The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports that municipal solid waste totaled 262 million tons in 2015, up 26 percent from 1990. Reducing, reusing and recycling are proven methods to cut the amount of municipal solid waste, but a significant quantity is sent to landfills every year. Modern incineration technology can dramatically reduce the amount of municipal solid waste that needs to be landfilled and also generate electrical energy for nearby residents.
The charts below show trends in municipal solid waste from 1960 to 2015, as reported by the EPA.
The U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization reports that food is the largest component of materials sent to landfills and the primary source of landfill gas. In the U.S., landfill gas is responsible for 17 percent of U.S. methane emissions, a major driver of climate change. In 2007, the global carbon footprint of food waste was estimated at 3.6 billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalent. This amount is more than twice the total greenhouse gas emissions of all U.S. road transportation in 2010.
Incineration reduces transportation of solid waste and preserves land
Ideally, municipal solid waste would be addressed close to where it is generated. Transporting it to landfill sites generates greenhouse gases. In a piece published in Slate in 2011, Brian Palmer wrote: “One ton of garbage traveling 500 miles by train from New York to the Mountain State would generate 115 pounds of carbon dioxide. If New York City shipped all of its trash to West Virginia the commute would produce 760,000 tons of CO2 each year.”
For the opposing viewpoint, see “The Finger Lakes region can do better than incinerating NYC trash” by Michael Warren Thomas.
Landfills consume land and prevent the future use of it. The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control notes that “one of the most recognized research efforts on decomposition—also called biodegradation—has been the work done as part of the Garbage Project at the University of Arizona. Researchers mined local landfills to learn about modern civilization. Among their findings—garbage does not break down in landfills.”
For her 2015 piece in Waste360, Rachael Zimlich interviewed Bryan Staley, president and CEO of the Environmental Research & Education Foundation. Staley asserts that the U.S. has about 62 years of permitted landfill capacity remaining in its current facilities. New York, despite shipping most of the Big Apple’s trash across state lines, has only 25 years of permitted capacity left.
“In landfill-strapped states, the problem is more political than geological or geographical. Landfill operators can build a new site from nearly any piece of land (apart from sensitive ecological areas) in six to eight years. But many voters and bureaucrats in the Northeast, for example, would rather ship their trash across state lines than have a landfill near their homes,” Palmer observed in his Slate piece.
Recycling is less viable as China upends markets
China now purchases only waste paper and plastic that are largely uncontaminated, which excludes most of what is collected at the curbside. Prices have plummeted. Recycled materials previously selling for $200 per ton now sell for $100 per ton, and one-third of waste collected by recycling programs goes into landfills.
As Don Slager, CEO of Waste Management’s Republic Services, told the Nightly Business Report: “The recycling model is broken.”
Incineration is an alternative: Plastics, which can persist in the environment for hundreds of years, have a high calorific value and would liberate a large quantity of energy, which could be used to produce electricity in a waste-to-energy plant.
Would a waste-to-energy plant make sense in Seneca County?
The major landfills in the Finger Lakes Region are High Acres in Fairport, Mill Seat in Riga and Seneca Meadows in Seneca Falls.
Seneca Meadows, the largest landfill site in New York, is scheduled for closure on Dec. 31, 2025. Although many in the local community have worked for the closure of the site, local taxpayers stand to lose millions of dollars in host-community payments.
Meanwhile, Rochester-based Circular enerG LLC is proposing a waste-to-energy plant for the former Seneca Army Depot site in Romulus.
I favor this proposed location of a WtE plant (although I would choose a different incineration technology). Using existing WtE technology, a plant located in Seneca County would provide low-emission electrical power and promote economic development. Potential employers might be attracted to a location that can provide an affordable and reliable supply of energy.
A plan to locate a WtE plant in Seneca County should be structured around a host-community agreement that includes both cash payments to the affected municipalities plus preferred access to the power generated at the site, both lowering property taxes and utility bills. Coupled with a plan that guarantees the preservation of property values, this proposal could win the support of many of the county’s residents.
The operation of a modern WtE plant in Seneca County—instead of a landfill—can reduce required land, reduce odors, minimize GHG emissions, cut surface and ground water contamination, reduce electrical energy rates, and provide employment opportunities. These benefits are what I favor.
David A. Elsperger is the owner and founder of Sybra Energy LLC, which provides chemical process engineering and design consulting for the energy sector, primarily synthetic fuels and distributed energy resources. He has no affiliation with the Romulus project, but has an interest in it as a resident of New York.