Multinational Monitor

JAN/FEB 2004
VOL 25 No. 1


U’wa Overcome Oxy: How a Small Colombian Indigenous Group and Global Solidarity Movement Defeated an Oil Giant, and the Struggle Ahead
by Atossa Soltani and Kevin Koenig

Controlling Big Tobacco: The Winning Campaign for a Global Tobacco Treaty
by Anna White

Out of Burma: Grassroots Activism Forces Multinationals to End Ties with the Burmese Dictatorship
by Jeff Shaw

Dousing the Flames: Communities Unite Globally to Lock Out the Incinerator Industry
by Monica Wilson

Working to Keep Antibiotics Working: Can the Superbugs Be Stopped?
by Julie Light

Taming the Banking Predators
by Jake Lewis


Taking on Sprawl-Mart: Sprawl-Busting, Community by Community
an Interview with Al Norman

Running Over Citi: Banking Goliath Citigroup Agrees to Environmental Screens
an Interview with Ilyse Hogue


Behind the Lines

Lessons From Winning Campaigns

The Front
Canada Peddling Nuclear - The Sugar Fix

The Lawrence Summers Memorial Award

Book Notes

Names In the News


Dousing the Flames Communities Unite Globally to Lock Out the Incinerator Industry

by Monica Wilson

Trash is political. That's the conclusion of a growing number of communities around the world that are examining conventional notions of waste. They are demanding -- and winning -- rules to reduce waste creation and to mandate safer handling of waste that is generated.

A growing global network of activists is opposing incineration of waste, pointing out that incineration releases dioxin, mercury, lead, PCBs and other pollutants that endanger public health. Advocates for non-incineration approaches also emphasize the high cost of incinerators when compared to waste prevention, composting and recycling.

The global movement for alternatives to incineration has registered victories that range from defeating incinerators for chemical weapons, hazardous industrial waste, municipal waste and medical waste, to forcing the adoption of safer, sustainable approaches that contribute to local economic development.

A universal element of the movement's success stories is an emphasis on promoting acceptable, non-burn approaches to dealing with many forms of waste. The most fundamental ingredient in these stories is strong and active community participation in order to counter the deep pockets and undue political influence of powerful corporations selling incinerator technologies, and their allied consultants and lobbyists.

These communities, aided by environmental groups and public health activists, have united into anti-burn networks that have followed the incinerator industry around the world. As the industry is kicked out of community after community, the network lends its support -- in terms of information and organizing strategies -- to those communities that become the next target for the incinerator pushers.

Incinerating Development

In 1999, South Africa-based Peacock Bay Environmental Services proposed a hazardous waste incinerator for the heavily polluted area of Sasolburg, South Africa.

Community advocates organized heavily in the areas surrounding the proposed incinerator site, denouncing the proposal as a threat to local well-being. They worked with national and international organizations to educate government authorities about the project, focusing on local politicians. The activists informed them of the public health dangers of burning hazardous waste, and exposed Peacock Bay's failed efforts a decade earlier to build a similar hazardous waste incinerator in South Africa. They pressured state-level environmental officials, and South African President Thabo Mbeki received many international appeals to stop the project.

Critics of the incinerator plan described it as an example of the export of dirty technologies to the global South, pointing to project funding by the U.S. Trade and Development Agency, a governmental export promotional agency.

After 18 months of organized opposition, the local municipality rejected the scheme. Actual decision-making authority lay with the Provincial Department of Environmental Affairs, which decided to follow the wishes of the municipality and cancel the project.

"The decision by a local municipality to veto a proposal and the acceptance of this decision by the provincial government is the first of its kind in South Africa as we understand it," says Bobby Peek of groundWork, a national environmental justice organization that worked closely with community groups to stop the incinerator.

"The halting of this proposal is significant because it should give development agencies a clear understanding that we are not going to allow such dirty development to take place in the South," says Peek.

Buenos Aires: Tangoing for Clean Air

Amidst an economic crisis more severe than the U.S. Great Depression, the Argentine capital of Buenos Aires in February 2002 adopted legislation to ban the incineration of medical waste. The ban followed five months of intense education and lobbying efforts by the Citizen's Anti-Incineration Coalition, launched with a demonstration in which 40 volunteers lay in hospital beds in a public square under the message "Incinerators give us cancer."

"This law took place in a very special moment for Argentina," says Mariana Walter of Greenpeace Argentina. "One wouldn"t think incineration was among the highest priorities, yet there was huge public participation in this campaign."

The coalition used creative techniques to educate the public about incineration risks, from tango dancing at city hall to adorning dozens of public statues with face masks. Environmental health advocates in Buenos Aires worked closely with supportive local legislators and city officials to educate other legislators about the health impacts of incinerator pollution and the availability of cost-effective, safe alternatives such as maintaining the separation of infectious waste from non-infectious waste and non-burn treatment of infectious waste.

Legislators also heard repeatedly from hundreds of constituents urging adoption of the incineration ban. Ultimately, the February 19, 2002 vote for the ban was unanimous.

"From the point of view of health, we chose to favor the precautionary principle and international awareness of the effects of dioxins and furans on the public," says Dr. Silvia Ferrer of the Buenos Aires Department of Health.

Since the passage of the incineration ban in Buenos Aires, seven other Argentinean cities and municipalities have banned some type of waste incineration.

"The fact that Buenos Aires said no to incineration represents a great boost to the campaigns the Citizens Anti-Incinerator Coalition is carrying out across the country," explains Dr. Gladys Enciso, secretary of the Coalition. "Every municipal or provincial government that allows incineration is now contradicting the law of the country's capital city. And the fact that the law made it illegal for the waste from Buenos Aires to be burned in other territories means that the pollution is not simply transferred to another place."

Incineration and the Military

It might seem obvious that incineration is not a good way to dispose of dangerous chemicals. Not to the U.S. military.

In the mid-1980s, the U.S. Army informed citizens living near nine military bases that it would get rid of the lethal chemical weapons stored on the bases by burning the weapons in incinerators. By 1991, community-based groups located near these chemical weapons sites had formed the Chemical Weapons Working Group (CWWG). Flanked by a wide range of other environmental and social justice organizations, CWWG sought to force the Army to get rid of the chemical weapons using safe, non-incineration technology. CWWG insisted that local citizens had a right to be directly involved in decisions over chemical weapons disposal options that might threaten their lives.

Over the years, CWWG has deployed a combination of educational, legislative and legal action to achieve its goals. Four of the eight Army incinerator proposals have been defeated, in favor of safer, non-incineration disposal methods. Two facilities incinerate chemical weapons in Utah and Alabama despite frequent facility closures and worker safety violation allegations from whistleblowers. Two other chemical weapons incinerators in Oregon and Arkansas are not yet operational.

"The major key to our success was our promotion of proven alternative technologies to dangerous incinerators," says CWWG's Elizabeth Crowe. "Having alternatives adds significant weight to demands for protection of public health and the environment."

Most recently, CWWG won the cancellation of a proposed weapons incinerator in Richmond, Kentucky. This victory came after 18 years of street marches, countless meetings with legislators, public forums and scientific reviews. Unexpected alliances also played a role in this success, including the outspoken opposition from the state's Republican senator, Mitch McConnell. The chemical weapons will be destroyed using a low-temperature neutralization process followed by non-incineration secondary treatment.

"This just goes to show that democracy in the people's hands works, even when it comes to chemical weapons disposal," said 82-year-old activist Evangeline Goss at a press conference announcing the victory. "And right now we need all the democracy we can get hold of."

CWWG continues to demand a role in the oversight of chemical weapons disposal at all sites, and is working to gain support for switching existing incinerators to safer technology.

"If small communities working together can move giant bureaucracies like the Pentagon, just about anything is possible," says Ross Vincent, an activist living near a chemical weapons site in Colorado.

Canterbury Tales

In one of the movement's more recent victories, the waste gasification company Brightstar Environmental in December 2003 withdrew a plan to build a waste plant in the council of Kent, United Kingdom. The plant would have burned municipal waste from the region in order to produce energy, but environmental health advocates from the Canterbury area say the facility would have released pollutants that would have threatened public health.

While gasification proponents claim that the technology is not incineration, the European Union legally classifies waste gasification as incineration. Depending on the composition of the waste and operating conditions, gasification releases dioxins and furans, mercury and other dangerous emissions similar to incineration. Gasification has many other characteristics in common with incineration, including hazardous solid residue and financial burdens on host communities. According to Australian newspapers, Brightstar Environmental's only facility has breached emissions guidelines and is experiencing financial losses.

A network of community groups started informing the public of concerns about the proposed waste plant in early 2002. "We used a broad mix of campaign tactics, but we carefully fitted the actions and approaches to the target audience," says Phil Scott of the Sandwich Action Group for the Environment (SAGE).

With messages emphasizing waste prevention, composting and recycling, community leaders recruited a large corps of volunteers who in turn kept pressure on local elected officials. They tailored events for various media outlets, giving numerous local newspapers "exclusives" that included meetings with sympathetic politicians and demonstrations in memorable locations such as the historic Canterbury Cathedral.

To convince elected officials and government agencies that the waste plant was not in the best interest of the region, the community groups focused on economic arguments highlighting the financial burden that would be carried by taxpayers. Officials also responded to news about the company itself.

"When SAGE started to provide leaflets that contained references, I realized that this wasn"t scaremongering. The turning point for me was when it was pointed out to me that I was being misled [by the scheme's promoters] and that the truth was out there if only I knew where to look," says Scurry village Councilor Richard Fulbrooke. Fulbrooke was initially skeptical of criticism of incineration, but eventually became an advocate for canceling the project.

Reflecting their broad interests in community affairs, members of SAGE had long attended local council and other government meetings and had developed a rapport with some of the elected officials. "Whether you are fighting anything or not, go to local government meetings to show you care and develop trust. When issues come up, you will have credibility with decision-makers," says Scott.

This approach was validated when Scott was elected to the Sandwich Town Council in May 2003, after being asked to run by other council members because of his contributions to defeating an earlier incinerator proposal and other local advocacy.

Brightstar Environmental continues to float proposals for municipal waste gasification plants in the United Kingdom, India and the United States.

Korea's Zero Waste Movement

South Korean environmental health advocates have pursued another approach to stopping waste incinerators. When efforts to ban incineration outright were stymied, activists refocused on preventing waste, in addition to promoting appropriate municipal waste management.

Spearheaded by the Korea Zero Waste Movement Network (KZWMN), South Korea has started limiting the use of disposable items. Since 1999, the country has banned the free distribution of disposable items such as plastic shopping bags and disposable drinking cups from fast food restaurants.

KZWMN attributes the success of these nationwide waste prevention efforts to the character of their movement. "Korean NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] have strong nationwide solidarity -- our campaigns are powerful because we are a coalition of 250 NGOs," says Binna Oh with KZWMN. "During the campaign to ban disposable carry-out containers, a fast food company executive remarked that he felt he was trapped in a net of poison spiders."

The KZWMN prioritizes the mobilizing of its membership base to lobby members of national and local assemblies, and to put pressure on government agencies. The message that often resonates with these decision-makers is that by preventing waste, discussion of incinerators can be avoided, as well as the costs of waste handling.

Most recently, the Korean Ministry of Environment introduced regulations to ban disposable utensils and containers in major fast food chains. As a result of these bans, reusable containers are replacing disposables in Korea, and waste is being prevented instead of managed.

The Zero Waste Example
The 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil was heavily criticized for creating seven tons of waste for each day of the 12-day conference. "The first Earth Summit performed poorly on conservation of materials, water and energy efficiency, and there were no effective systems to make the summit a model of its goals," says Zini Mokhine, an environmentalist from Johannesburg, South Africa.

In 2002, Johannesburg was the site of the 10-year follow-up meeting to the Earth Summit, called the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD). In the year leading up to the WSSD, Johannesburg-based EarthLife Africa and the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) urged the United Nations to make the WSSD a "zero waste" event, calling on the WSSD to eliminate waste, reduce the quantities and toxicities of materials used, and reuse, recycle or compost discarded materials.

"We made it clear to the UN that adoption of a zero waste program would be in its own best self-interest," says Ann Leonard, international co-coordinator of GAIA and co-director of Essential Action, a project of Multinational Monitor's publisher, Essential Information. "By drawing on the embarrassing example of the first Earth Summit and the positive example of the recent Salt Lake City Olympics, we succeeded in gaining UN support."

EarthLife Africa's Zero Waste Team was granted authority by the WSSD to manage the zero waste program for the civil society meetings of the WSSD, called the Global Forum. The Global Forum was the largest component of the WSSD, with up to 30,000 delegates attending daily. Over the course of the meeting, the Zero Waste Team recovered for re-use 85 percent of the materials that would have become waste at the Global Forum.

In contrast, the UN-run waste programs for the other meeting sites (including the government delegates summit) only diverted 20 percent of the waste stream through recycling.

One of the major components of the EarthLife Africa Zero Waste Team's approach at the Global Forum was an emphasis on waste prevention, especially of materials that are difficult to recycle. The team pushed for a ban on plastic beverage containers and encouraged food vendors to use refillable glass containers and reusable food containers. Economically as well as environmentally successful, the program hired 96 local people to collect and sort materials discarded in the numerous bins around the convention center, and separated food wastes to be composted.

The zero waste success of the WSSD Global Forum left a legacy of strong commitment to zero waste in Johannesburg communities. One example is the Soweto-based community group iLima that is currently building community-based zero waste programs, including collection of materials separated for composting, reuse and sales to recycling agencies. iLima co-founder Mokhine, who worked on the EarthLife Africa Zero Waste Team during the WSSD, says, "Zero waste is a vehicle for local economic development that balances social needs with environmental protection."

These are just a few of the varied successes the global movement against waste and incineration has achieved in recent years. Weekly, new victories are added to the growing list. Each victory provides new lessons for others around the world, and confirms that community involvement can both overcome powerful incineration proponents and make possible sustainable approaches to waste prevention and management.

Monica Wilson works on incineration issues with Essential Action, a project of Essential Information, the publisher of Multinational Monitor.



Mailing List


Editor's Blog

Archived Issues

Subscribe Online

Donate Online


Send Letter to the Editor

Writers' Guidelines