When people first come to this city, they are shocked to find recycling is not mandatory. Then, to their continuing dismay, they find recycling is also incredibly difficult to access.
Why is that? After all, recycling is commonplace in most communities where educated and informed citizens live. Why not here?
The reason is pretty simple. It’s because we chose not to. Or at least the city of Savannah chooses not to, with our elected officials at the helm making the call.
Through those we elect, we choose not to initiate or to support a comprehensive recycling program. And unfortunately, according to city officials, that is not likely to change.
Do you happen to know our clever solution for attacking the waste problem? We burn it--we burn it all.
Savannah pays upwards of six million dollars a year to operate a municipal waste incinerator where all of the city’s trash, much of the county’s, and a whole bunch shipped in from other places is burned on a daily basis.
And because a waste incinerator costs so much to run, there’s nothing left for more environmentally friendly solutions like recycling, except for maybe a dozen or so drop-off bins here and there.
The incinerator requires constant "feeding," so the city, in all of its wisdom, directs all trash--recyclables included--to the twin furnace combustors located down on Presidents St. So Savannah has little incentive to initiate any recycling program, much less the comprehensive one that is needed.
"So what?" you may ask, noting that the trash is taken care of, "what’s the problem?"
Well, there is a problem. Turns out, burning trash is a bad idea.
Incinerator emissions contribute heavy metals, hazardous air particulates and volatile organic compounds to our already dirty air. But that’s not the worst of it.
Even more dangerous--and more deadly--is a group of chemical compounds known as dioxins. They have been found to be some of the most lethal toxins in existence.
They’re proven carcinogens and highly suspected to cause a number of other health issues, from reproductive and developmental maladies to diabetes and immune system dysfunctions. Dioxins are bad news and our lovely little neighborhood incinerator churns them out on a daily basis.
According to the EPA, the major source of dioxins is waste incineration. They are formed as a byproduct of burning organic matter and materials that contain chlorine, such as plastics and bleached paper.
According to Stephanie Cutter, the City’s Sanitation Director, plastics and newspapers may not be recycled at any of the city-sponsored bins. Why?
Because "we need the paper and plastic to burn in the incinerator."
Plastics and newspapers have high Btu rates, meaning they burn quick and hot, thus serving to keep the combustion process efficient. Our clever solution in action--burn it, burn it all regardless of the effects it may have on our health.
The waste management model that Savannah is using, dumping everything into the incinerator, including recyclables, is in direct opposition to what the EPA and most state governments recommend.
The recommended hierarchy, in order of most preferred to least, goes like this: Waste reduction, recycling and lastly land filling or incineration.
It can be difficult to accept that we are breathing our trash, but that’s what it amounts to. However what really stings is that it is not just our trash we are breathing.
"You mean, the incinerator is bringing in trash from other parts of the country and dumping it on us dumb Southerners!?" asked a member of Savannah’s Citizens for Clean Air and Water after hearing that the company that owns the incinerator, Montenay, sells burning capacity to foreign sources.
They make the profits; actually their French parent company Vivendi makes the profits. Savannah and its citizens pay the price.
Take Vioxx, the wonder drug ‘super aspirin’ from Merck Pharmaceuticals. It was recalled for increased risk of heart attacks and strokes.
Guess what they did with it? They sent it to Savannah, we burned it, and released it into our air.
"If they pulled it from the market, I’m not so sure I want to be breathing that," said Chairman Commissioner Speir of the Georgia Public Service Commission in response to hearing that Savannah’s incinerator burned all the Vioxx recalled in 2004.
It works like this, foreign industrial waste is mixed with municipal waste and together they are burned and reduced to an ash. This ash is then hauled to the Dean Forest landfill.
So we are not only breathing imported waste, but we are land filling it as well. This, of course, is in direct conflict with the City’s very defense for the incinerator, namely that it reduces our waste, thereby extending the projected life of our landfills.
Much of the reduction in waste volume is inconsequential if the saved space is merely used for storing foreign waste; particularly considering it’s in the form of a highly toxic ash.
However, it is not just the emissions of hazardous air particulates, or the land filling of toxic ash, or even the fact that Savannah is a dumping ground for imported waste that fully fuels the argument to recycle.
Of an even greater significance is the fact that every time we burn something, the larger community has to replace it from scratch, with all the huge energy costs of processing primary resources and manufacturing new products that that entails. And it is the growth in primary resource use that is giving us global warming.
Savannah does not easily abide comparisons with the rest of the world, but let’s give it a shot. It is estimated that 150 million Americans recycle, the majority using curbside programs currently provided in 9,300 communities all over this country.
Most cities contend that recycling, when done correctly, makes not only good environmental sense, but also good economic sense. Many cities care about a healthy future for their children, about teaching good environmental stewardship and about having pride for their community, indeed having pride for their planet.
Tell me, do you think that is what Savannah is doing?
So what are we to do?
Waste incinerators across the country, and the world, are being challenged by community groups. Many are being closed.
Here in Savannah the bond that paid for the inception of the incinerator will be paid off this December. Perhaps it should be a solution that has run its course. Remember, it’s our choice.
Let your elected city and county officials know what you want. They won’t make a change until you tell them to.