Panel II

Anthropocenic Discards and the Hydrocarbon Economy II:  Material and Energy Transformations

This is the second of two panels on this topic.

Will Delavan, The Harrisburg Incinerator: A Cautionary Tale from the Dismal Science.

The economics of waste disposal in Pennsylvania has a rich history: from an unregulated free market free-for-all with approximately one thousand small waste disposal facilities to a state with fifty modern mega-landfills and the largest waste imports for nearly twenty years.  The flood of waste into Pennsylvania brought environmental challenges at the same time becoming an economic development strategy and a primary vehicle for public finance.  The Harrisburg incinerator, conceived in the 1960’s and completed in 1972 a time of environmental awakening in Pennsylvania, offers a particularly salient example of anthropogenic folly in dealing with waste, the environment, and public finance.  The project, despite significant political opposition, was built and kept growing until it, for all intents and purposes, bankrupted the city of Harrisburg. In the process of bringing Harrisburg to financial ruin, environmental concerns became secondary–forgotten.   This paper views the history of the Harrisburg Incinerator from an economic perspective using waste data from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental protection; financial data from the city, county, and Harrisburg authority; interviews with key actors and local and national media. The paper evaluates environmental policy decisions with respect to the incinerator in the context of path-dependence, the economics of fixed and sunk costs, and market concentration in waste markets.

Samantha MacBride, Waste-to-Energy and the Anthropocene:  A Meeting Point Within Contradictory Biophysical Strategies

Much to the chagrin of industries working at the border of municipal waste management and electricity/fuel/chemical manufacture, there is strong public skepticism about various technologies entailing the recovery of energy, fuels, and chemicals from garbage.  Social movements, citizens groups, and some governments resist MSW treatment through combustion, pyrolysis, or gasification, posing challenges to profitability and progress in the waste to energy sector.  Such opposition irritates and mystifies firms, trade associations, and supportive voices in other levels of government.   They interpret objections as based in fear on one hand and naïve idealism on the other.  These voices acknowledge risks from plant emissions in past decades, but now cast impacts as minimal given technological improvements in pollution abatement technology.

This paper explores controversies surrounding WTE as manifestations of complex, sometimes contradictory political-ecological strategies among shifting alliances of actors with different stakes in the hydrocarbon economy.  It argues that understanding municipal wastes as fossil fuel products, substitutes, and facilitators complements and enhances a risk-based analysis of WTE controversies, potentially promoting ecological efficiency in a framework of justice and sufficiency.

David Ruppert, Parable of the Plow and the Sun

Industry is predicated on the purification of ores into relatively pure materials. The less pure the ore the more intense (and energy intense) the purification process. The dénouement of (energy dense) fossil fuels begs the question of the sustainability of refining processes, and the sustainability even of tool use, as with each use a tool is worn (think of a plow pulled through soil) and its atoms are scattered. If energy-dense fossil and nuclear fuels are not available, how feasible are refining processes? Enthalpy can be used to determine the amount of energy associated with the bonds between atoms in a mineral. An analyses of the oxides associated with the ten most common elements in the earth’s crust indicates that the chemical energy associated with these minerals is not so great as to preclude a modest solar array from being able to break mineral bonds, thereby allowing the constituent atoms to be sorted. It is shown in principle that solar radiation is sufficiently energy dense to power the separation of degraded, high entropy materials into pure, valuable, materials of low entropy.

Robin Nagle, Zero Waste: Zero Impact or Brave New Paradigm?

According to some sources, “zero waste” is an environmental movement that aims to rescue the planet from the devastating consequences of profligate consumption and waste by recalibrating industrial processes, government oversight, and individual behavior so that material flows are no longer unidirectional but instead move in a perpetual, sustainable cycle. In other contexts, however, zero waste is a euphemism for standard solid waste management practices of recycling, landfilling and incineration. Recycling qualifies as zero waste, in this scenario, because resources are remade rather than discarded. Landfilling qualifies when methane and other VOCs are retrieved, processed, and sold as fuel, while the name given to contemporary incineration — waste-to-energy – implies transformation of garbage into a utility. This paper considers the conflicting definitions of zero waste and explores their radically different consequences for energy generation, distribution, use, and impact.

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