Archive for November, 2008


to burn or to bury

Incineration process at Roeselare, Belgium

Incineration process at Roeselare, Belgium

Some time ago, I wrote about the vehement opposition of the U.S. environmental movement to garbage incineration (a brief primer on plumes), a position not shared by environmentalists anywhere else except the UK. I asked Milieudefensie, the Dutch Friends of the Earth, to offer me some thoughts on the subject, to try to determine if I had somehow missed the secret garbage underground in continental Europe. Here’s what they had to say:

“Waste management is not a subject Milieudefensie concerns itself with at the moment, because things are properly arranged in the Netherlands. Other environmental topics, such as climate change, make a more urgent claim on our attention.”

The way things are arranged in the Netherlands at the moment is to rely primarily on re-use and recycling and secondarily on incineration. Thirteen incinerators operate across the country, some in the most densely populated areas, a few others in the rural outback. Landfilling takes place only insofar as there is insufficient incinerator capacity and requires a special waiver. Hazardous wastes which are unsafe to burn are also landfilled. Germany has an even stronger emphasis on incineration, with plants all over the country, and no movement opposing them. An official noted that people oppose incinerators during the planning phases. Resistance dies down after the plants become operational.

There are concerns.  Fine particulates are released in exhaust gases and their health impacts are not very well understood. Fly ash is highly toxic and must be buried or incinerated in special rotating kiln incinerators. Toxic chemicals may escape when a plant is powered up or down. That they are so much more visible than lowly landfill, I’m sure, doesn’t increase their popularity either. It is so much easier not to think about the deleterious but invisible effects of an invisible landfill than it is to ignore a very high smokestack belching clouds, with heaven knows what in them.

Cross-cut incinerator

Cross-cut incinerator

The EPA meanwhile appears to be solidly in line with Milieudefensie in its evaluation of various disposal methods when considered in terms of their net effect on global warming. Its report Solid Waste Management and Green House Gases rank orders the different methods from least to most harmful:

> source reduction (i.e., reduced consumption or reduced use of materials in consumption)

> recycling

> composting

> incineration

> landfilling

Obviously there are more attractive options than burning trash, but conventional landfilling isn’t one of them. (Experiments with landfill are under way to make them less environmentally wasteful, so to speak.)

Rotating kiln incinerator, used to burn toxins

Rotating kiln incinerator, used to burn toxins

I also ran into a different evaluation of waste disposal methods, by a Dr. Jeffrey Morris, which tries to attach a monetary cost to each method, calculating operating and environmental costs and subtracting environmental benefits. Constituent prices vary by location and over time, so this model is more difficult to generalize from. However, a few specific examples from that calculation, showed incineration finishing dead last. This is not terribly surprising, since operating costs for incineration are generally high while landfilling is still cheap in many places. A landfill, no matter how carefully engineered, doesn’t come close to an incinerator in terms of capital costs.

Incineration, unfortunately, may be too expensive outside the industrialized west. While waste prevention is more attractive than any other option, the total elimination of waste is an unlikely  prospect. It follows that landfill will just have to be organized to do better–capturing methane more effectively and delivering more usable fuel. And in the meantime, the economy is in process of imposing a new frugality, which will eventually lead to less waste, if it isn’t doing so already.


the business of garbage

The raging torrent of capitalism has dipped into a recession that looks like it’ll be broad and wide and deep for the vast majority of this planet’s six billion inhabitants. Even the companies that usually ride the waves (rather than being buffeted by them like ordinary mortals) are struggling, missing their earnings forecasts, seeing their stock tank in a bear market, and being turned away empty-handed by banks that are no longer in a lending mood. Not so the giants of garbage. At least not yet.

Waste Management, which is based in Houston and has reaped a disproportionately large share of the trash Hurricane Ike left in its wake, reported a 12% spike in profits for the third quarter of 2008. WM revenues totaled $3.5 billion for the third quarter, and almost 10% of that total is profit. (For more on disasters, see debris. Various WM operations in the path of the hurricane expected increases in garbage ranging from 20% to 100% during the cleanup as people try to get rid of things spoiled and destroyed.)

The garbage industry, in numbers

The garbage industry, in numbers

Republic, with headquarters in Fort Lauderdale, is smaller than WM. Its revenues totaled only $834 million, and more than 10% of that was profit. Its reported earnings increase for the quarter was 32%. The company is looking to get bigger, having put in a takeover bid for Allied Waste, the second-largest garbage company in the country, presumably to take on Waste Management more effectively.

Allied, based in Phoenix, has been doing all right too. Their third-quarter earnings increased by 17%. Allied reports that total volume dipped by 4% because the economy tanked, but this loss was more than offset by the price hikes associated with fuel recovery costs. In other words, the price increase in collections that was meant to offset rising oil prices in fact outpaced the rise in prices and netted them additional profit. The same might well be true for WM and Republic.

So here a couple of conclusions:

  • Consumers pay many, many times over for the rising price of gas, once at the pump and then again, disproportionately, on their collection bill. (And at the cash register, of course.)
  • From a national perspective, the struggle between the garbage superpowers might look like competition, but considered locally it is not. And consumers pay for that too.

The last decades have seen the disappearance of small local garbage carters into the maws of gigantic conglomerates. If they’re small enough, the large companies underprice them until they go out of business. If they’re a little larger, they get taken over. Either way, local markets end up being subject to monopoly pricing.

The story of New York City illustrates the point. For decades, commercial garbage collection was mobbed up in the five boroughs, which resulted in artificially high prices. The operation is usually described as a cartel. In practice it was a network of small family-based operations that were either “made” (that is, a part of the mafia proper) or operated under the auspices of the business rules enforced by the mob. Then, in the late 1990s, the police ran an undercover operation that effectively broke the back of the mafia’s garbage empire. (See Rick Cowan and Douglas Century, Takedown, for a rousing tale of high intrigue.)

With the mafia monopoly out of the game, many of the small players continued to operate, now competing lustily with each other. Prices dropped precipitously. However, as is usually the case, paradise was a fleeting condition. Another giant, Browning-Ferris or BFI, which subsequently got sucked up by Allied Waste, moved into the market, underpriced the small haulers until they went belly-up, and then drove prices up again until they were close to the level they had been under mafia rule.

In the meantime, if you want to be in the stock market, you could do worse than invest in garbage. The market will contract, because people produce less trash in lean times. But garbage is not discretionary. The garbage giants can expect to do quite well, especially since climate change is likely to continue to produce cataclysmic garbage harvests for a long time to come.

November 2008
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