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Is Burning Trash Green? Gov. O'Malley Argues Yes, Others Say No

Burningtrash When is “clean energy” not so clean? 

Several environmental organizations this week urged Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley to veto Senate Bill 690, which would benefit trash incinerators at the expense of wind, solar, and other clean energy sources.

However, O'Malley on Tuesday announced that he will sign the bill, in part to reduce the amount of sold waste going into landfills.  “It is only through a diverse, renewable fuel mix that we will be able to reach our aggressive goals, protect our precious environment and create the economic engine to move Maryland forward,” O’Malley said.

The legislation, passed this spring, would amend a law approved a few years ago which requires electricity generators to obtain 22 percent of the electricity they sell in Maryland from renewable energy sources by the year 2022.

The law places energy generation in tiers based on how clean the source is. The cleaner the source, the higher value it gets under the law and the more financial incentive there is to buy energy from that source.

The signing by the governor of Senate Bill 690 will move the burning of garbage and recyclables would move to the top tier, just like clean energy sources such as wind and solar power. 

Environmental groups, including the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, have argued that adding incinerators to the top tier would create a disincentive for wind and solar and, ironically, a create an incentive for trash incinerators—the opposite of what greens are trying to accomplish. Burning garbage also can create air pollution, although modern facilities with scrubbers pollute less.

On the other hand, some advocates of burning trash to generate electricity -- "waste to energy" plants -- argue that modern incinerators are better than landfills, because landfills release methane, a potent greenhoues gas.

To learn more, click here or here.

What do you think about this?  Is burning trash ecologically friendly, because it reduces the amount of junk in landfills?  Or do incinerators cause more harm than they're worth, because of the air pollution they emit?  Voice your opinions.

By Tom Pelton

Chesapeake Bay Foundation


Before O'Malley announced that he would sign the bill, one reader, Laurel Peltier, offered the following opinion in an essay:


SB 690 makes sense if Maryland had mandatory residential recycling.

As O'Malley grapples with signing the Senate Bill 690, which pushes up waste-to-energy trash incineration into the coveted tier-1 level of renewables, I think Maryland's legislature has missed a big opportunity to make this work for everyone; mandatory recycling. 

If Maryland made residential and even commercial recycling mandatory, then this bill would make more sense because Maryland would be efficiently burning trash, not revenue-generating recyclables.

What is shocking and truly pathetic is that both Baltimore City and County boast only 15 percent household recycling rates; even with the new single-stream recycling. That means for every 100 pounds of trash generated in Baltimore City and County homes, we recycle 15 pounds. We should be recycling closer to 66 pounds, or more.  Seriously, milk cartons, every single plastic coded #1 to #7, aluminum foil, pie tins and cans. Steel cans. Glass bottles. Every single type of paper, except foil-adorned wrapping paper. It's all recyclable. In Baltimore City and County there's not much to trash outside of styrofoam, plastic food wrap and plastic to-go clamshells and we're at 15 percent residential recycling rate.  Man, we are a lazy bunch; recycling could not get any easier. 

Maryland's single-stream recycling is processed at the Waste Management-owned facility in Jessup, Maryland. The plant is the largest of its kind in the U.S. and is highly efficient. Every bale of plastic, aluminum and paper generated is re-sold on the open market through Maryland Environmental Service, an independent state agency. Even during recycling's lowest price points in the fall of 2008, every single pound of recycling single-stream was sold. Rates have increased since then. Maryland is set-up to handle large volumes of recycling.

Currently, three cities is the U.S. have mandatory recycling; Pittsburgh, San Diego and Seattle.  Our municipalities have models to learn from. Charge households who choose not to recycle, it's their choice but our municipalities and we tax payers don't need to pay for their decision to bail on recycling.

If Marylander's trash had a price we could all see and feel, you bet everyone would be asking, "hey, can I toss this Starbuck's cup in recycling?" The answer is yes, by the way. Currently, sanitation charges are buried in water bills.  I've wondered, why do you let me decide if I want to recycle, I don't make other key municipal financial decisions. I should not decide if Baltimore City has to pay up to $100 per ton in trashed recycling.  When recycling occurs on a large scale as it does in Maryland, each average ton generates $25 in income and the balance is saved tipping fees and efficiencies.

I think S.B. Bill 690 irks greenies like myself because it seems disingenuous and dumb to make waste-to-energy trash burning on par with solar and wind when we all know there's so much recyclables buried in the trash.

Maryland's wise renewable goal of 20 percent clean energy was intended to make clean and green power a reality Maryland. But with our current low recycling rates, I think SB 690 is not consistent with the law's original goal of making Maryland's energy supply cleaner.

And, if SB 690 gets passed, more trash and all of our recyclables will head to incinerators because it will be financially beneficial to get access to the renewable energy credits.

I truly understand the pickle Malley and Maryland are in in trying to make the renewable energy goal a reality. I attended Malley's Maryland Energy Summit at the Solar and Wind Expo at the Timonium. The real goal in all this debate is reducing Maryland's CO2 and  from 2006 to 2009, Maryland reduced our CO2 from 109.5 to 107.1 millions of tons, about two percent. We have a way to go. I also saw the pie chart explaining how Maryland will hit 20 percent renewables by 2022; about 5 percent was solar and wind, about 50 percent was off-shore wind and the balance was regional energy credits. Waste-to-energy would help make the goal a reality.

If Maryland changes waste-to-energy and calls it renewable, let's be smart and ensure that Maryland's trash is just that, trash, not garbage loaded with hundreds of thousands of pounds of recyclables.

Laurel Peltier


An advocate of burning trash to generate electricity, John R. Holladay, made the following argument in a letter he wrote to The Baltimore Sun, criticizing the newspaper for editorializing against the bill that O'Malley signed:


The late U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan's once famously said in debate, "Sir, you are entitled to your own opinion but not your own facts." With that in mind, we take issue with the Sun's May 9 editorial on Maryland waste-to-energy (WTE) legislation ("O'Malley should trash waste-to-energy bill") which would treat WTE like other renewables, in particular landfill gas-to-energy. The legislation has passed the Maryland legislature, but your editorial urges a veto by Gov. Martin O'Malley. If the facts were as the editorial describes, we might favor a veto as well. That is not the case, however, and as a national coalition of local government owners of modern WTE facilities, we know of what we speak.

Our members and the communities we serve invested in WTE technology for one reason — it is the responsible thing to do from an environmental and energy perspective. Waste management is essential for all societies, and after maximizing waste reduction and recycling, what remains can either be sent to landfills or combusted to produce clean, renewable energy. Landfilling adds to environmental problems including greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) and contributes very little to our energy supply. From virtually every environmental and energy perspective, WTE is the preferred choice.

Thus, EPA itself recommends waste combustion with energy recovery over landfilling and recognizes WTE as a renewable that produces electricity "with less environmental impact than almost any other source of electricity." Underscoring EPA's position, WTE recovers approximately 600 kWh of electricity per ton of waste — 10 times the electricity recoverable from a ton of landfilled waste, and is base-load, "distributed generation" (i.e., serves nearby load without the need for new long-distance transmission lines) that is unaffected by days that are cloudy or calm.

WTE also complements recycling: WTE communities routinely outperform non-WTE communities in recycling, with rates at least 5 percentage points above the national average. Maryland is an example — WTE-reliant communities are statewide leaders in recycling, including Harford County, with the state's highest recycling rate — 59.03 percent. Not surprisingly, The Nature Conservancy ranks WTE as one of the most environmentally protective alternative energy sources.


The May 9 editorial contends that SB 690 would "subsidize WTE plants for doing what they're already doing" which "benefits no one except the local governments that own the plants." While the statement on subsidy is technically correct, the attempt to make SB 690 sound sinister is invalid and, more importantly, overlooks the fact that all other renewables, including landfill gas to energy, already have the same — or a greater — subsidy. As to the suggestion that no one other than local government WTE owners will benefit from SB 690, the implication of some sort of government boondoggle could not be further from the truth. To the contrary, SB 690 recognizes that WTE facilities' costs are considerably higher than landfill costs, which requires enormous investments by local government, and the benefits are improvement of the environment, reduction in greenhouse gases, energy independence for our nation, and less reliance on fossil fuels.

The editorial also refers to landfill emissions of methane as having been "greatly mitigated" (methane is a potent greenhouse gas with 25 times the global warming impact of the carbon dioxide emitted by WTE facilities), and implies that landfill methane is no longer a significant concern. That is not correct, however, and as the Sierra Club's January 2010 landfill gas to energy report explains, "When organic wastes are buried in landfills, methane is always produced and a substantial portion of that methane leaks into the environment." WTE, on the other hand, significantly reduces greenhouse gases compared to landfilling.

Finally, the editorial claims that SB 690 "is not about landfills." If ever there was a technically correct but completely misleading statement, that is it. SB 690 is very much about landfills because if we fail to take steps to put WTE and landfills on an equal footing, landfills will remain the dominant means of waste disposal in Maryland and the nation. Ironically, if Maryland's WTE-reliant communities had instead chosen less costly — and environmentally inferior — landfilling, they would already have the benefits SB 690 extends to WTE. Simply put, the forward-thinking local government action reflected in WTE investment should be encouraged, which is what SB 690 would do.

John R. "Doc" Holladay, Huntsville, Ala.

The writer is director of the Solid Waste Disposal Authority of Huntsville, Ala., and chairman of the Local Government Coalition for Renewable Energy.





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Incinerators are not green. Consumer studies show they actually turn people off of recycling. This is a stain on O'Malley's record. He's already heard from me once about this and he's going to hear from me again in the near future.




1. Check out the Baltimore trash to energy facility. It foes recycle all it's ferous metal.
2. It does generate energy fro trash
3. The Harford Couty facity does burn scrap tires for both fuel and energy.

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