Americans produce a whopping 4.4 pounds of trash per person each day, according to the EPA. That’s higher than any other country in the world. There are some things you just don’t want to be #1 at. Only 1.5 pounds of that trash and debris is being recycled or composted, which puts the United States at a sadly low recycling rate of 35%.

Landfills and disposal facilities can’t seem to keep up with the heavy amounts of trash flow, and eventually, these sites fill up and can no longer hold any more unwanted garbage. What happens then? To handle all the trash, we’re seeing another resurgence of an old disposal idea: trash incinerators.

The incinerators of today are a new spin on an old idea. These incinerators promise to turn the trash into usable energy, at facilities called waste-to-energy plants. This includes the first commercial-sized incinerator located in West Palm Beach, Florida. Waste-to-energy plants are classified as “renewable energy” by the EPA, and they’ve been popping up in states across the country. At first thought, it sounds like a fantastic idea: get rid of trash and get energy in return. But what’s the catch?

Well, these facilities are just plain dirty and expensive. They emit toxins into the air, like mercury and lead. There is an incinerator proposal in Baltimore that is estimated to cost $1 billion. It won’t be completed for a few more years, and it will be built in a low-income neighborhood. This neighborhood, Curtis Bay, already deals with bad air quality and as a result, industry-related health problems. A report from the New York Times states:

“The problem is that Curtis Bay already hosts a 200-acre coal pier that produces black dust that collects on local streets and drifts inside windows, a fertilizer plant reeking of fresh manure, one of the nation’s largest medical waste incinerators, chemical plants, fuel depots, and an open-air composting site. […]

The proposed facility would be allowed to emit up to 240 pounds of mercury and 1,000 pounds of lead annually in a neighborhood with three schools and high rates of cancer and asthma.”

waste to energy

Curtis Bay was actually labeled at the second-most toxic zip code in the entire country. Recently in 2013, the neighborhood had the most deaths that were emissions related. Students who would be attending school down the street from the to-be-facility are protesting its construction, and they have good reason to.

“[The facility] plans to comply with state and federal air pollution standards through offsets. Translation: The company will pay for air quality improvement somewhere else to make up for its dirty emissions in Baltimore.”

There is a clear trade-off when it comes to these waste-to-energy plants, something that is plainly seen here. While some areas will be getting the benefits of the waste-to energy plants by getting energy and waste disposal, the city where the facility sits will suffer. Industry experts say the recent uptick in incinerator projects comes from the failure to curb consumption in the United States, and failure to recycle and compost effectively. Recycling programs are stalling and the cost is looking too expensive to improve them. Some cities have dropped recycling programs altogether, such as Ocean City, Maryland. With the $1 billion used on an incinerator, we should be able to come up with something that works.