Backed into a corner, Philadelphia resorts to burning recyclables

Photo by Jessica Le Masurier | Zulene Mayfield stands in front of the Covanta incinerator in Chester, Pennsylvania

The city of Philadelphia has found itself at the forefront of the global waste crisis. Most of its recycling was once destined for China – but when Beijing changed its policy last year, the city resorted to burning truckloads of plastic and paper.


The deal with China had been convenient. Beijing shipped its goods to the US and then its empty vessels were loaded with American recyclables for the journey back. Philadelphia, like many other US cities, was not prepared for China’s ban on the import of items intended for reuse and found itself struggling to cope with its recycling.

Virginia Gehshen, a designer from Philadelphia, was shocked to discover that all of the plastic containers she had been carefully hand-washing and the paper she had been sorting into her blue recycling bin every Thursday morning had been going straight into an incinerator.

“It was disheartening because I know how much time it takes," she told FRANCE 24. “It wasn’t just a blip. It was a really serious problem that is gonna last a long time and we can’t just buy our way out of. We can’t just send it all to China. We have to wake up and smell the coffee, and figure out what we’re gonna do with all our stuff."

US cities caught short

After 25 years as the world’s biggest processor of recycling, China decided in the spring of 2018 that it would no longer accept recyclables that were more than 0.5 percent contaminated, for the most part with food residue.

Philadelphia’s contamination rate was anywhere from 15 percent to 20 percent. This meant Philadelphia and other US cities could no longer send their paper, plastic and glass to China.

Scott McGrath, Philadelphia’s environmental planner, said the city found itself in a corner. The prices quoted by US contractors for dealing with the recycling were too high so the city ended up sending half of its reusable waste to an incinerator.

McGrath told FRANCE 24 that the city had no choice. “We wanted to find a economical way to manage things in the short term. We actually also spoke to the State Department of Environmental Protection and made sure they understood what our position was and that we had to do what we were doing because the city just didn’t have the resources to pay the additional cost.”

In 2012, Philadelphia made $6 million a year selling its recycling. That was the last year that was profitable for the city. When Beijing stopped taking recycling, local refuse management companies in Philadelphia ended up asking for $170 a ton to recycle the waste, a price that was just too high. That’s how half the recycling ended up going up in smoke.

McGrath says Philadelphia’s Streets Department has now signed a short-term contract with Waste Management for recycling to be processed. Philadelphia will pay about $90 a ton, that’s between $8 and $9 million a year, for its recycling to be processed. The Streets Department hopes to sign a longer-term contract with the company by July 1.

Cost falls on taxpayers

McGrath’s colleague, Nic Esposito, the director of the city's Zero Waste and Litter Cabinet, explained that the situation in the United States differs from Europe because there are no safeguards to discourage manufacturers from producing so much waste. “In Europe, there are fees for manufacturers to have to pay into the solution of managing the waste that they create. We really don’t do that in this country. It’s a very different system and a lot of it does get put on our taxpayers and our municipalities, to manage that waste at the end of the stream.”

That sentiment was echoed by Gehshen, who told FRANCE 24 she felt sorry for US cities and towns. “This problem is not of their making, but they are left to deal with it. The convenience, benefits and profits from using plastics for products and packaging accrue to businesses, not to cities. The resources and education needed to better reduce and recycle our waste needs to come – at least partially – from those who produce it."

Gehshen separates all her trash out in order to recycle as much as possible and believes all of us need to be more responsible when it comes to managing waste. She uses canvas bags for her shopping, keeps all reusable plastic containers and has a compost bin in her back garden. She snaps photos of recycling bins that are not loaded properly: “Part of the problem is that people need to be more careful about how they sort their recycling,” she says.

For about six months, 200 tons of recycling material was sent every day to the Covanta incinerator in Chester, Pennsylvania, the biggest such facility in the United States. Covanta’s facility burned the recycling to create steam and generate electricity, which was then distributed to the local power grid.

James Regan, a spokesperson for Covanta, told FRANCE 24 that the company is not to blame for burning the recycling “because the city of Philadelphia asked us to do it. It wasn’t our choice.”

“They were faced with a large issue due to the recycling crisis going on throughout world so they chose to send it to our facility,” he said.

Stench in the air

An acrid stench hangs over the town of Chester, which is a 30-minute drive from Philadelphia’s city centre. The people living in the strip next to the Covanta incinerator have long suffered from the waste being burnt there. Now, with more plastic going up in smoke, they have found themselves increasingly exposed to toxic fumes.

Zulene Mayfield was born and raised in Chester. She runs a group, called Chester Residents Concerned for Quality Living, that is trying to get the incinerator shut down. She’s furious that recycling has been sent there.

“I smell this shit in the air and I know what this community used to be like before this thing got here and yeah – it infuriates me. It infuriates me. And they think it’s OK. It’s not OK. They will tell you that the stuff that comes out of that stack is perfectly harmless. Bullshit."

Only a tiny percentage of the trash burnt in Chester is produced by residents of the town. Trucks and trains bring plastic, paper and garbage from New York City, North Carolina, Ohio and a host of other places.

Although Philadelphia’s Streets Department has promised to start recycling “100 percent of the city's recyclables”, environmental activist Mike Ewall says this will not solve the problem. “This is not the only recycling though that they burn. We have Ocean City, Maryland, a very popular beach resort, where they stopped recycling altogether around 2011 and all their trash and recyclables are mixed together and sent here to be burned. All the other trash – that comes from Philadelphia, from New York, from New Jersey, from this county all over – a lot of that has plenty of compostables, recyclables mixed in as well. They are just not sorted out well because most places do not have proper incentives to get people recycling properly."

Covanta says that scrubbers in its smokestacks negate toxins emitted by the incinerators and that its emissions of toxic substances are below the limits set by state and federal regulators.

But Ewall argues that incinerating trash is about the worst thing you can do with it. It would be preferable, he says, to send it to a landfill.

He says companies that sell their waste to energy programmes as being environmentally friendly are misleading the public because burning waste is "actually the most expensive and dirtiest way to make energy".

Mayfield agrees. “The dangerous stuff is the shit you cannot see. That gets into your lungs. Particulate matter. Arsenic, cadmium, OK? Mercury, lead – those are the things that come out of that stack.”

'This beast that's laying on top of people'

The impact of the incinerator and all the other industry surrounding Chester is devastating. The EPA’s national emissions inventory says Covanta’s incinerator is the largest polluter in the city of Chester and second-largest in Delaware County, after the airport.

Nearly four in 10 children in Chester have asthma, the rate of ovarian cancer is 64% higher than the rest of Pennsylvania and lung cancer rates are 24% higher, according to a local public health institute.

Studies reveal possible links between air pollution and cancer, including one by Reviews in Clinical Medicine. Some parents keep their kids indoors but most of them play outside because even indoors the air is polluted.

Mayfield says there needs to be another solution that doesn’t impact human health.

“Create less trash. Landfill it. I don’t care what you do with it. Do not send it here to this beast that’s laying on top of people.”

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