Washington’s legislative session is short, but legislators this year have an opportunity to set an environmental policy precedent that will have a broad impact, and last far into the future.
Addressing the national crisis in waste management and recycling – caused by a 2018 decision by China to refuse ongoing importation of America’s recyclable materials – is the responsibility of state and city leaders across the country. The pressure is intense, with the literal, growing weight of tons of waste material upon us.
That pressure is palpable here in Washington. Localities are demanding solutions and assistance, including major investments by the state government. The legislature should act quickly, but we must be deliberate. And we can be informed by the mistakes that have already been made in other states.
In Maryland, Pennsylvania and Michigan, state leaders decided to invest in a form of waste management that should have ended long ago: incineration. Instead of choosing the longer-term, modern and sustainable path of creating a more circular economy where valuable materials are collected and recycled, waste and recyclable materials in those states are being burned, both releasing significant emissions and threatening the fiscal stability of the localities where the incinerators are located.
According to a study by the Tishman Environment and Design Center, the incineration choice is not only dirty, it is a recipe for debt and lawsuits, which are having a serious economic impact on cities in all three states – including Baltimore, Harrisburg, and Detroit. A Detroit incinerator financed with debt, for example, ended up costing Michigan taxpayers $1 billion over the course of 30 years.
Proponents of this old-fashioned “solution” to waste management tend to emphasize the energy that incineration produces. They even label the energy as “renewable” and some states provide subsidies that directly compete with clean renewable energy projects like wind and solar. But both common sense and research tells us that incineration of waste is dirty and doesn’t meet any of the widely held goals of sustainability.
Legislators next door in Oregon right now are under pressure to provide incineration subsidies under the misleading moniker of “renewable energy.” They must choose a different path – and so much we, here in Washington. Today, our state has one incinerator – in Spokane – and I would argue that is already one too many. Others will surely argue that we need more incinerators to deal with the waste crisis. They will present incineration as a quick fix that produces an economic “win” in the form of energy.
While a small amount energy is produced by incineration, it is an incredibly inefficient method of production with a high environmental cost. U.S. EPA data shows that incineration of municipal solid waste releases nearly twice as much carbon per unit of energy as burning natural gas, and a comparable amount to burning coal.
Both economic gain and environmental progress are possible in the waste management realm – but the best place to find both is in a circular loop, worth as much as $45 trillion nationally, where valuable materials are collected, recycled and kept in circulation.
Investments will have to be made to address the waste and recycling crisis in Washington. The critical question is: In what solutions will we invest? Answering that question quickly does not have to mean answering it poorly.
Thanks to the lessons already learned in other states, our legislature can, and should, choose to lead by investing in the development of a statewide recycling infrastructure. This smart, fast decision will have decades-long economic and environmental benefits for the people of Washington state, and could inspire other states to do the same.
Mark James has lived in Snohomish County for nearly 30 years and is currently a City of Marysville Councilmember. Additionally, Mark holds an appointed position on the Snohomish County Planning Commission spending considerable time on countywide land use policy issues.