The Impact Of Grassroots Challenges To Trash Incinerators In Nigeria

Project and Seminar Material for Environmental Science

The Impact Of Grassroots Challenges To Trash Incinerators In Nigeria


When first proposed in this country during the 1970s, waste-to-energy (WTE) incinerators appeared to be ideal solutions to the growing mounds of trash in our “throw-away” society. Promising to convert useless garbage into electricity while saving precious landfill space, trash incinerators seemed perfectly timed to respond to a national need. Within a decade, however, a grassroots anti-incineration movement emerged as a vibrant offshoot of the environmental movement. In Don’t Burn It Here, sociologists Edward Walsh, Rex Warland, and D. Clayton Smith examine this grassroots movement through detailed analyses of the struggles surrounding proposals to build eight municipal incinerators. The eight case histories that form the heart of the book are comparable to hundreds of others across the U.S. The authors’ research is based on interviews, focus group discussions, extensive newspaper files, and questionnaire responses from participants on both sides of the conflicts. A final chapter examines the similarities and differences between the three successful projects and the five defeated ones. An overview of the history of the modern incinerator in the U.S. and the emergence of a major national opposition movement provides the necessary context, and throughout the book, the authors make useful comparisons to other national movements seeking legal justice for deprived collectivities such as women and ethnic groups. This project was supported by a grant from the Ford Foundation’s Fund for Research in Dispute Resolution. Striving to maintain a balanced treatment of both sides of the incinerator battles, the authors provide fresh theoretical and methodological perspectives on a new type of collective action. They also help to close the gap between theory and empirical data in the social sciences.

Chapter One


Background of the Study

Garbage is a fact of life. Daily living generates waste that needs to be disposed. Some carbon-containing (organic) waste can be broken down in a process called composting to provide nutrients for the growth of food. Certain types of plastic and paper waste can be recycled, providing the material for the manufacture of other products (an example is the recycling of used tires to prepare a synthetic athletic turf that mimics the feel of grass).
Some waste, however, cannot be decomposed or recycled, and so must be disposed of unaltered. Typically, the waste is buried in landfills or is burned (incineration). These disposal routes have environmental consequences, as they occupy space and can lead to the production of noxious chemicals.

The gases created from decaying waste can influence climate. In past centuries, when Earth’s population was much less, the climatic consequences of waste disposal were negligible. This is not the case in today’s world, particularly with the growth of urban centers. London, Paris, Moscow, Tokyo, Osaka, Beijing, Shanghai, Delhi, Mumbai, New York, Los Angeles, Manila, Seoul, Mexico City, Buenos Aires, Sao Paulo, and Rio de Janeiro are some of a longer list of mega-cities whose populations exceed 10 million people. Mega-cities generate mega-trash; 12.1 million tons (11 million metric tons) each day in New York City alone.

With the planet’s population and urban centers growing, the climatic consequences of waste will also continue to grow.

Historical Background and Scientific Foundations

Archaeological evidence shows that waste has been a part of human history dating back at least 13,000 years. Waste disposal is an ancient practice; excavation of a 12,000-year-old settlement in present-day Israel has revealed buildings dedicated to waste storage. In 500 BC, the city of Athens, Greece, developed the first known municipal dump. The earliest known report of municipal incineration of waste dates from 1874, in Nottingham, England. By the first decade of the twentieth century, municipal trash collection was the norm in the United States; a survey of 161 U.S. cities conducted in 1902 found that almost 80% had a regular trash collection program.

The collected waste has to go somewhere. As cities grew in population during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the problem of waste disposal became serious. A commonly used method of disposal for coastal cities, the dumping of barge-loads of trash into the ocean, was banned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1934. By the 1920s, U.S. wetlands were being converted to landfills, with layers of trash interspersed by ash and dirt.
More organized and sanitary landfills begin during World War II (1939–1945). Into the 1950s, many landfills were

open pits in which trash was burned, a practice that was phased out by the 1960s when the dangers of gas emissions were recognized. In 1965, federal legislation was enacted to regulate the construction and operation of solid waste disposal facilities. Under this legislation, sanitary landfills must have physical barriers to prevent fluids from leaching into the surrounding ground.

Words to Know

Lacking free molecular oxygen (O2). Anaerobic environments lack O2; anaerobic bacteria digest organic matter such as dead plants in anaerobic environments such as deep water and the digestive systems of cattle. Anaerobic digestion releases methane, a greenhouse gas.


The process by which organic waste, such as yard waste, food waste, and paper, is broken down by microorganisms and turned into a useful product for improving soil.

Fossil Fuels:

Fuels formed by biological processes and transformed into solid or fluid minerals over geological time. Fossil fuels include coal, petroleum, and natural gas. Fossil fuels are non-renewable on the timescale of human civilization, because their natural replenishment would take many millions of years.

Greenhouse Gases:

Gases that cause Earth to retain more thermal energy by absorbing infrared light emitted by Earth’s surface. The most important greenhouse gases are water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and various artificial chemicals such as chlorofluorocarbons. All but the latter are naturally occurring, but human activity over the last several centuries has significantly increased the amounts of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide in Earth’s atmosphere, causing global warming and global climate change.


Locations where garbage is dumped in pits and covered with soil. Anaerobic digestion by bacteria of organic matter in a landfill produces significant quantities of methane (a potent greenhouse gas), which must be vented lest it accumulate and possibly explode. In many countries (e.g., the United States), landfills are the single largest source of methane emissions. Vented methane’s greenhouse impact can be reduced by about 95% by burning it, in some cases with the side-benefit of generating electricity. Burning methane produces carbon dioxide, a much less potent greenhouse gas by the ton.


The lowest layer of Earth’s atmosphere, ranging to an altitude of about 9 mi (15 km) above Earth’s surface.


Areas that are wet or covered with water for at least part of the year.


Another name for sewage sludge.


Primitive devices for incinerating municipal wastes.

Dump (Or Open Dump):

An area in which wastes are simply deposited and left to rot or decay.

Hazardous Wastes:

Wastes that are poisonous, flammable, or corrosive, or that react with other substances in a dangerous way.


The burning of solid waste as a disposal method.


A land disposal method for solid waste in which garbage is covered every day with several inches of soil.


The liquid that filters through a dump or landfill.


The use of waste materials, also known as secondary materials or recyclables, to produce new products.

Resource Recovery Plant:

An incinerator that uses energy produced by the burning of solid wastes for some useful purpose.

Source Reduction:

Reduction in the quantity or the toxicity of material used for a product or packaging; a form of waste prevention.


Piles of mine wastes.

Waste Prevention:

A waste management method that involves preventing waste from being created, or reducing waste.

Waste-to-Energy Plant:

An incinerator that uses energy produced by the burning of solid wastes for some useful purpose.

In Context: Waste

“Post-consumer waste is a small contributor to global GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions (5%), but the waste sector can positively contribute to GHG mitigation at low cost and promote sustainable development (high agreement, much evidence).

Existing waste management practices can provide effective mitigation of GHG emissions from this sector: a wide range of mature, environmentally effective technologies are commercially available to mitigate emissions and provide co-benefits for improved public health and safety, soil protection and pollution prevention, and local energy supply.

Waste minimization and recycling provide important indirect mitigation benefits through the conservation of energy and materials.

Lack of local capital is a key constraint for waste and wastewater management in developing countries and countries with economies in transition. Lack of expertise on sustainable technology is also an important barrier.”

SOURCE: Metz, B., et al, eds. Climate Change 2007: Mitigation of Climate Change: Contribution of Working Group III to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

World War II also spurred public participation in recycling of materials including rubber, scrap metal, foodstuff, and tin cans. At the height of the war, an estimated 25% of U.S. waste was being recycled. Such measures help reduce the impact of waste on surrounding land and water. However, the burden to Earth’s climate has been more problematic.
One source of the link between waste disposal and climate lies deep within the landfill. In the oxygen-poor or oxygen-free atmosphere within a landfill, the decomposition of material generates a gas called methane (CH4). Although some landfills recover the methane, most methane is vented off to the atmosphere. This has been shown to contribute to global warming. Methane is one of the so-called greenhouse gases—about 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide (CO2). Such greenhouse gases increase heat retention in the region of the atmosphere known as the troposphere. Similar to a greenhouse, the result is the warming of the air above Earth’s surface.

Burning of waste also contributes carbon dioxide and another greenhouse gas called nitrous oxide (N2O). In Canada, for example, almost 1% of the country’s carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide emissions come from waste incineration. In other developed countries, this figure can be as high as 8%. Nitrous oxide is an especially potent greenhouse gas, but only makes up only a small portion of the total emissions from incineration.

Impacts and Issues

Waste disposal is a significant source of greenhouse gases. According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), greenhouse-gas emissions from waste in North America and the European Community in 2002 exceeded 330 million tons (300 million metric tons). In Canada, landfills generate an estimated 1.3 million tons (1.2 million metric tons) of greenhouse gases each year— the equivalent of the emissions from 6 million cars, 40% of all the passenger vehicles in the country. In 2006, the greenhouse-gas emissions from landfills in the United States were 147 million metric tons.

Under a 2003 provision of the North American Free Trade Agreement, the disposal of wastes that contribute to greenhouse-gas emissions has become a cross-border option for the United States and Canada. The city of Toronto, Ontario currently trucks more than 10,000 tons of garbage each day to landfills in Michigan. In return, Michigan is allowed to export hazardous waste (including radioactive waste) to Ontario.

Public opposition of local residents on both sides of the border has been vigorous.

The production of greenhouse gases associated with waste disposal can be reduced by composting, or the breakdown of organic material by microorganisms. In a pile of composting material, some anaerobic decomposition occurs, generating carbon dioxide, but most of the gas is retained in the pile. Other decomposition takes place in the presence of oxygen, and carbon dioxide is not produced. Composting also has the advantage of supplying an end product that is a nutrient for the growth of food.

Landfill design is having an even more profound effect. In the developed world, modern landfills that incinerate gases or collect the gas to be used as fuel or to generate electricity prevent carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide emissions. These sorts of technology advances are reducing dependence on fossil fuels. For example, the methane produced by landfills in Canada is sufficient to heat 600,000 homes a year.

Chapter Five


Societies have always had to deal with waste disposal, but what those societies have defined as waste, as well as where would be that waste’s ultimate destination, has varied greatly over time. Large-scale waste disposal is primarily an urban issue because of the waste disposal needs of population concentrations and the material processing and production-type activities that go on in cities. Waste is often defined as “matter out of place” and can be understood as part of a city’s metabolic processes. Cities require materials to sustain their life processes and need to remove wastes resulting from consumption and processing to prevent “nuisance and hazard.” Well into the nineteenth century, many American cities lacked garbage and rubbish collection services. Cities often depended on animals such as pigs, goats, and cows, or even buzzards in southern cities, to consume slops and garbage tossed into the streets by residents. In the middle of the century, health concerns stimulated such larger cities as New York to experiment with collection, often by contracting out. Contractors and municipalities often discarded wastes into near by waterways or placed them on vacant lots on the city fringe.

Rapid urbanization in the late nineteenth century increased the volume of wastes and aroused concern over nuisances and hazards. People had always viewed garbage as a nuisance, but the public-health movement, accompanied by widespread acceptance of anticontagionist theory, emphasized the rapid disposal of organic wastes to prevent epidemics. Concern about potential disease drove municipalities to consider collection, usually by setting up their own services, granting contracts, or allowing householders to make private arrangements. By the late nineteenth century, cities were relying on contractors, although there were shifts between approaches. Cities apparently preferred contracting to municipal operation because of cost as well as the absence of a rationale for government involvement in a domain with many private operators.

During the first half of the twentieth century, municipal control over collection gradually increased to between 60 and 70 percent, largely for health and efficiency reasons. Just as they had moved from private to public provision of water because of concerns over inability of the private sector to protect against fire and illness, cities began to question leaving waste removal to contractors. Contractor collection was often disorganized, with frequent vendor changes, short-term contracts, and contractor reluctance to invest in equipment. Municipal reformers concluded that sanitation was too important to be left to profit-motivated contractors. Initially, responsibility went to departments of public health, but as the germ theory of disease replaced anticontagionism, control over the function shifted to public works departments. Increasingly, cities viewed garbage collection as an engineering rather than a public health problem, and municipal concern shifted from health to fire hazards and the prevention of nuisances such as odors and flies.

Changes in both composition of wastes (or solid wastes, as they were now called) and collection and disposal methods occurred after World War II. A major fraction of municipal solid wastes before the war had been ashes, but as heating oil and natural gas displaced coal, ashes became less important. The solid wastes generated by individuals did not decrease, however, because there were sharp rises in the amount of nonfood materials, such as packaging and glass. Another change occurred in regard to disposal sites. Before the war, cities had disposed of wastes in dumps, on pig farms (a form of recycling), by ocean dumping, or by incineration. A few cities used garbage reduction or composting. For nuisance and health reasons, cities found these methods unacceptable, and in the decades after 1945, they adopted the so-called sanitary landfill method of waste disposal, which involved the systematic placing of wastes in the ground using a technology such as a bulldozer or a bull clam shovel. The sanitary landfill, or tipping, had been widely used in Great Britain before the war. In the late 1930s, Jean Vincenz, director of public works in Fresno, California, had developed it. Vincenz used the sanitary landfill to deal with solid wastes at army camps during the war. Public works and public health professionals and municipal engineers viewed the technique as a final solution to the waste disposal problem. Between 1945 and 1960, the number of fills increased from 100 to 1,400.

A further development, starting in the late 1950s, involved a rise in private contracting. Firms that provided economies of scale, sophisticated management, and efficient collection absorbed smaller companies and replaced municipal operations. Sharp rises in the costs of disposal as well as a desire to shift labor and operating costs to the private sector also played a role. In the 1980s, private contracting grew rapidly because it was the most cost effective method available.

In the 1960s, the environmental movement raised questions about solid-waste disposal and the safety of sanitary landfills, both in terms of the environment and health. In the 1950s, states had strengthened environmental regulations, while the federal government followed with the Solid Waste Act in 1965 and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act in 1976. Higher standards for landfills raised costs. Increasingly, society sought disposal methods such as recycling that appeared protective of health and environmentally benign. By the last decade of the twentieth century, as new techniques for utilizing recycled materials and controlling waste generation developed, society seemed on its way to a more sustainable balance.

The tendency of Americans to consume ever increasing amounts of goods, however, has dampened the rate of improvement. For instance, Americans are discarding an increasing number of computers every year. Monitors especially constitute an environmental danger because they contain lead, mercury, and cadmium. If disposed of in landfills, they may leach these dangerous metals into the soil and groundwater. Therefore, concerned consumers are pushing manufacturers to create collection and recycling programs for outdated equipment.

Nevertheless, recycling programs have not proven the anticipated panacea for problems in solid-waste disposal. Quite simply, the supply of recyclable materials generally outstrips demand. A strong market exists for aluminum cans, but newspaper, plastic, and glass remain less attractive to buyers. For example, removing the ink from newspapers is expensive, and the wood fibers in paper do not stand up well to repeated processing. Thus, just because it is theoretically possible to recycle a material, it does not mean that recycling actually will happen. This difficulty suggests that consumers hoping to limit the amount of material in landfills would do well to buy products with less initial packaging and of materials that recycle easily.

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