Since the 1970s, the Northwest Incinerator has grown older, air-emissions standards have gotten tougher, and the environmental movement’s attitude toward burning garbage has changed dramatically.

It used to be that landfills were considered the worst place to put our garbage, because sooner or later they leak toxic pollutants into precious drinking water underground. A decade before the current environmental-justice movement emerged, working-class grandmothers were studying toxicology texts, monitoring garbage trucks, and demonstrating to shut landfills down. Among their lasting victories was Illinois’ “hierarchy” of garbage options, passed into law in 1986: waste reduction is supposed to be first choice, then recycling and reuse, then incineration with energy recovery, then plain old incineration, and last of all burial in landfills. State policy has not always followed this hierarchy, but it remains on the books, a kind of flag for various parties to wrap themselves in as convenient.

Following this line of thought, in the early 1980s Chicago adopted a moratorium on any new landfills in the city limits. Mayor Harold Washington’s 58-member Solid Waste Task Force proposed that the city recycle 25 percent of its garbage by the year 2000–and build incinerators to burn most of the rest, allowing Chicago to “phase out the use of landfills for the disposal of raw, untreated solid waste.” The ensuing argument was not about incineration, but about whether any existing landfills should be allowed to expand at all.

“A lot of us were scratching our heads in the mid-1980s,” says Kevin Greene, a veteran environmental lobbyist now with the Center for Neighborhood Technology. “Initially people had mixed feelings about [incineration]. We thought it might be better than landfills. There was a big rush to it on the east and west coasts where landfill fees were higher.

“What made us take a closer look was [the proposal for a large garbage-burner] in Robbins. We got more information about air pollution and ash disposal.” Dispersing pollutants in the air seemed at least as bad as dispersing them in the ground and water; some apparently highly toxic pollutants, the dioxins, were created by burning chlorine-containing garbage; and the leftover ash (roughly 30 percent of the original garbage by volume) still had to be buried somewhere anyway.

“And there was the detriment to recycling. When we went to talk to local officials in the south suburbs and Lake County [places where incinerators had been proposed] about source reduction and recycling–getting at the real source of the problem–they flip-flopped and started talking about burning or burying 75 percent of the garbage and putting out a few bins for the rest. They were looking for a quick technical fix, a one-stop solution.

“We had always thought that after recycling there would be [some garbage] left over–and then we would go back to the producers and try to change their practices. But with incineration easily available, that dialogue could be avoided. We realized we would be dead in the water once these incinerators got up and running.”

Sometimes their rethinking has led to a new naivete. One WASTE supporter says, “I support greatly increased recycling programs and all that. But if it comes down to a choice between burning and landfilling, I’d choose the landfill. They’ve developed 100,000 acres out at the edge of the suburbs. I’m sure they could find a place for an 80-acre landfill.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Mike Tappin.