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The Boston Globe

Opinion

Lawrence Harmon

Burning questions

ISTOCKPHOTO/H. HOPP-BRUCE/GLOBE STAFF

A modest proposal by the state Department of Environmental Protection to relax the moratorium on new trash incinerators is sending the Sierra Club, Conservation Law Foundation, and other environmental groups around the bend. They see nothing less than an all-out assault on recycling, composting, reuse of materials, and other favored methods to achieve the environmental ambition of “zero waste.’’

Are they overreacting or trying to keep Massachusetts from suffering a preventable misfortune?

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The first part of that question is easy: Environmentalists don’t skimp when it comes to hyperbole. For them, incinerators — even those designed to control dangerous emissions and turn waste into energy — are the smoke-spewing devil. It’s the second part of the question — the proper application of new technologies — that deserves close scrutiny during the public comment period on the state’s new solid waste master plan.

Just two years ago, state environmental officials believed they could keep a lid on the proliferation of municipal garbage without resorting to the construction of any new incinerators, even state-of-the art plants that use noncombustible thermal and chemical processes to convert solid waste into useful products, such as fuel. Why risk any additional toxic emissions, they figured, or build a plant that wouldn’t be needed to meet the state’s 2020 goal of protecting the environment through recycling and other less controversial methods?

Suddenly there is a keen interest in alternative technologies in the field of solid waste. The technologies haven’t changed that dramatically since 2010. Lobbying, however, has intensified. It’s best to begin this journey with a healthy dose of skepticism.

So score the first round for the environmental groups.

Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Kenneth Kimmell, meanwhile, argues convincingly that the state is running out of space in its landfills. In 2010, there was room for about 2 million tons of garbage. By 2020, the landfills will have space for less than 600,000 tons. That alone warrants a look at new technologies.

Kimmell isn’t proposing to lift the moratorium on incinerators that use traditional combustion of solid waste. The initiative is limited to cleaner, alternative technologies for converting waste into energy, such as gasification and pyrolysis. He further promises that any new facility would deal solely with items that aren’t recycled now, such as carpets, treated wood, and paper-plastic composites. And no state funding will be used for the construction of such plants. That’s good enough to convince the Massachusetts Municipal Association, whose members wrestle daily with the need to rid their communities of trash, to support the effort.

Score this round for lifting the moratorium.

Not so fast, says Clean Water Action and other environmental groups. State officials already do a lousy job of enforcing the ban on recyclables, especially paper products, in Massachusetts landfills and incinerators. What makes anyone think they’ll do a better job at keeping recyclables out of the gasification plants? The state counters with pledges to increase its inspections of landfills and require solid-waste facilities to hire independent inspectors. And as a show of good faith under the solid waste master plan, the state would also provide financial incentives to help communities increase levels of recycling and composting.

Call this round a tie.

You could go back and forth like this for days with dueling claims between the sides on emission safety, potential damage to the environment, and even whether the energy produced by gasification deserves the title of renewable. Meanwhile, Japan and some European countries are embracing the new technologies without sacrificing their commitment to traditional recycling practices. And like Massachusetts, they don’t have a lot of space for landfills and are more interested in exporting goods than trash.

In the end, it boils down to this: The state should be giving an honest look at all available options to deal with municipal solid waste. This is especially important in Massachusetts, which links its future to technological innovation. Environmentalists can and do raise legitimate challenges to the emissions, economic, and energy benefits claimed by some industry representatives. That is cause for state regulators to insist on strict recycling, emissions, safety, and energy efficiency standards when considering the issuance of permits. But it is not a reason for environmentalists to trash new technologies and waste opportunities to solve the state’s garbage problem.

Lawrence Harmon can be reached at harmon@globe.com.

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