Why Waste-to-Energy Plants Are Problematic

by Michael Shank

This piece was originally posted in the Huffington Post.

New York City power plant. Photo by Wally Gobetz.

Many Americans don’t know where their trash goes after tossing it. Out of sight, out of mind. They don’t know where their municipal landfill is located or that an incinerator is nearby, ready to burn their waste. That disconnect makes it easy for Americans to discard waste, especially if they’re never forced to confront it.

This is a serious problem. Americans waste over 250 million tons of resources every year. We’re the largest generator of waste globally. Roughly 33 million tons of those resources are burned, 136 million tons are buried under ground, and only 89 million tons are recycled or composted. Meanwhile, the vulnerable communities and environments on the receiving end of that trash disposal process are negatively impacted on a daily basis.

Case Study: Westchester County, New York State

Take New York State’s Westchester County, for example, which is just north of New York City and has been home to some of America’s most powerful politicians, including, most recently, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Despite the incredible concentration of wealth in Westchester, the county continues to receive an “F” grade for its air quality from the American Lung Association.

That “F” grade likely stems, at least in part, from the county’s proximity to New York City, a heavy-emitting metropolis long known for its ability to cause cardiovascular disease (read NYU Langone Medical Center’s analysis on how NYC air can kill you). However, that “F” grade also stems from the fact that Westchester’s historically poorer towns, such as Peekskill, were turned into sacrifice zones decades ago, allowing carbon- and-toxic-emitting infrastructure to line the Hudson River waterfront. (Peekskill is a frequent recipient of “environmental justice” grants, which indicates the high level of need in tackling threats to environmental and public health.)

One Westchester County plant in particular – an incinerator run by Wheelabrator along Peekskill’s historic and scenic waterfront – burns “2,250 tons per day of everyday household and business waste” and claims to supply “63 MW of clean, renewable electricity” to the local utility. To be clear, it’s not atypical for companies to relabel their power as clean and renewable. Natural gas and nuclear companies do it all the time, irrespective of the fallaciousness of their claims. Similarly, in Wheelabrator’s case, there’s nothing “clean” or “renewable” about the electricity produced by this waste-to-energy plant. Let’s look at the numbers.

Dirty Waste

First, Wheelabrator emitted over 577 million pounds of carbon dioxide and over 131,000 pounds of carbon monoxide last year (see New York State Department of Conservation’s “Emissions Contaminant Totals Report”). Add to that over 247,000 pounds of sulfur dioxide and over 2 million pounds of nitrogen oxide in 2016 alone. That’s a lot of dirty pollutants pointed at American lungs, with potential adverse impacts on Peekskill residents’ respiratory and cardiovascular health.

There’s nothing “clean” about 577 million pounds of CO2 entering Peekskill’s air in a single year. To put it a different way – converting those 577 million pounds to 288,000 tons and then dividing that tonnage by the average CO2 emitted annually by one American car, which is roughly 5 tons – that’s like adding 57,600 polluting cars to Peekskill’s downtown traffic every year. For a city with only 24,000 residents, this is a serious carbon footprint and problematic for the long-term health of the town.

Second, once that waste is incinerated, it’s not coming back for another run at energy production (like solar or wind or geothermal might). There’s nothing “renewable” about this resource. Once it’s burned, it’s gone, and it’s no longer available for our use. Since renewable energy is where the market is headed, non-renewable energy companies might be incentivized to relabel waste as “naturally occurring” or “theoretically inexhaustible”, which is the legitimate definition of renewable energy. But waste doesn’t fit this definition, nor should it. There is nothing natural about it. 

Toxic Air, Rising Costs

Most importantly, and regardless of how one labels what’s happening at Wheelabrator, the Peekskill plant continues to emit toxins into New York’s air, contributing to the frequent health advisories issued by the State of New York. While some might think air is safe, because dirty particulates and air-polluting toxins aren’t always visible, it’s often deadly. Roughly 6.5 million people die annually from air pollution, according to the International Energy Agency, which places a huge economic toll on local governments, with over $225 billion in lost labor income.

These numbers are important because no matter how much a local municipality may receive in payments from polluters – and Peekskill’s windfall from Wheelabrator is in the millions of dollars – the costs to local communities, in terms of respiratory and cardiovascular problems, is often much greater. Of course, that’s harder for local city councils to quantify, often because the local funds aren’t available for more comprehensive monitoring and evaluation.

When hundreds of millions of pounds of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, cadmium, mercury, lead and other volatile organic compounds are emitted every year, as they are with Wheelabrator’s Westchester plant in Peekskill, the data are clear. This isn’t a healthy habit and no amount of repackaging by a public relations firm can alter that reality.

Transitioning to 100% Renewable Energy

For Wheelabrator-reliant Westchester, a transition to 100 percent renewable energy is necessary and, thankfully, feasible within this generation. In doing so, according to Stanford University research, the energy transition would save New York State $22 billion in avoided costs (i.e. mortality costs, morbidity costs, and non-health costs such as lost visibility and agricultural output), and it would save 1700 lives every year.

That’s a lot of New York lives saved by switching off dirty energy and ramping up what’s clean and renewable. And this is all within our reach. Hudson Valley could be the East Coast’s renewable energy capital and the cornerstone of the state’s goal of getting 50 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030. The solar and wind power potential is ample and here for the taking. The foundation for municipal solar buying and community choice aggregation is already there, thanks to the work of organizations like Sustainable Westchester, but more is required.

A rapid scaling up of renewable energy and a responsible scaling down of dirty power plants is necessary for towns like Peekskill if they want to avoid paying for the mounting environmental and public health costs associated with air pollution. And while the 400 acres necessary for 64MW of concentrated solar might not be readily available, which would be equal to Wheelabrator’s output and on par with Nevada’s Solar One project, it’s time to start putting those industrial scale photovoltaic pieces together. (Solarize Peekskillwas a great beginning, and now it’s time to move from residential and small business to something much bigger in scale.)

A Zero-Waste Goal

Simultaneously, a Westchester-wide campaign to tackle its addiction to waste will be equally essential, as burying it in landfills is also unsustainable. If big cities like San Francisco are aiming for zero waste, diverting 80 percent of their waste from landfills (through source reduction, reuse, and recycling and composting programs), then Westchester can, too.

In fact, 10 major U.S. cities are all moving towards zero-waste goals and strategies and saving money while doing it, including Minneapolis, Oakland, Seattle, Dallas and New York City. It’s time for Peekskill and the entire county to get on board that zero-waste train. It’ll pay off in the end.

The opportunity is for the taking, whether it’s ramping up renewable energy or winding down waste. It’s time for some big picture visioning for “environmental justice” towns across America before pollution puts American health in further peril. And the time is now, before another lung is lost to a completely preventable pollutant.


Michael Shank, PhD, teaches sustainable development at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs and is the head of communications at the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *