Waste gasification: coming soon to Mass?

Massachusetts Poised to Allow New Garbage Incinerators

New Analysis Shows Policy Reversal Would Harm Air Quality, Climate and Recycling Efforts

February 25, 2013.    Pelham, MA – A proposal to allow new trash incinerators in Massachusetts could lead to significant air pollution emissions, an analysis by the Partnership for Policy Integrity (PFPI) shows.  In a letter to the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), PFPI critiques the DEP’s proposal to lift a 23-year ban on new incinerators to allow “gasification” of municipal waste, which has been promoted as a less polluting technology than traditional garbage incineration.  The proposal is contained in the Massachusetts Solid Waste Master Plan, for which the state is accepting comments until March 1.

“Although it is promoted as ‘cleaner’ than traditional incineration, gasification is not a magic technology that makes toxics disappear” said Mary Booth, PFPI’s director.  “The DEP’s proposal to burn 350,000 tons of additional garbage each year would emit hundreds of tons of new air pollution, including carcinogens and other air toxics.”

Gasification involves heating waste at high temperatures and low oxygen to drive off gases, which are then burned to produce energy.  The “char” that is left after gasification is about one-third the original weight of the waste, and is burned in a conventional incinerator.  The gas produced by gasification can be used to make liquid fuels or burned to generate electricity, a process that is treated as renewable energy and is eligible for state subsidies and federal tax breaks.

To determine what the emissions from gasifying garbage would be, PFPI analyzed emissions for the proposed Taylor Biomass plant in Montgomery, NY, which if built will be the nation’s first large-scale waste gasification facility. The study found:

  • As a means of waste disposal, gasifiers emit large amounts of air pollution. Gasification does not destroy air toxics – when contaminated materials are used as fuel, toxic emissions increase.  Emissions from incinerators burning municipal waste include particulate matter, volatile organic compounds, nitrogen oxides, heavy metals, dioxins, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, and mercury.
  • As energy generators, gasification plants emit more greenhouse gases than fossil fuel plants, and as such, are incompatible with the greenhouse gas reduction goals of Massachusetts’ 2008 Global Warming Solutions Act.
  • While waste incinerators collect millions of dollars in disposal fees each year for their operators, the facilities are nonetheless still dependent on publicly funded renewable energy subsidies and tax incentives to be financially viable.

The Massachusetts Solid Waste Master Plan, which contains goals of reducing waste, increasing recycling, and reducing the amount of banned materials that are now landfilled or combusted in violation of existing rules, admits that a high percentage of waste loads currently violate rules against disposing of recyclables and hazardous materials.

“The state’s own data show that garbage going to a gasifier is likely to contain hazardous wastes that will emit air toxics when used as fuel”, said Kelly Bitov, PFPI’s attorney. “The DEP should focus on cleaning up the waste stream and increasing recycling, rather than sweeping the waste problem under the rug by building new incinerators.”

Click here  to see PFPI’s letter on the Solid Waste Master Plan.

Partnership for Policy Integrity