Trash About Trash

For the past few years, the City of Cleveland has been exploring the development of a trash-to-energy facility at its Ridge Road waste transfer station

Currently, the City collects garbage via conventional trucks, brings it to Ridge Road for loading into 18-wheelers, and sends the garbage miles away to a landfill — pretty much the same approach to waste management that’s been used for decades.

Under the leadership of Commissioner Ivan Henderson of the City’s municipatl utility, Cleveland Public Power (CPP), the City has been investigating a different concept:  a materials recycling facility (MRF) at Ridge Road, with the non-recyclable wastes (e.g., organic matter) being loaded into a gasifier produced by the Japanese firm Kinsei Sangyo to produce a syngas that would fire a small power generation unit. 

The benefits to this proposed facility are several:  reduced expansion of landfills, reduced carbon footprint associated with trucking of wastes, reduced waste management costs for the City, reduced power costs for the City.

It all sounds pretty good, right?  Well, just as no good deed goes unpunished, so too does no good idea go unopposed.

Yesterday, the Plain-Dealer reported on emerging opposition to the proposed project from some community-based environmental activists, notably Ohio Citizen Action.  Their concern is that the plant will cause local air quality immediately surrounding the Ridge Road site to suffer, citing the amount of emissions that would be allowed under the emissions permit anticipated for the facility.

As noted in the article, Mayor Frank Jackson and several Cleveland officials recently visited Japan to meet with Kinsei Sangyo and witness several of their gasifiers in operation.  Two years ago, at the request of Commissioner Henderson, representing the Cleveland Foundation, I joined an earlier fact-finding delegation to Japan to ensure that such an operation would not be a blight or a liability for the Cleveland neighborhoods nearby the Ridge Road site.

We saw three operating Kinsei Sangyo gasifiers on my visit to Japan.  The only discernible emissions were small wisps of steam.  There was minimal odor and sound — certainly far less than what exists at Ridge Road today.  One of the facilities was actually in the middle of a residential section — and bear in mind that Japanese environmental standards are generally more stringent than those in the U.S.

From my perspective, based on actually seeing plants like the one proposed in operation, it is hard to claim that the waste-to-energy facility proposed for Ridge Road would represent a significant diminishment of the local environment.  Ohio Citizen Action is basing their opposition on the emission levels allowed in the permit, as opposed to the emissions that would likely occur if the plant were to be built.  Although Ohio Citizen Action is basing their position on facts, this is an instance of the facts being used in a particular way to achieve a particular outcome — an outcome that may in fact not be in the best public interests.

Those who are against the proposed waste-to-energy facility at Ridge Road should really see one of these plants in operation before making a rush to judgment.

I appreciate the concerns of environmentalists, I really do.  We have a precious planet, and it’s the only one we’ve got. 

However, if you’re going to oppose the development of a project that promises a lot of advantages, including many environmental benefits, you’d better have a pretty damn good alternative to suggest.

For instance, when environmentalists oppose fracking to produce natural gas from shale, they’re also blocking utilization of the lowest-carbon fuel for powerplants and vehicles.  Clearly, if fracking is to be done, it needs to be done responsibly.  But, by barring fracking entirely, would environmental advocates rather we continue to burn so much coal and oil? 

I know the retort:  “We need to move to renewables.”  I get it; look at what I’ve done with my life for the past 15 years if you think otherwise.  But the shift to renewables will take a long time, will be pretty gradual and won’t always be cheap.  Shouldn’t we take a low-cost, large and quick step right now in the environmental direction we want to go?  (And, one that will generate domestic economic benefits to boot?)

I traded emails last week with Steve Brick, Senior Fellow for Energy and Climate at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, a long-time consultant and advocate in the clean energy space.  He noted that the “apocalyptic narrative” of the most strident environmentalists is clearly not inspiring to most listeners.  I agreed and responded with the observation that the “game over” rhetoric is not only failing to lead to action on climate change and other environmental concerns, but is feeding fuel to those who want no action — or worse, to unwind the positive movements of the past forty years. 

In my opinion, by stiffening the opposition to environmentalism, the oppositional positions of the most strident environmentalists are not helping the planet.  We have trashy discourse in addition to our ever-growing landfills.

2 replies
  1. robert
    robert says:

    I am not opposed to fracking as an environmentalist. I would like to know what chemicals are being used to frack and if any of these are known carcinogens. Most companies say this is proprietary information and refuse to disclose it. Second, if there is contamination of ground water, I want these companies to pay for the cleanup and for any relocation costs to families affected.Judging by the Superfund fiasco, all companies who despoil the environment refused to pay the Superfund tax to clean up the mess that they made. if these conditions change.. I am all for fracking if done responsibly..since it it will not be done so what is the problem

  2. Nic Jay
    Nic Jay says:

    I love this idea. I did my Master's project on waste management and came to the conclusion that single stream recycling plants attached to a waste-to-energy plant is the best method to manage the waste (of course pricing, regulations, and other incentives, will actually reduce the amount of waste that is created). I visited "traditional" incineration waste-to-energy plants across Europe, some of them were actually in residential communities. They were able to be built where people live because, as you allude to, the emissions from these facilities can be controlled to the point that they are not extremely toxic to the area around them. Your article lost me when the conversation turned to fracking, which has nothing to do with waste-to-energy and can confuse the reader from a very important method of waste management. Also, waste isn't a renewable resource. Turning waste into energy should be the last resort of handling waste materials, the best way is the design products/packaging for more than just one use.

    I would be very interested in working on this type of product and applying some of my experience to actually get this project done. So, please feel free to contact me if research or any additional writing needs to be done on getting this project approved.

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