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Dear Mayor Wu, let’s stop burning Boston’s trash

The city has been incinerating its garbage since the 1980s. The new mayor has the power to change that.

Trash pickup along East Fourth St., South Boston.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Boston has a trash problem. Michelle Wu — a mayor committed to a Green New Deal and participatory leadership — has everything she needs to fix it.

All of Boston’s waste is currently incinerated in regional “waste-to-energy” plants. These plants burn garbage, capture a small amount of energy, and produce a significant amount of ash — about 15-25 percent of the weight of the original waste — which is then buried in landfills.

Don’t let the “waste-to-energy” label fool you. Incinerators are not green. While they produce a small amount of electricity, that electricity per unit is dirtier than coal. Incinerators also burn everything we put into our trash cans, including a lot of materials like petroleum-based plastics. Combusting those materials creates a host of pollutants, including carcinogens like polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), that build up around incinerators and accumulate in plant and animal tissue as they pass through the food chain. And because of the legacy of racist zoning that has consistently placed incinerators in marginalized communities, the incinerators’ toxic output unduly harms residents whose voices have historically been the least represented. Incinerators are an environmental justice catastrophe.

The dirty secret of clean streets

Boston cemented its reliance on incineration in the 1980s when environmental regulation and community advocacy made it more difficult and expensive to site new landfills. Waste disposal costs skyrocketed, putting pressure on already strained municipal budgets. In response, Boston Public Works Department Commissioner Joe Casazza proposed that Boston build its own municipal waste incinerator at South Bay.

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Casazza was on the board of Keep America Beautiful. Clean streets were his goal, and he believed a municipal incinerator was the most efficient way to achieve them. He convinced Mayor Kevin White and White’s successor, Ray Flynn, that an incinerator would stabilize disposal capacity and control costs. Mayor Flynn eventually decided against the South Bay incinerator, opting instead to send Boston’s waste to a network of regional incinerators and to invest, minimally, in recycling. But Casazza’s logic has locked Boston into burning its trash for decades.

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Efficient waste management is essential for keeping streets clean locally, particularly as disposable consumer products, manufactured with virgin and nonrenewable materials, have replaced reusable goods. But efficiency is not just a response to disposability; it also fuels it. When waste disappears, so does the motivation at both the public and private levels to promote reusable products. In this way, incinerators prop up the exploitative and globally networked chain of material extraction, product manufacturing, consumption, and waste generation.

Incinerators, in other words, make it easier to keep wasting.

Solid waste — plastic in particular — is intimately connected with climate change, ecosystem disruption, and economic and environmental inequality. Plastic will soon eclipse coal as a source of greenhouse gas emissions. Microplastics are found in nearly all living tissue and ecosystems, including human infants.

In the face of these interlocked crises, plastic producers and waste managers continue to promote waste-to-energy incineration as a form of recycling. Calling incineration recycling might make consumers and policy makers feel better about it, but doing so allows polluters to continue polluting. Burning waste to reduce it isn’t a solution.

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The Seattle example

Because cities control waste management, they can play a huge role in transforming the production of the goods we buy and our consumption of them. Boston would do well to follow the lead of other cities that have made progress in this regard.

Seattle, which has a population just slightly larger than Boston’s, relies on a landfill, not incinerators, and diverts close to 60 percent of household and commercial waste through composting, recycling, and reuse programs. The city’s approach has reduced the total amount of waste — both trash and recycling — that the city generates. In 2020, Seattle collected 80,000 fewer tons of waste than it did in 2000, despite a population boom over the same period.

Seattle’s results are the fruit of 40 years of steady effort that began with a conundrum similar to what Casazza faced in Boston. Initially, Seattle’s waste managers also proposed incineration as the solution. But then leaders and residents collaborated in a planning process that led to a different way of thinking about garbage. Instead of viewing trash a thing to get rid of efficiently, the city’s waste managers began to view trash as a stream of different materials, each of which must be dealt with differently.

The shift in thinking resulted in a series of policy and service changes. In 1981, the city began charging residents by volume for waste collection. That program became a progressive tax, of sorts: The more waste you produced, the more you paid, thus incentivizing city residents to produce less garbage.

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In 1987, Seattle began publishing annual reports about waste generation, composition, recycling, and composting, allowing everyone to track the city’s progress toward ambitious waste diversion goals. After years of voluntary programs, the city made recycling mandatory in 2005 and composting mandatory in 2015. Between 2012 and 2020, Seattle instituted bans and taxes on single-use products such as plastic shopping bags, drinking straws, disposable utensils, and polystyrene foam takeout containers.

In addition, Seattle now works with developers to ensure that new multifamily buildings have adequate space to accommodate multiple streams of household waste in apartments and in the buildings’ service areas. Most recently, the city’s leadership has been experimenting with extended producer responsibility (EPR) programs that make producers responsible for the costs of recycling and waste disposal of their goods. There is now a push for statewide EPR policies that require manufacturers and retailers to facilitate the recycling of paints, electronics, mercury-containing light bulbs, and more.

Closer to home, Maine recently became the first state to pass an extensive producer responsibility law for packaging. The landmark legislation is a model for Massachusetts. Boston — the state’s largest city, with the largest budgetary responsibility for waste management — should be well positioned to advocate for a similar state law.

Transforming waste management at the municipal scale can influence the entire consumption system. Redesigning local waste systems can encourage producers to be better actors, reduce the drive to extract raw materials, and support individual behavior change — all while helping alleviate the climate crisis. And locally, thoughtful policy and service changes can reduce the amount of single-use and toxic items that Boston burns every day.

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The Green New Deal is the best large-scale policy model we have to confront the climate emergency and the inequality that plagues Boston. In order to truly spark transformation, however, green policies must also trigger a wholesale shift in how we consume and how we manage waste.

Mayor Wu oversees the city’s waste management system. She has the power to manage waste better.

Lily Pollans is the author of “Resisting Garbage: The Politics of Waste Management in American Cities” and an assistant professor of urban policy and planning at Hunter College.