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Editorial: Recycling’s durable value

About the same time that the American Lung Association was giving Western Massachusetts its annual poor grades for ozone pollution, news reports surfaced of Gov. Deval Patrick’s decision to lift a 23-year-old moratorium on new waste incinerators to allow gasification waste disposal plants. Traditional incinerators are still banned.

Patrick and his advisers argue that allowing gasification plants will promote and encourage more advanced waste-disposal technologies. The amount of waste is growing — enough to fill Fenway Park 74 times every year — but places to dispose of it are shrinking.

Gasification is a process that uses steam and/or oxygen to convert waste materials to carbon monoxide, hydrogen and carbon dioxide by heating them, without combustion, to extremely high temperatures. True, this is hardly the trash-burning incinerator plants of old, but those concerned about the environment worry that a shift to more incineration will only take pressure off efforts to reduce excess packaging and other waste reduction efforts and promote greater recycling.

For example, state law requires the recycling of paper, cardboard, bottles and cans. In 2009, Massachusetts had a recycling rate of 42 percent, which meant that 58 percent of our trash was still going into landfills. According to a 2012 report by the state Department of Environmental Protection, the recycling rate is still at 42 percent.

The state posted its new Solid Waste Master Plan this spring. It contains many good ideas for reducing waste and promoting recycling. But it is the limited lifting of the incineration ban that is drawing the most comments, with the vast majority opposed.

We join those who worry that allowing gasification plants will take the state’s eyes off the prize, which is summed up in the title of the solid waste report: “Pathway to Zero Waste.” The zero waste goal is not only better for the environment than alternative disposal systems, but creates jobs in the recycling industry.

The decision to allow gasification plants “means jobs going up in smoke,” says Lynn Pledger, who studies solid waste issues for Clean Water Action.

The state DEP report agrees: “Material recovery facilities create 10 times more jobs than disposal facilities for the same amount of material. Materials reuse operations create even more jobs, between 28 and nearly 300 times the number of jobs as disposal facilities.”

The Gazette reported that burners using alternative technologies such as gasification would be limited to 350,000 tons of waste per year. That is half the state’s projected shortfall in landfill capacity by 2020, according to the DEP.

There is much to praise in the state’s new Solid Waste Master Plan, including strategies for promoting recycling among business and industry, greater promotion of residential recycling and composting, a commitment by the state for its own agencies to adopt zero-waste practices and incentives for producers to reduce packaging.

The plan calls for a 30 percent reduction in waste by 2020 and an 80 percent drop by 2050. That will not happen without a focused and concerted campaign.

Eric Weiss, sustainability director for the Hampshire Council of Governments, a longtime champion of recycling, says he wants to know more about the new gasification plants for disposing of waste, but he adds, “I don’t mind looking at new technologies for trash burning as long as we are doing the right things first.”

In our opinion, the right things that deserve first attention and full state support are an emphasis on waste reduction and recycling.

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