AEPW) and contributed over a billion dollars to the initiative. If you check out their website you’ll find lots of pretty pictures of the ocean, text about “Swift Action and Strong Leadership” and not a whole lot of specifics. Perhaps this is because, according to research by the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA), the true goal of AEPW is to reclassify waste incineration as recycling.
On the EPA website they call it “Energy Recovery from Combustion.”
This is not recycling. This is a fancy name for burning plastic. But can you truly recover energy from burning plastic? Yes.
Another linear, dirty, greenhouse-gas emitting fossil fuel, with the added bonus that it is exceptionally inefficient.
Though we might like to, we can’t burn our way out of the garbage problem. So I guess incineration isn’t the magic bullet from my dream.
Instead I think it’s the bear that shows up to make everything worse.