9.20.19 Burn, baby burn


SEAN RAMESWARAM (HOST): Students across the world today are walking out of school to protest for action on the climate. It's in conjunction with the big U.N. climate summit. Maybe you heard about the 16-year-old climate activist Greta who took a boat across the Atlantic for the occasion. Everyone's focusing on the big, but I'm sort of caught up on the small, and I'm catching up Today, Explained in the small. I asked producer/reporter Noam Hassenfeld to help me on this quest because I heard that there was a chance that my recycling was being burned!

NOAM HASSENFELD (REPORTER): Yeah, Sean you sent me this article in The Guardian from a couple months ago and it was about how Philadelphia was having problems with its recycling system and was sending its recyclables to an incinerator outside the city.

SEAN: Yeah, and I think it was kind of like shocking, right? Because it flies in the face of things that we were taught as children  what happens to your recycling.

NOAM: Yeah, I sort of couldn't believe that it was happening. And so I had to go check it out for myself. I wanted to go to a local incinerator operated by the same company and so I went to an incinerator in Alexandria, Virginia, right outside of D.C.

KEVIN MCGUNNIGLE (Covanta official): This is a view inside the combustion chamber. So this is where we're burning waste at about 2000 degrees Fahrenheit. There’s a good view in there.

NOAM (at incinerator): Holy shit!

JAMES REGAN (Covanta official): Yeah. Bend down if you can and look directly up.

NOAM (at incinerator): Oh my god… That’s scary! Yeah, it's just crazy to see this like huge... I mean, that's a bigger fire than I've ever seen in my life, I think.


NOAM: The US is in a recycling crisis.



REPORTER 1: Say goodbye to recycling if you live in the city of Deltona. With lower demand for recyclable products and rising cost of recycling, the city decided to suspend its recycling program.

REPORTER 2: The city of Jackson is suspending its curbside recycling program until further notice.

REPORTER 3: In Sierra Vista, concerns over contamination and cost force city leaders to do away with curbside service.

REPORTER 4: “A slow moving recycling crisis.”

REPORTER 5: This comes after China stopped accepting the bulk of American recycling last year.

REPORTER 6: So now we’re sending this stuff to Southeast Asia.

REPORTER 7: So we were doing that for a while, what’s happened is because there’s so much plastic that we’re talking about, a lot of the Southeast Asian countries have now been overwhelmed and they have also put in their own plastic bans. So there's there's all these tons of plastics basically floating around with no clear home.


NOAM: The story of this recycling crisis starts at the beginning of 2018.

NOAM: That was when China essentially stopped accepting the world’s crap. The ban was... disruptive.

JENNA JAMBECK (University of Georgia): About half of the plastic that we were recycling was getting exported to China.

NOAM: Jenna Jambeck. She’s a National Geographic Fellow and a professor at the University of Georgia.

JENNA: There were a few reasons why this came to be.

NOAM: Reason number one:

JENNA: Basically in the mid-1990s, recycling was changing in the U.S. and we went to this single-stream system. We could just put all of our recyclables into one bin, and then we designed facilities to separate those materials out.

NOAM: Those facilities didn’t always do the best job….

JENNA: And so they needed sort of this secondary sort.

NOAM: Which China was down to do. In large part because of reason number two:

JENNA: The WTO was really encouraging global trade.

NOAM: China shipped goods to the US, those ships had to make a return trip….

JENNA: And they could go back with this recycled plastic that then could be imported into China.

NOAM: But the profit margins on recycled plastic are tiny, and eventually China said all the extra pollution wasn’t worth it to them. Which basically gets us here.

<RE-CLIP> Reporter 1: “A slow moving recycling crisis.”

NOAM: But, it’s worse than it seems.


NOAM: The U.S. was in a recycling crisis well before China’s ban.

JENNA: Even when we were exporting it, our average recycling rate for plastic has been around 9 percent. So you know that means over 90 percent of our plastic was not getting recycled anyway.

NOAM: To be clear: that means, for the majority of plastic in America…

JENNA: About 79 percent was getting landfilled.


NOAM: It wasn’t that long ago that plastic seemed like a miracle.


MR. MCGUIRE: I just want to say one word to you. Just one word.


MCGUIRE: Are you listening?


MCGUIRE: Plastics.

NOAM: Well, I just want to say one word to YOU: COMPLICATED!


NOAM: We all learned that plastic needs to be separated from trash, yeah, sure. And it helps if your city separates plastic from glass and metals. But beyond that… plastic needs to be sorted from other plastic. You know those numbers on the bottom next to the recycling logo? Those are actually different types of plastic, all made from different materials, all of which have to be separated.

JENNA: Ones and twos are more recyclable. Those are things like your beverage bottles, your detergent bottles.

NOAM: Milk jugs, peanut butter jars….

JENNA: Then from there, numbers three through seven are things like polypropylene.

NOAM: Like the container my takeout came in on Thursday...

JENNA: And things like PVC, you know when you think of like water pipes and things like that. And they all have different properties in terms of processing so you can't mix them together.

NOAM: And when you get to some of these higher numbers, more plastic starts ending up in landfills.

JENNA: There's many places that really just even wouldn't accept them in the first place, because again you don't have enough value in capturing those. And then what we are putting into the recycle bin, if it's contaminated then that doesn't get recycled itself and so that percentage that is able to even be recycled just gets smaller and smaller.

NOAM: But great news: even this is way worse than it seems.


NOAM: The US only recycles 9 percent of its plastic. Seems bad. But that’s only plastic we recycle once. And most plastic can only be recycled once or twice.

JENNA: You know really recycling just delays. It doesn't ever really prevent disposal at whatever point and that would be in a landfill or incinerator, and so it really simply only delays that eventual disposal that's needed.

NOAM: So, only some plastic can be recycled, and during the process, more and more gets disqualified. And all of this only delays the inevitable, which is plastic going to an incinerator, a landfill, or likely even worse, the ocean. And this is all happening while plastic production is skyrocketing.

<CLIP> MR. MCGUIRE: There’s a great future in plastics.

JENNA: That has been rapidly increasing since we started recording this in 1950, and annually now it's over 330 million tons. We also calculated the cumulative amount of plastic that we had produced and that was equal to 8.3 billion metric tons. It's very hard to imagine and even when we turned it into something like it's actually equal to 80 million blue whales it's still very hard to imagine.


NOAM: But here’s a twist: contrary to everything you’ve been taught, throwing your recycling in the trash might actually be better for the planet.

THOMAS KINNAMAN (Bucknell University): A question that was always on our minds was what would be the optimal recycling rate.

NOAM: Thomas Kinnaman. Economics. Bucknell University.

THOMAS: We were hearing that a complete circular economy with 100 percent recycling was a goal. And that sounded great. But we were concerned about the environmental costs of recycling combined with the economic costs.

If you care about recycling, you probably throw your plastic in a bin and you feel like, “Great. I did my part!” But your plastic goes on a journey, it has to be transformed, and all that effort makes your good deed… complicated.


NOAM: At each stop in the recycling journey, there are both economic and environmental costs.

THOMAS: So that recycling bin is put out on a Monday morning….

        SFX <Truck>

THOMAS: With all of your other recycled materials and probably a different truck than the garbage truck will come down and collect those recycled materials.

        SFX <Truck and recycling bin noises>

THOMAS: The truck dumps it at some local processing facility where all the plastic is separated. Ideally….


THOMAS: This is all ideal because a lot of the plastic ends up in a landfill at this stage. Because they open up the recycling truck and there’s plastic wrap in there and you know vegetable containers and different types of plastic that buyers don't want in their plastic. And so the buyer comes and looks at it and says, I won’t take that. And it ends up going to the landfill. Um...


THOMAS: But if it is being truly recycled then it will be put in a container with other exact materials like it….

SFX <Container>

THOMAS: And that container will then be trucked somewhere else, probably far from your home.

SFX <Truck>

THOMAS: So that's a long truck drive, probably shredded into little bits which required energy, and those little plastic bits then could be used in some type of….


THOMAS: New product.

NOAM: Think about every individual cost in that journey.

THOMAS: The cost of the trucks, the equipment, the labor, the gasoline necessary to go around and collect the recycled materials to transport them to market the materials and then processed.


THOMAS: This requires energy, as well as additional labor.

NOAM: All of that energy and all of that labor has a significant environmental cost.


NOAM: In the end, adding it all up...

THOMAS: Plastic is one of those materials where the benefits are outweighed by the costs. My results suggest maybe we shouldn't even be considering recycling for plastic. Given that the social costs seem to be higher than if we were to do other things with it.

NOAM: You're, you’re basically saying that recycling can be bad for the environment. Not just like neutral or forgettable, but actually bad.

THOMAS: It can be. Landfills tend to be closer to a municipality than a final recycling outlet is. Or you take it to the coast and have it shipped to a developing country which still does ocean dumping… you know which bottle is more likely to end up in the ocean: the one you sent to your Missouri landfill or the one that's being shipped to a developing country that still dumps in the ocean? So in some cases recycling could actually be bad for the planet. Absolutely.

NOAM: And why do you think these sort of second-layer questions about, you know, whether recycling can actually be good or bad are not necessarily being asked by most people?

THOMAS: I think it became more of a social question than an economic question. The idea was that we produce too much garbage, it's not sustainable. Recycling is a way of kind of entering into a more circular economy and therefore it just makes sense to do this.

NOAM: Yeah.

THOMAS: And I think recycling maybe at some point was considered to be sort of like a gateway activity, a gateway into the world of responsible environmental living that you know we can get people starting to recycle, this will trigger other questions: How else can I help the environment? Maybe I'll stop driving everywhere and get my bike working and use that more often or I'll walk, and I'm not sure that’s taken off like that. Instead of a gateway maybe it’s been used as an excuse, like hey, I recycle, now I don’t need to do anything else. 

NOAM: Mmhm.

THOMAS: And so now I can continue to drive my SUV to work and keep my house nice and cold in the summer because I recycle my plastic. I’m… I’m ok, you know I’m doing something.

NOAM: Let’s say I'm putting you in a situation where you're standing in front of a trash can and recycling bin and you're holding that one water bottle. For you the cost is exactly the same, you know you can put it in either bin. Which would you decide to put it in yourself?

THOMAS: Well you know I'm a... I'm a creature of habit like so many of us. So I still find myself putting it in the plastic bin. It’s possible that if we want to keep this supply chain going just in case there is technological innovation that occurs soon, we’re all hoping for that, right?

NOAM: But to be clear, for right now, it’s better to throw that bottle away?

THOMAS: With plastic, yeah, it's better to landfill or incineration.

        SFX - FIREBALL


SEAN: After the break I started off this whole thing was like incineration is shocking, that absolutely cannot be the thing that we should do, right.

But what if it is?

This is Today, Explained.

SEAN: I started off this whole thing saying incineration is SHOCKING. That absolutely cannot be the thing we should do, right?

But what if it is?

Noam stares down the fire after the break on Today, Explained.



NOAM: Before we get to incineration, let’s just set the stage:

Our recycling system is broken.

The vast majority of America’s plastic is not getting recycled. It’s mainly ending up in landfills. Or worse — the ocean.

So what do we do?

Well, to figure it out, I hopped on a bus...

<BUS> Stop requested...

NOAM: And headed down to the Covanta Incinerator in Alexandria.

It’s one of about a hundred waste to energy plants in the US, and like the name says, it’s designed to do two basic things.

Get rid of waste. And generate energy.


KEVIN: All right, it can be a little dusty out there and you know we have a few thousand tons of trash so there will be an odor, too.

NOAM: Kevin McGunnigle. Environmental Compliance Specialist. He also gives the tours.

NOAM (at incinerator): Yeah, there’s an odor.

NOAM: To be honest, though, it’s not that bad. Like, it’s certainly not as bad as where I used to live in New York.

KEVIN: So, yeah, the crane operator is operating the crane, or claw using a series of joysticks.

NOAM: We’re in a giant warehouse. There’s a guy on a perch operating a jumbo version of that arcade claw game, picking up mountains of crap instead of teddy bears.

There’s a huge wall of mixed waste on either side of us. Plastic. Cardboard. Furniture. Banana peels. You name it. And right in front of us, there’s maybe a 30-, 40-foot drop down to where trucks are dumping waste.

In the waste-to-energy process, this is the beginning.

Step 1: Sorting.

KEVIN: Waste comes in, it’s dumped onto the tipping floor, before being pushed into the refuse storage pit.

NOAM (at incinerator): So Kevin I just saw the claw like lift up and then sort of drop a chunk down was that the mixing process?

KEVIN: Yeah that's... we call it fluffing the waste. It's preventing you from just having all of one kind of material, all cardboard, or all paper. You know, we know some waste has more heating value like plastics, wet  cardboard is going to have less heating value. So that's why they're mixing it before feeding it.

NOAM: They need to get it just right. There’s this sea of waste out here, but they’re always burning one-third plastic, two-thirds non-plastic. And on the upper ledge with us is a series of hoppers, which are basically these huge buckets with slanted ramps for the waste to slide down on its way to the combustion chamber. Once the claw picks up a good mix….

KEVIN: It's gonna be dropped into that hopper, where it’s going to be gravity-fed. This waste will be reduced to ash in about one hour to two hours.

NOAM (at incinerator): All the trash in the hopper gets burnt up?

KEVIN: Yeah, it's going directly into the municipal waste combustor.

NOAM (at incinerator): Can we see some fire?

KEVIN: Absolutely.

NOAM: Step 2: Combustion.

KEVIN: This is a view inside the combustion chamber. So this is where we're burning waste at about 2000 degrees Fahrenheit. The way we're generating electricity is we have water-walled tubes lining the inside of the boiler; they’re heating up water to convert steam, steam goes to a generator and turns the blades to generate electrical energy. There’s a good view in there.

NOAM (at incinerator): Holy shit!

KEVIN: By the time the waste get to this wall it's reduced to ash.

NOAM: At this point we’ve taken a pile of mixed waste, burned it, and what’s leftover is ash and chunks of unburnt metal. Which brings us to….

Step 3: Metal recovery.

KEVIN: Basically ash passes off the end of this vibrating pan and falls into one truck. Then metal is picked up and dropped into a separate box, which is eventually sent to a scrap metal yard. So we should see some recovery here; I'm sure you'll see some spoons and knives and stuff like that coming through.

NOAM (at incinerator): So this is just like an enormous rotating magnet.

KEVIN: Yes. There’s a bicycle just went by. A shopping cart.

NOAM: It’s hard to picture just how crazy this all looks. There are big chunks of metal, like mattress springs, bed frames, silverware, all just going zhhooOOP! And sticking to this huge rotating magnet.

KEVIN: We get about 30 tons a day of that material, 11,000 tons per year.

NOAM: That’s 11,000 tons of metal that’s being recycled every year instead of heading to a landfill.

KEVIN: The air pollution control, I'll walk you through it. We’ll just go outside.

NOAM: Step 4: Pollution control.

KEVIN: See that ductwork there? That's where all the flue gases come. So you burn trash, you've got gases that come off of that. That's where that ductwork is. Basically you're injecting a lime slurry.

NOAM: A lime slurry is basically a chemical mist that reacts with the flue gas to reduce acid gas emissions.

KEVIN: Then it goes to a bag house.

NOAM: Kevin walks over to the bag house, which handles the bigger pieces of flying ash.

KEVIN: There are six compartments where gases are going through. It’s designed that way so they go through a cleaning cycle one at a time: just blasts air, knocks ash down, down into a hopper here and drops it back into the boiler. So it's kind of a closed-loop system. You've got combined ash sent into a truck which is eventually at this at this site, it’s sent to a monofill or ash landfill.

NOAM: That ash goes to a landfill, but that’s only about 10 percent of the size of the original waste.

Finally we get to step 5. Energy creation.

KEVIN: So the steam enters the turbine, which generates electricity goes to a switch yard owned by Dominion Virginia Power who will sell that to the end user.


        SCORING - 8 LEG DOWN

NOAM: OK. That’s how they work. So should we be burning all our plastic?

MARCO CASTALDI (City College of New York): It's not ideal. The ideal situation is to reduce waste.

NOAM: Marco Castaldi. Chemical engineering. City College of New York.

MARCO: The ideal situation after that is to reuse it. And then whatever cannot be reduced or reused or recycled, you have to extract the energy from it. And converting it with waste-to-energy has a lower environmental impact than landfilling.

NOAM: There’s something called the waste hierarchy.

MARCO: The waist hierarchy starts with reduce, reuse, recycle...

NOAM: And that’s all most of us got in school. Just the first three words of the waste hierarchy.

And that’s best to worst: reduce, then reuse, then recycle.

But guess what’s next?




NOAM: Then, all the way at the bottom, the worst thing we can do with our waste is drop it in a landfill.

MARCO: When you’re putting material into a landfill, you're releasing methane….

NOAM: ...which is 86 times stronger than CO2 over a 20-year time frame, which means….

MARCO: For every one ton that you convert in waste energy facility, you have offset one ton of nominally one ton of CO2. So greenhouse gas emissions, definitely a benefit with waste-to-energy.

NOAM: Still, there’s obviously the whole burning waste thing.

MARCO: Anytime you're dealing with this garbage there's gonna be emissions in one form or the other whether it's air emissions or solid emissions. But the amount of dioxin that's released from waste to energy facilities is minuscule.
 You will get more exposure to dioxins looking at a firework display for 15 or 20 minutes then you will be exposed to dioxins of a waste to energy facility processing waste for 100 years.

NOAM: And there have been studies that examined the effects of living near these plants.

MARCO: In fact one that's just come out where there was a seven-year study on facilities in the UK that looked at infant mortality, you know, birth outcomes in terms of you know abnormalities and it showed that there was none.

NOAM: Even so. Incineration is really controversial.

ANA BAPTISTA (New School in New York): Most of the incinerators in the U.S. today are located in communities of color and low-income communities that are often referred to as environmental justice communities. And they contribute pollution to local communities that are already overburdened by other pollution sources.

NOAM: Ana Baptista runs the Environmental Policy program at the New School in New York.

ANA: It's very difficult if not impossible to trace public health outcomes to any one particular facility. What I am confident about is incinerators are definitely contributing to the overall pollution burden in a community. Environmental justice communities if you ask them what their target is that they would say that they don't prefer landfills or incinerators.

NOAM: Professor Baptista wants the world we were promised. Ideas like….

ANA: Zero waste solutions that divert a lot more of the waste stream to composting and to recycling and in some cases looking at opportunities to reduce the overall burden and load on waste systems.


NOAM: I should point out that this particular debate is very American. In Europe, it’s a whole different ball game.


NOAM: First of all, they’re just way better at recycling. They’re also wayyyyyy more into incinerating. There’s about 500 incinerators in Europe. America’s got under 100.

<CLIP> NEWS: In Greater Paris, garbage that can't be recycled is converted into energy, some of which the plants use to run themselves.

NOAM: Sweden burns half its waste and even imports some from the UK just to burn it.

<CLIP> NEWS: Sweden is considered the world leader in the field of waste-to-energy.

NOAM: In Vienna, the incinerator is featured on postcards.

<CLIP> PERSON IN VIENNA: I think it's a pretty remarkable step that the city of Vienna did this.

NOAM: But the most original plant is probably in Copenhagen.

<CLIP> NEWS: Downhill, downtown. This is the city center power station the neighbors don't object to.

NOAM: The Danish plant has an actual ski slope on its roof. Seriously.

<CLIP> DANISH PERSON: Our ski slope here at Copenhill is a lot different than when visit a mountain.


DANISH PERSON: Ah, that was so good!

NOAM: There’s a lot of reasons why the US and Europe are so different when it comes to le waste.

Europe needs the energy from incineration more than the US does, because it’s not as rich in fossil fuels. And they have much, much less cheap land for landfilling. Most European countries even have landfill bans.

But most noticeably, incinerators are right there in the middle of some of the ritziest neighborhoods.

JANEK VAHK (Zero Waste Europe): The most well known like the one in Vienna, the Copenhagen, the one in Amsterdam, in Paris. It's not necessarily areas where you have poverty. I mean, most plants in Europe, I would not say that they are kind of hidden somewhere.

NOAM: Janek Vahk. Zero Waste Europe. Brussels. Not a fan of incinerators. But not because of the pollution.

JANEK: I don't think the air pollution is the main issue nowadays. It's mainly the lock-in effect. The fact that these are plants to be there for, in order to pay back, at least 25, 30, 40 years, and that locks the waste management system into burning.

NOAM: Even though countries in Europe are some of the best recyclers on Earth, Janek wants even more government investment in recycling. Like Professor Ana Baptista at the New School, he wants the world we were promised: Reduce. Reuse. Maybe even recycle. In Europe it doesn’t feel nearly as out of reach.


NOAM: Back in the United States. Things are a little more dire. China doesn’t want our plastic. We’re using more and more if it every day. Only 9% of it is getting recycled. And then… people are scared of incineration. But maybe that’s because people don’t understand just how bad waste really is. And who can blame them? Europe is burning things out in the open. We’re mostly doing it in poor neighborhoods and communities of color. Europe talks about landfill bans. The US talks about plastic straw bans. And that is NOT putting much of a dent in those 80 million blue whales worth of plastic.

Incineration can and should be part of the solution, but we can’t just go burning all of our plastic. Plants can’t handle it, which is why Covanta stopped burning recyclables outside of Philly and has rejected similar offers from other cities too.

What’s left is a choice with no easy answer. Either we stop making so much plastic, or somehow we innovate our way out of the problem.

In a sense, China forcing our hand here might have been a good thing. It might force us to confront the ugly realities of incineration. Or the even uglier realities of landfills. Or the ugliest reality of floating plastic islands the size of Texas. Whatever the less than ideal scenario is, we’re living it right now. And most of us don’t even know it.


SEAN: Noam Hassenfeld. Reporter. Producer. Today, Explained.

I’m Sean Rameswaram.

Irene Noguchi is the executive producer of the show.

Efim Shapiro’s the engineer.

Brigid McCarthy, Amina Al-Sadi and Haleema Shah produce.

And Will Reid has been our summer intern, but all good summers come to an end. What he’s taught us is that where there’s a Will, there’s a way.

Shout outs to Jelani Carter for being our best friend in New York City.

And the Mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder, who I can only assume is heading to Area 51 right now.

Today, Explained is a 401-episode co-production of Stitcher and Vox. We’re part of the Vox Media Podcast Network.