Kate Fraser - Teen Aspect - May 19th, 2022
As of June 1st, 2021, the town of Davie, Florida has transitioned its recycling policies to incorporate “renewable energy,” per the town’s website. All residential trash and recyclables from single-family homes will be sent to a waste-to-energy plant in Fort Lauderdale. Sounds great, right? In fact, 12% of municipal solid waste was burned in these plants, according to the Energy Information Administration.
Yet, this very recycling program dangerously fails to consider the various environmental implications that can worsen our current poor climate state.
What are waste-to-energy plants? The name matches the process. Solid waste is incinerated, producing steam that powers a turbine, generating electricity. The method is in fact useful in many instances; it has been used in countries where there is very little available landfill space. Waste-to-energy also limits the use of landfills entirely, which contaminate soil and water, produce hundreds of cubic meters of climate-change-inducing gases, and lead to the deforestation of trees which are a crucial carbon sink. So, where does this system go wrong?
The waste-to-energy method is one of the most harmful waste management services in terms of environmental degradation. Because much of our waste contains carbon, incineration releases these carbon molecules as carbon dioxide, the notorious greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change. When carbon enters the atmosphere, it absorbs light wavelengths, re-emitting them back as infrared energy. These infrared wavelengths trap heat that would normally be exiting the atmosphere into space. The excess release of carbon dioxide has shown a positive correlation with climbing global temperature patterns and thus, severe weather events. We already have such an alarming amount of carbon in our atmosphere, setting a new record of 412.5 parts per million in 2020 (NOAA, 2022). Aside from climate change, carbon is also deadly to our beloved Florida reefs. For an environmental feature that makes the state of Florida $8.5 billion in terms of asset value, it would make sense for local governments to do everything they can to protect them (NOAA). When carbon dioxide enters the air, it dissolves into the ocean as carbonic acid. Because coral polyps prefer more basic waters in terms of pH, any presence of excess acid can lead to coral bleaching, a leading factor in the 98% total loss of coral reefs in Florida (The Guardian, 2020).
Waste-to-energy also ruins any potential recycling prospects. Any plastics or glass items are burned, crushing previous Davie recycling programs. This very problem; however, was addressed rather poorly on the town’s website. To quote, “the global recycling market changed.” But has it changed in the way Davie believes it has? The demand for flat glass in America is forecasted at about 730 million meters in 2023, and the demand for plastics will rise from 250 million tons in 2020 to 425 million tons in 2040 (Garside, 2021; Tomlinson, 2021). In other words, there has never been a better time to recycle.
From this, it can be determined that the town of Davie is using a dangerous fallacy to avoid truly environmentally conscious municipal waste solutions. The website even addresses this, saying the approach “is not ideal.” Such a reckless decision is not surprising for the historically conservative town. Davie must not use false claims of “renewable energy” to avoid truly meaningful environmental policies. While this new program is one of many new rollouts, the town needs to reconsider this new approach, avoiding temporary solutions for permanent problems.
Davie is not the only Florida town relying on this method; Florida uses this waste management method more than any state in the U.S. This will only continue to grow. On March 10, 2022, the Florida Senate passed CS/SB 1764, a state-wide waste-to-energy program. This provides the means for financial grants for waste-to-energy plants. Despite a clear push to grow these seemingly “sustainable” plants across the state, there has been corresponding resistance. Earthjustice and Florida Rising both filed a federal civil rights complaint against the Florida Department of Environmental Protection on March 31, 2022. Per the complaint, incinerators are mostly located in low-income communities or areas where there is a high population of minorities. The report also mentions detrimental health impacts associated with waste-to-energy plants, including but not limited to carcinogens, risk of death, respiratory illnesses, and reproductive health harms. The recent report piggybacks off of formal comments and letters regarding an incinerator located in Doral, all of which were met with little to no action by the Florida state government in 2020 and 2021. Clearly, local towns in Florida are considering potential profits and “declining” markets over environmental justice and the basic human rights of their own residents.
It is clear that both local and state governments are falsely claiming the use of “green energy,” a dangerous form of federal greenwashing that will lead to human rights violations across the state. Dominique Burkhardt is an Earthjustice attorney who helped develop the complaint against the Florida EPA. According to a Tampa Bay Times article, she states “‘calling [waste-to-energy] a “green energy facility” is an absolute lie.’”
It is unclear how many more complaints such as the one filed by Earthjustice and Florida Rising will follow growing actions to shift Florida waste management to waste-to-energy. Yet, it is clear Florida is heading into this new sustainable development plan with a blind lead.
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“U.S. Energy Information Administration - EIA - Independent Statistics and Analysis.” Waste-to-Energy (MSW) - U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), Energy Information Administration, 26 Nov. 2021, https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/biomass/waste-to-energy.php.
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Chinn, Hannah. “'Dire Outlook': Scientists Say Florida Reefs Have Lost Nearly 98% of Coral.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 18 Nov. 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/nov/18/coral-reefs-florida-dire-outlook.
Garside, M. “Flat Glass Demand Volume North America 2023.” Statista, 15 Apr. 2021, https://www.statista.com/statistics/1228252/flat-glass-demand-volume-in-north-america/#:~:text=The%20demand%20for%20flat%20glass,billion%20U.S.%20dollars%20in%202027.
Tomlinson, Chris. “Tomlinson: Plastic Demand Is Growing, and So Will Pollution Unless We Take Simple Steps.” Houston Chronicle, Houston Chronicle, 30 July 2021, https://www.houstonchronicle.com/business/columnists/tomlinson/article/Plastic-demand-is-growing-and-so-is-plastic-16349859.php#:~:text=Researchers%20calculate%20that%20demand%20for,as%20litter%20if%20nothing%20changes.
Hodgson, Ian. “Burning Trash 'Poisoning Communities' in Florida, Complaint Says.” Tampa Bay Times, 1 Apr. 2022, https://www.tampabay.com/news/environment/2022/04/01/burning-trash-poisoning-communities-in-florida-complaint-says/.
“The Florida Senate.” Senate Bill 1764 (2022) - The Florida Senate, https://www.flsenate.gov/Session/Bill/2022/01764/?Tab=BillHistory.
“Civil Rights Complaint against the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and Environmental Injustices in Doral and Statewide from Incinerator Permitting .” Earthjustice, 10 Mar. 2022.