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The Hidden Costs of Incineration

September 01, 2017
By: Polly Miller and Doorae Shin

Many still believe that trash is landfilled, but on Oʻahu, most waste that is not recycled or composted is incinerated.  That amounts to about 600,000 tons of trash being burned each year on Oʻahu. Though often touted as a sustainable solution to our waste problems, burning trash is often the most expensive and the most toxic form of waste management.

As an island, Oʻahu produces about 1.6 million tons of trash each year. Trash that goes into grey curbside bins or dumpsters (meaning trash not separated for recycling or composting) makes its way to the Honolulu Program of Waste Energy Recovery (H-POWER), where trash is burned, generating 4% of Oʻahu’s energy on most days. H-POWER is owned by the City and County of Honolulu and managed by Covanta Energy.

An Expensive Contract
The contract between Covanta Energy and the City & County of Honolulu includes a requirement for the City to provide 800,000 tons of trash per year for incineration. If this quota is not met, the city has to pay Covanta for the difference, leaving taxpayers with the bill – estimated at millions of dollars. This kind of clause in a contract is called a “put or pay” agreement, and it creates barriers to reducing waste. With the City & County focused on meeting this trash quota, it fails to prioritize waste reduction and diversion efforts, leaving residents with limited options for recycling and virtually no options for composting food waste.

Toxins From Incineration
Incineration is often celebrated as a sustainable alternative to landfilling, but this is shortsighted in the bigger picture. Incineration produces a lot of toxic ash, which is all landfilled. The toxins produced by burning plastics and other trash is a concern to the health of our air quality and communities in West O’ahu, where the plant is located.  Incineration releases carbon dioxide as well as pollutants such as mercury, ammonia, and dioxins. Although these emissions are within EPA limits, it is not clear what the long term consequences the exposure of these pollutants has on environmental and human health.

Sustainable Alternatives
Because of the environmental impact of producing and shipping products, reducing waste proves to be more sustainable solution than incinerating or recycling waste. According to the City & County of Honolulu’s 2006 Waste Characterization Report, on average, 17-22% of Oʻahu’s trash is comprised of compostable green waste and organic materials. Paper is another 20-30%, which can be composted as well. If Oʻahu composted these items, it would greatly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and produce finished compost that would benefit farmers and soil health in local communities.

In Paul Connett’s book titled Zero Waste Solution, he shares that “A combination of recycling and composting lowers greenhouse gas production forty-six times more than an incinerator producing electricity.”

The Not-So-Bright Reality
There are repercussions to waste incineration. It is an expensive process, produces an enormous amount of persistent pollutants, incentivizes trash production, and does not produce very much energy overall (4% of Oʻahu’s energy on most days). Perhaps most importantly, our city signed a contract with H-Power, which has created a barrier to addressing waste reduction and sustainable models of waste diversion, such as composting. As an island, Oʻahu could prioritize reducing waste through programs like Pay As You Throw, which incentivizes residents who use smaller trash bins for curbside pickup, and charges more for larger curbside trash bins. Over 5,000 communities in the United States, including San Francisco and Portland, successfully use a Pay As You Throw program.

Community education about waste reduction and an implementation of a curbside program for residential food waste would be a huge benefit and avoid the environmental and health consequences of incineration. Although incineration does offer a valuable service for trash that cannot be avoided or diverted, it should not serve as a barrier to waste reduction and diversion. On top of educating residents, the City & County of Honolulu should consider removing the “put or pay” clause from the contract with H-POWER to save Oʻahu money and to focus on waste reduction rather than worrying about expensive fees for not producing enough trash.