Massachusetts Releases Its Revised Solid Waste Master Plan: Are We Really on a Pathway to Zero Waste?

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On Tuesday, MassDEP announced release of its updated Solid Waste Master Plan, subtitled “Pathway to Zero Waste.”  The Plan’s most significant discussion relates to the state of the solid waste market and the Plan’s goal for disposal reduction.  The Plan announces a goal of reducing solid waste disposal by 30% from 2008 to 2020, from 6,550,000 tons to 4,550,000 tons.  However, the Plan acknowledges that, even if that ambitious goal is met, there will still be a shortfall of 700,000 tons in solid waste handling capacity in Massachusetts.

This is where the Plan’s controversial modification of the existing ban on new or expanded MSW combustion capacity enters the picture.  MassDEP proposes to allow up to 350,000 tons of new capacity for “innovative and alternative technologies (e.g. gasification or pyrolysis).”  The Plan does not define either “innovative” or “alternative” (or “gasification” or “pyrolysis”), but it is clear that MassDEP does not intend to allow expansions in traditional MSW combustion facilities.

Not surprisingly, MassDEP got a lot of comments suggesting that there was no basis for the 350,000 ton limit and no reason to preclude expansions at facilities utilizing existing combustion technologies.  At the same time, it also got criticized for allowing any expansion at all.  MassDEP issued a Response to Comments Document, which I found less than satisfying.

Most notably, those opposed to any modification argued that allowing such new capacity would undermine recycling and reuse efforts.  MassDEP effectively rebutted that argument, I thought, pointing out that the availability of MSW combustion facilities does not appear to have any significant impact on reuse/recycling programs.  However, if that is the case, why limit the modification to 350,000 tons and why preclude expansions in traditional facilities, which are already subject to extremely stringent air emissions limits?

MassDEP says that it wants to avoid development of large facilities involving significant capital expenditure that will have a long operating life.  What I don’t understand is why this is a concern.  If MassDEP does not believe that these facilities negatively affect reuse/recycling programs, than why do we care how many of these facilities the market is willing to supply?

After all, MassDEP concedes that, without these facilities, and even if its extremely aggressive disposal reduction targets are met, Massachusetts will be exporting 700,000 tons of solid waste per year to other states.  Such out of state disposal has both economic and environmental costs.

If I were a betting man, I’d be betting that we’re going to be seeing solid waste generated in Massachusetts shipped out of state for disposal for a long time to come.