As part of a growing nationwide effort to eliminate the incineration of plastics, a local environmental group is stepping up its efforts to stop two local businesses from burning its plastic waste because they release the toxic chemical dioxin when burned.
“Dioxin is the most carcinogenic substance known to man,” says Alexandra Gorman, project coordinator for Women’s Voices for the Earth (WVE).
Dioxin has been linked to lung, stomach, liver and breast cancer. It is also believed to cause of birth defects and reduced fertility. The chemical is created when polyvinyl chloride (PVC) is burned. Smurfit-Stone Container, one of the businesses being protested, estimates that about one to five percent of the plastic it burns daily is PVC. The company says it burns approximately 15 tons of plastic every day, which translates into 300 to 1,500 pounds of PVC daily. According to Gorman, there is no way to tell if the numbers Smurfit-Stone is using are accurate.
But Meg Gallagher, a media representative for Smurfit-Stone, defends her company’s environmental record.
“Stone Container is the world’s largest recycler of paper, and one of the world’s largest recyclers of aluminum,” Gallagher says. In addition, Gallagher asserts that low levels of dioxin are harmless, adding that the company was granted a permit by the Department of Environmental Quality to burn their waste.
“There’s no question of legality here,” Gallagher says. For Smurfit-Stone, the decision to incinerate is primarily one of economics, she says. The company estimates that it would cost $350,000 more each year to use methods like recycling or landfilling to dispose of their plastic waste. WVE estimates that it the cost is closer to about $100,000.
The other local firm being protested is Rocky Mountain Laboratories (RML) of Hamilton. The company says it incinerates medical waste because it is highly infectious, and that incineration is the only way to destroy infectious agents.
This is fundamentally untrue, Gorman says. Autoclaving, treating waste with super-heated steam, is just as effective as incineration, if not more so. More importantly, it doesn’t produce dioxin, she says. A report from Health Care Without Harm, an international coalition of doctors, hospitals and public health advocates, backs up Gorman’s assertion. Recently, the group found that autoclaving medical waste is both safer and cleaner than incineration, and that autoclaving is often cheaper than incineration.
RML is the only medical waste facility in Montana that incinerates its waste. Over the last three years WVE has convinced three other medical waste companies in Montana to find safer alternatives. While RML only burns about 100 tons of medical waste each year, it has been granted a permit to burn up to 3,500 tons annually.