MassDEP Issues a New Solid Waste Master Plan: A Difficult Road to Achieve Some Ambitious Goals

Late last week, MassDEP announced release of the 2010-2020 Solid Waste Master Plan, subtitled “Pathway to Zero Waste.”  James Collins might describe that as a Big Hairy Audacious GoalI have nothing against Big Hairy Audacious Goals, but sometimes they are implemented through Big Hairy Audacious Regulations.  Time will tell if that’s the case here.

The Master Plan goals are to reduce solid waste by 30% by 2020 and 80% by 2050 – not quite zero waste, but more than sufficiently hairy and audacious.  To work towards those goals, the Master Plan has three primary objectives:

1.         Reduce Waste and Maximize Recycling

2.         Improve the Environmental Performance of Solid Waste Facilities

3.         Develop Integrated Solid Waste Management Systems

Like the goals, these objectives are reasonable on their face. The question is how do we get from here to there.  For example, MassDEP proposes to modify the moratorium on new or expanded combustion facilities to allow 350,000 tons per year in capacity for “innovative and alternative technologies,” such as gasification or pyrolysis.  However, even the limited discussion in the Master Plan reveals the tensions MassDEP faces.  While seeking to encourage such new technologies, MassDEP states that the projects will have to “meet stringent emissions, energy efficiency, and upfront recycling standards.”  Such facilities will also be subject to site assignment requirements.  Moreover, while MassDEP wants to encourage these facilities, it is limiting capacity to 350,000 tpy precisely to ensure “that we do not overbuild long-term capacity.”  It’s tough to encourage technology when the regulator says explicitly that it is not a “long-term” technology.

Other concerns?  MassDEP admits that recycling rates actually fell from 48% in 2000 to 42% in 2009.  Is it not possible that most of the low hanging recycling fruit has already been captured?  It may be extremely difficult to obtain further increases in recycling – or reductions in solid waste generation – simply with education and incentives.  For example, with respect to organic waste, MassDEP is looking to encourage development of anaerobic digestion systems, while also talking about banning organic wastes from large generators by 2014, but they have a bit of a chicken and egg problem.  Financing the capacity won’t be easy unless it’s certain that the ban will be in effect.  However, what happens if MassDEP promulgates a ban, but glitches occur in the capacity supply?

Similarly, the Master Plan forecasts a reduction in landfill capacity from 2,000,000 tons to 600,000 tons by 2020.  If MassDEP does not come up with the right mix of incentives and regulations, there’s going to be a significant economic impact, as the businesses which generated that extra 1,400,000 tons ask what they are supposed to do with their waste.

In short, I understand where MassDEP is headed, but I just don’t think that they are going to get there without making some difficult choices and imposing some significant regulatory burdens.  How MassDEP (and the Legislature) pursue that process will go a long way towards determining whether we stimulate economic growth through new industries or choke off existing industry while simply transferring our solid waste problems out of state.

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