Readers perhaps saw a fine article last week in the Independent on solid waste and recycling.  However, in that article I was misquoted as stating that Waste to Energy (WTE) incinerators are the “least acceptable” form of energy production. In my opinion, that dubious honor goes to coal fired plants. What I believe I did say is that WTEs are the “least effective” form of energy production. That is an important distinction. The efficiency I am talking about is how much energy is needed to burn the fuel stock (in this case trash) as a ratio to how much energy is ultimately produced. In that regard, WTEs lose out when compared to natural gas, oil and to many of the newer coal plants. 

This is not to say that I prefer the use of fossil fuels for our energy.  As an environmentalist, I believe we must move as quickly as possible to alternative forms of clean energy.  My comments were focused on a concern that people may come to believe that WTEs are a panacea and that we don’t have to worry about what to do with our solid waste if we can just burn it up and get electricity to boot.   As I was accurately quoted as saying in the article, the issues with recycling [and WTEs in particular] are complicated.

Massachusetts plans to close all its landfills by 2030.  Therefore, we need alternatives for our trash.  Other than shipping everything to landfills out of state (not a great idea for all kinds of reason including economics), WTEs are needed.  In Massachusetts there are 5 WTEs that burn about half of all our trash.  However, there are problems. That is why there’s been an over 30-year moratorium in Massachusetts on the building of any new ones. 

One problem are the emissions from the stacks.  Burning trash results in fine particulates that have been documented as contributing to respiratory problems including asthma.  That led the American Lung Association 30-years ago to oppose WTEs and other forms of trash incineration and contributed to the Commonwealth’s decision to cease building them. Over the years, with newer emission standards, there have been improvements in the screening that reduces these particulates. However, even with improvements, incinerators still emit some pollution, emission caps are relaxed during periods when the incinerator is starting up or shutting down (when emissions are most likely to be at their dirtiest) or when a plant is experiencing problems. As a result, some question the overall accuracy of the readings being reported.

Then there is the problem of what to do with the “fly ash” residue that is left over after burning. When talking about ash, people envision fluffy white stuff.  What is left over is a toxic sludge containing heavy metals and chemicals such as dioxins and PFAS, known carcinogens and some “forever” chemicals that will never go away in the environment.  This sludge is generally then transported to landfills.  So, ultimately, we are not in fact getting away from that problem.  Indeed, there is a request to expand a specialized landfill in Saugus that accepts this material because they are running out of space. To do so, they would take more forested land.  That particular landfill, run by Wheelabrator, experienced a spill a number of years ago into nearby wetlands. That resulted in more than $7 million fine to clean up the equivalent of hundreds of dump trucks loads of sludge.

Next, there is the issue of environmental justice. The majority of incinerators in Massachusetts are in areas designated as environmental justice communities by the state.  There is a history in the state as well as across the country, of putting polluting industries in poor communities and communities of color.  As an unfortunate example, a few years ago, then-governor Baker granted a special permit for the construction of a biomass WTE in Springfield.  It would have used wood as its fuel.  The community organized, pushed back for environmental reasons, Baker reneged and permission for the permit was withdrawn.

Obviously, there are problems with incinerators, but should we get rid of them?  In my opinion, we still currently need them.   So, what should we do instead?   The answer is, in as many ways as possible, reduce the amount of trash we are producing in the first place.  And there are ways to do so.

Massachusetts has passed a number of regulations designed to reduce the amount of material in our waste stream.  This includes recent requirements to recycle mattress and textiles and for businesses to compost food waste if they produce over a half ton of material per week.  Food waste, by the way, makes up about a third of the solid waste stream.  Curbside composting services for residents could also help in this regard.  Such services are available in many towns. 

There are also several bills being considered by our Legislature would reduce waste such as an Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) law that is similar to what was first passed in Maine and now exists in a number of other states.  EPRs help to reduce excess paper and plastic packaging which accounts for the majority of our unrecycled paper and plastic. Residents should contact their legislators as well as the chairs of the state’s Ways and Means Committee and urge them to make H4263 a priority plus to vote it out favorable for it to be brought to the floor for action. In addition, there is an extended bottle bill up once again (30 years now and still trying) that would help reduce plastic and glass waste. I recommend contacting legislators to support H3690 / S 2104.

According to the EPA, the U.N. Environmental Programme and 101 nations working on an international plastic treaty, single use plastics are the greatest contributor to our worldwide plastic waste problem.  In countries as diverse as Canada and Kenya, they have introduced bans on many forms of single use plastics while encourage reusables and truly recyclable products. We should do the same.  We also need better forms of recycling and recycling education.  This can help a great deal.  Nationwide, only 43 percent of households actively recycle. In Plymouth, all residential haulers must provide recycling and our transfer station provides an excellent system for those without curbside service.  Part of the problem is that residents often don’t understand what can and can’t be recycled.   The MassDEP provides an excellent resource to answer such questions.  Go to, enter the item in question in their “Recyclopedia,” and you will receive the information you need.

Material Recycling Facilities (MRFs) that sort recycled waste claim they capture up to 87 percent of what can be reused.  The recycling industries report that improvements in technologies could increase that number to as high as 95 percent. This would call for very expensive retooling of old plants or the building of new ones. Government incentives of various sorts might speed this process up.

However, as important as recycling is, it is critical to understand that we will never recycle our way out of the waste and plastic pollution problems we have.  We simply just produce too much to keep up with it all.  We must significantly reduce what we produce at the front end.  Beyond legislation, individuals can do their part by moving as much as feasible to products and buying patterns that will reduce our waste footprint.  For a long list of actions households can take, go here.  

Bottomline, there are no easy answers to our growing solid waste crisis, but there is much we can do if committed to action at both personal and governmental levels.  If there is a will, there is a way.

Ken Stone

Ken Stone heads Sustainable Plymouth’s solid waste and plastic reduction group.

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