The end of incineration is near

| 8th January 2019
GAIA US/Canada group picture

GAIA's clean air team in the US and Canada

Gemma Estrella
Celebrations erupted across the city of Commerce in Los Angeles, California when it was lights out for its dirty incinerator.

No community should have to breathe in the pollution from other people’s garbage.

Environmentalists and community activists have claimed a major victory after the closure of an incinerator in Commerce, a city in the state of Los Angeles, USA -  a location as famous for its smog as its celebrities.  

The burner has been emitting contaminants above the legal maximum ever since it began operating in 1986, damaging the lives of people in the already overburdened surrounding community, they argue. But the people fought back and finally convinced Commerce to not renew its contract with the facility.

Unfortunately, there are still 76 similar garbage-burning plants across the US, notorious for emitting way too much. Another pattern is that the lower income communities and communities of color are disproportionately hit.

“No community should have to breathe in the pollution from other people’s garbage,” says Laura Cortez of East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, the community organization that led the charge to defeat the Commerce incinerator.

Renewable energy

Her colleague Whitney Amaya added: “Communities have always been at the forefront of enacting positive change by standing together and fighting against facilities that threat our health and environment. The Commerce Incinerator shutdown not only serves as a model for other communities facing similar issues, but is also another clear example of community power and victory.

Opportunities for ending incineration are rising, as a generation of incinerators is coming to the end of their normal lifespans. Cities hold the key. They need to choose between a lock-in of decades of harmful pollution or leaping forward by closing the incinerators. That’s not as hard as it may seem.

Studies show that more than 90 percent of materials currently disposed of in incinerators and landfills can be reused, recycled, and composted. Incineration actually destroys valuable resources and causes emissions of dangerous chemicals like mercury, dioxins and ultra-fine particles.

Contrary to the claims made by the big companies who run them, incinerators make our climate change problem a lot worse. Compared to coal, waste incineration produces twice as much carbon pollution per unit of energy.

Amazingly, these companies get subsidies for causing climate change because they brand themselves as renewable energy producers. In that process, they take money away from investments in real renewable energy like solar and wind.

Another incinerator

To make things worse, they locked both greenhouse gas emissions and waste production in, by writing in the contracts that the cities provide a minimum amount of waste in order to keep the facilities operational.

On top of that, incinerators are so costly that they even contributed to the bankruptcy of cities like Detroit and Harrisburg. Detroit’s incinerator is so bad that it exceeded emissions limits more than 750 times over the last five years.

When the health costs are included, the costs go ballistic. As an example: healthcare expenses related one facility’s emissions has costed Maryland $21.8 million annually. That is over half a billion during a normal lifespan of 30 years.

The good news is that people are fighting back against the dinosaur waste-burning machines and they are winning significant gains.

In Baltimore, a group of high school students won against the incinerator company Energy Answers, who wanted to build yet another incinerator in Baltimore.


The proposed plant would have burned 4,000 tons of solid waste per day, making it the largest incinerator ever built. It would have been built right next to schools, parks and homes in a neighborhood that already suffers the worst air pollution levels in the state. This madness was fortunately stopped before it ever became a reality.

Destiny Watford, one of the key leaders in the fight, won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize for her work in 2016. She didn’t stop there.

After founding the student group Free Your Voice, she and her fellow students and community members are building recycling programs and working with the city to install other zero waste systems that would make the existing incinerator, BRESCO, obsolete.

Just this fall, the city was awarded a scholarship to build a new program to reduce food waste through waste reduction, composting, and food donations.

Thanks to community efforts to educate policymakers on the dangers of the city’s incinerator, the Maryland Congress considered a bill to strip incinerators in the state of their “green energy” label that makes them eligible for subsidies.  

Zero waste

Back in Detroit, the group Breathe Free Detroit recently delivered a petition to Mayor Mike Duggan with nearly 15,000 signatures demanding he shut down the incinerator.

They also released a comprehensive report detailing the many emissions violations and other issues since it began operating in 1986.

At the same time, people know that just saying 'no' is not enough. Locals are also building solutions that focus on conserving natural resources, not burning them.

In 2014 the coalition Zero Waste Detroit worked with the city to roll out its first curbside recycling program. It helped to increase household participation to 20 percent, ahead of schedule.

Although communities continue to face incinerator pollution, the drumbeat for environmental justice and a transition to zero waste grows stronger every day.

Incinerators are closing across the country and cities are creating zero waste plans. There’s a sense of rising awareness that disposing waste and disposing whole communities are intertwined and that clean air is not a luxury but a right for all.

This Author

Claire Arkin is the Campaign and Communications Associate for GAIA (Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives). For more information on failing incinerators across the country, visit: You can find more information on the Detroit incinerator in the Atlas of Environmental Justice.