The idea of Garbage to Energy began in the late 1970’s. when consumer
recycling was in its infancy. Foresighted citizens were carefully
sorting their material and bringing it to dropoff centers run by community-based
groups, such as Garbage Reincarnation. Few paper mills were equipped to
handle recycled fiber. Recycling was considered a volunteer activity.
(The sane and honest people thought that most people would never recycle,
and that 10% was the most we’d divert. The people who talked about
25-75% were considered dreamers.
At the same time, environmental awareness was rising, bringing criticism of wasteful packaging. OPEC had formed, and energy prices were rising. Nuclear energy was discredited, military purchases dropping, and engineering firms were looking for new services to sell to governments. And cities were running out of landfill space and seeking a home for their trash. So firms like Raytheon invented “garbage to energy” systems. They would burn garbage and make steam, or grind it into fuel pellets. Pull out scrap metal that would jam the works, and call it recycling. They used technology designed to sort wheat from chaff.
Sounds great! Take one problem - worthless garbage - and solve another – energy. Garbage then becomes a good thing – a fuel. Funny how fast the packaging industry jumped on the bandwagon. Public works directors, usually engineers, liked it because they could get rid of their trash without asking people to change their behavior. Cities bought it – especially Northeast cities with the greatest landfill problems.
130 plants were proposed in California, to burn 70% of its garbage. The Solid Waste Management Board funded its first feasibility study for a plant to be built in Healdsburg, supplied by garbage from Mendocino, Solano, Marin and Napa Counties to provide electricity for Healdsburg homes.
Mike Anderson (with his Masters degree in Futurism and Marketing) and Dan Cotter, early directors of Garbage Reincarnation, saw the problems right away. Garbage to Energy Plants were expensive, and to finance them, cities signed (were asked to sign) long term contracts to deliver and pay for a guaranteed supply of garbage. If the city didn’t have enough garbage, it had to pay anyway. The incentive to recycle would be gone. Also, the energy calculations started with garbage = 0. But Garbage wasn’t worthless – it was full of stuff that could be reused and recycled. You could save more energy and other resources by recycling paper than by burning it, and then cutting trees to make new paper. They were joined by other ”radicals” - Neil Seldman of the Institute for Local Self Reliance in Washington D.C., Dan Knapp of Urban Ore in Berkeley
Tania Lipshutz, an environmental studies student at Sonoma State, showed up one day, fresh from training in whole-systems analysis. She had heard of the 4-county study and smelled a rat. Mike turned her loose on their files and taught her some lobbying skills. Mike and Dan had already been lobbying the Board of Supervisors, and Tania did a cost benefit analysis and presented it at the supervisors’ meeting. Recognizing that the study had a foregone conclusion, (the consultant had presented the benefits but none of the drawbacks) and that they would be pressured to act on the recommendations of a flawed study, Sonoma County opted out, and Tania signed on full time (half time driving trucks, half time as a researcher and lobbyist).
Tania and Mike researched and wrote “Garbage to Energy, the False Panacea” – a 100 page document describing the problems. A consulting engineer whose firm helped repair garbage burners volunteered to review the document for technical accuracy, and provided some good examples. Mike sent the false Panacea to every California legislator and to Federal legislators. It was advertised in the first Whole Earth Catalog and ecology journals. Citizens’ groups from around the country, and as far away as the Philippines and Australia, requested copies and advice
Many grassroots recyclers thought they could “peacefully coexist” with incinerators. The “resource recovery” firms promised to let the recyclers keep their newspaper out of the burners – at least at their current recycling rate. There was much discussion about how much paper could be allowed to be recycled, and whether to regulate paper that was already being diverted.
Meanwhile, existing recycled paper mills were very concerned that they would lose their source of material if garbage-to-energy became prevalent. Officials of Consolidated Fibers – a large cardboard recycling firm based in Chicago, and Garden State Paper – a pioneer newspaper recycling mill, flew in to meet with Mike. Michael was a businessman, as well as an environmentalist, and so gained their trust. Their voices added breadth and power to the debate, and this relationship would prove valuable in promoting recycling legislation in the future.
Lobbying Against Burning
While Michael and the crew struggled to keep GRI financially afloat and providing services, they continued to fight the overriding battle for recycling’s survival. Tania, Mike, Dan, and others testified at hearings, spoke at citizens meetings, wrote articles and in general helped support and inform. Dan Knapp recruited doctors who were concerned about the air pollution, and particularly dioxin, that would come out of the stacks when plastic and other unpredictable garbage was burned together. Richmond citizens formed an environmental justice group, protesting another polluter in their midst. . In addition to pointing out all the problems with the plants – their cost, pollution, perpetuation of garbage – they argued that recycling should be given a chance first. In 1984 Berkeley citizens passed an Initiative requiring that city to implement programs to recycle 50% of its waste before it could put any money into an incinerator. (This legislation was the forerunner of AB 939 with its statewide 50% goal.)
Curbside Recycling Begins
From 1977 to 1986 San Francisco, San Jose, Richmond, Los
Angeles and San Diego each spent $10-15 million on feasibility studies
and consultant fees, attempting to put together contracts, while recycling
struggled for a pittance of city support. Sonoma County spent
no money chasing garbage burners, thanks to GRI. and the intelligent Board
of Supervisors. Instead Santa Rosa (and El Cerrito) got the first
California state grants to support curbside recycling. Grassroots recyclers
throughout the state were working to improve the visibility and viability
of their programs
Around the country, one by one other plants exhibited the problems that GRI had predicted. Long Island citizens rebelled against soot on their windows; Sweden found dioxin in its pastures and imposed a moratorium. One plant blew up when a container of gasoline hit the shredders. Refuse derived fuel didn’t behave as promised, and customers stopped buying it. Air pollution equipment couldn’t handle the variations in trash. Cities sued to break their garbage supply contracts, and the Supreme Court agreed.
And one by one, by ballot initiative, vote of joint powers’ committees, or election of burner opponents to City councils, San Francisco, San Jose, Richmond, Los Angeles and San Diego gave up on burning their garbage. Immediately, these cities switched funding to recycling, hired recycling coordinators, and wrote recycling into their garbage collection contracts. It wasn’t easy, but the gate was open. Supportive legislation followed – see your next issue - and California is now approaching a 50% recycling/reuse rate, with food waste and construction debris being the next challenges. We’re well ahead of the rest of the country, partly because we didn’t take the burner detour.