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interviews

Waste To Energy

by Claire Arkin
February 28, 2019

This interview with Claire Arkin, Communications Coordinator for GAIA, was conducted and condensed by frank news.

GAIA is a worldwide alliance of more than 800 grassroots groups, non-governmental organizations, and individuals in over 90 countries whose ultimate vision is a just, toxic-free world without incineration.  

Group photo low res (5)

Image via Claire Arkin, GAIA

Can you give us a baseline of the work you’re currently doing?

At the macro level view, the United States has 76 aging incinerators across the country that have been around since the '80's and '90's. They're on their last legs. A lot of them are notorious for being dirty, for emitting all kinds of toxic pollutants, and in addition they're also at the end of their lifespan. Cities are having to decide in the next couple years whether they're going to renew contracts with these facilities for another 30 years with toxic pollution, or go in a different direction, the direction that communities living close to these incinerators and have been polluted for decades want them to go in.

It's a really interesting fork in the road for a lot of these cities, including places like Detroit, Baltimore, Long Beach. In a lot of these places, folks really want clean, renewable energy, and they want to have a place at the table so that they can help steer the course of the city.

Listening to the community and trying to give the community access to resources to participate in change ties in the equity part of this conversation, for sure.

What's really interesting is that, in a lot of these places, we've seen similar proposals for new incinerators come into these communities andcommunity members have demanded that the land be used for renewable energy instead. There's a really great example of a 2014 trash, tire, and sludge incineration contract in Frederick, Maryland that was defeated. In December of last year the county just broke ground on its first solar project on the same land that was propositioned for an incinerator It's a great story about how these incinerator companies come into these communities and communities fight back and they end up not only sending these incinerator companies away, but then seeing these really incredible renewable energy projects in their wake.

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What does that practical transition look like?

First of all is that incinerators are not only polluting, they're also incredibly energy inefficient, and in fact they emit carbon dioxide. They emit greenhouse gases. To consider them as renewable is a lie. And that's why it's so problematic that 23 states in the country legally classify incineration as renewable.

Going back to their energy alternatives, what happens when incinerators are included within the renewable portfolio standards of a state is that then real renewable energy, like solar and wind, have to compete directly with incinerators that emit greenhouse gases in order to gain traction. It's creating an unfair playing field for actionable renewable energy sources. By getting incineration out of states’ RPS standards, more subsidies can go to real green energy sources.

How do you approach people beyond those geographically linked to incinerators?

GAIA has memberships all over the country and the world, and our members vary from incinerator-impacted communities to organizations to individuals like researchers and academics. I think one of the big strengths of the GAIA network is that it holds people who come into this topic from all different ranges of vantage points and skill sets, and we create a space where these different members can interact with each other and share their information, share tactics, so a community that sees an incinerator proposal can counsel another community that's facing a similar proposal. We can provide a community with an expert who can talk about how incinerators emit these particular chemicals and how that affects human health. Our membership is really diverse and I think that that's one of our biggest strengths.

What do incinerator alternatives look like?

We look at it from a waste-reduction perspective, so incinerators lock in status quo waste generation.And so, basically, a city that has a contract with an incinerator has to provide a certain amount of waste for an incinerator to burn. You have to feed the beast as they say. The natural resources that need to be extracted to create the products that are then thrown in the garbage, that are then burned in the incinerator, cumulatively that's a lot of energy extraction through that whole lifecycle of these products that are being burned. And we just can't afford to continue to take natural resources, make products, and then burn these precious natural resources, enabling further extraction.

There are lots of places creating waste reduction programs, like the City of Baltimore is piloting composting programs that will divert food waste from the incinerator. That's a really good example. And there are other efforts that are underway to reduce plastic before it becomes waste in the first place. Berkeley is putting an ordinance in place that would lead to a sharp decrease in disposable packaging from restaurants and eateries.

What we're doing right now is working on a project with three incinerator-impacted communities that I think I mentioned before: Long Beach, Detroit, and Baltimore. All three are facing similar situations. All three cities are faced with these aging incinerators that have been polluting the surrounding communities for decades. In each of the three communities, the incinerator contract is running out in the next few years, and so they have a unique leverage point to convince their cities to go in a different direction. They all have really strong local campaigns that are pushing back against incineration and also seeding zero waste, community-driven solutions.

Whether that be a compost program in Baltimore or a  a solar farm in Maryland, communities are building zero waste systems and trying to steer the city away from the cycle of burning into one of regeneration. We're working with these communities to create support systems, so that they have the information that they need to be able to bring to their city leaders on the impact of incinerators, the viability of the alternatives, and we're creating a platform for them to share their experiences and their expertise  with one another. We want to tie these stories together in a national narrative that shows that cities are at a turningpoint and incinerators are holding cities back from energy democracy, from a zero waste society, where no community is disposable.

What information is critical for citizens to have in order to feel empowered within their municipalities? 

A big part of how GAIA operates is that we go where the energy is and we take cues from the people who are actually doing the work on the ground because they really know best about what they need and they really have the wisdom to steer us in the right direction, and how we can best support. We've been connecting communities fighting incinerators with folks who are seeding zero-waste solutions in their cities, so that when they talk to their city council people they can show, "Hey, here is this piece of legislation that has reduced waste in part of the country that we could try, and here's this composting pilot program that has diverted X number of tons of waste from the incinerator, etc. " We also created a fact sheet that goes over the most egregious ways in which incinerators have polluted surrounding communities across the country that I'd be happy to share with you.

We're also looking into things like incinerator ash, so the material burned in the facility had this really toxic ash or sludge which has been landfilled, and that ash can contain a whole bunch of pollutants like mercury and other heavy metals and persistent  organic pollutants like dioxins. The list goes on. And so that's a really powerful piece of information that a lot of city council people might not know about incinerators.

Our work is in supporting our members in their campaigns, so I think maybe the best thing to do would be for us to highlight a few really exciting things that are happening that our members are working on around the country because GAIA doesn't have campaigns in the way that Sierra Club, for example, has campaigns. We're decentralized in that we have a wide and diverse membership that's working on all sorts of good things. We're the hub that's connecting people to each other and making sure we're all aligned towards a common goal.