Palm Beach County will soon commence operations of the nation’s first commercial waste-to-energy trash incinerator in 20 years. The $670 million incinerator, located immediately north of the Solid Waste Authority’s existing facility on Jog Road, will combust approximately 3,000 tons of material per day. The source of fuel will be tires, wood, automobile remnants, and residential garbage. According to the Authority’s website, the new facility will process 1 million tons of municipal solid waste (MSW) per year and generate enough electrical power for 56,000 homes. 

The local opposition to the incinerator and its 80-foot smokestack has largely centered on increased garbage truck traffic on county roads, noise and odor concerns, and the fact that garbage is being accepted from outside the County for at least 8 years, which the opponents say will hurt the county’s tourism industry. Environmental advocates raised concerns over the facility’s toxic air emissions and unknown future impacts, and oppose the importation of trash as “contrary to the county’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.” Instead, the Sierra Club advocated for the use of alternative energy sources such as solar power and pointed to the need to reduce the volume of trash generated through composting and recycling.

The County’s Solid Waste Authority rebuts these arguments by emphasizing that the waste-to-energy plant is a better alternative for waste disposal than the original idea of siting a new landfill near the Everglades and that the importation of trash for a limited duration and a 19 million tipping fee offsets the cost of the building the plant. Supporters also point to the fact that recycling rates have largely flattened, with Palm Beach County’s rate of about 30% slightly under the EPA reported national rate of 34%, and that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers a waste-to-energy facility to be a “clean, reliable source of energy, that would “improve[e] air quality by reducing consumption of fossil fuels. Further, the Authority counters that the new waste-to-energy facility will reduce the amount of waste currently being deposited in a landfill by 85%, thereby postponing the need for new landfill capacity, and the emissions permit limits will be the lowest of any renewable facility combusting MSW in the United States.

Some in the solid waste disposal industry view the debate over the Palm Beach County facility as “an acknowledgment of defeat in the effort to reduce output and step up recycling.”  As local governments like Palm Beach County look for cheaper, simpler alternatives for waste disposal, they are led to a re-examination of the feasibility of incineration and landfills, options whose environmental impacts were once viewed as too controversial.