Complex Environmental Challenges: Municipal Solid Waste

Municipal solid waste is an important environmental, health, and safety management issue. Americans generate around 4.4 pounds of daily municipal solid waste per capita (Salzman and Thompson 2019, 235). Municipal solid waste can be composed of multiple different waste streams like household garbage, industrial and construction waste, and biomedical waste for example. Since there are multiple activities that produce waste and the management of waste is an end-of-lifecycle activity, the issues regarding municipal solid waste can be complex. Historically, municipal solid waste has not been handled very well from a regulatory perspective.

Solid waste has more implications than just the management of that waste. Air quality can be impacted from the breakdown of materials in a landfill or emissions from a waste-to-energy (WTE) facility or incinerator. Breakdown of waste materials can also lead to potential water quality issues as well. Many municipalities need health, air, and waste permits to operate waste management operations like landfills and incinerators. For example, the City of Spokane operates a waste-to-energy facility that combusts municipal solid waste. Several permits and regulatory compliance activities are required to manage that solid waste. However, policymakers, advocates, and regulators have handled WTE facilities poorly since the initial development of the facility. Gaps in regulations, and poorly understood material management processes, have led to the City of Spokane’s WTE facility being miscategorized and unfairly regulated. A more comprehensive framework for how to manage municipal solid waste is needed to ensure fair and balanced approaches to managing the environmental implications of waste management activities.

City of Spokane’s Waste Management History

In the 1980’s, the United States was facing a garbage crisis. The rise in convenience products and increased plastic use was filling up landfills at unprecedented rates. Space to develop more landfills was becoming more difficult to find nationwide. In Spokane, Washington another issue was coming to the forefront of the community as well. The community’s drinking water supply comes from a sole-source aquifer called the Spokane Valley Rathdrum-Prairie Aquifer. Like many other communities across the country, Spokane’s two landfills were old leaking landfills that were developed before landfill regulations were created. Landfills leaking leachate into the surrounding waterways is detrimental enough on its own but the risk to the region’s only source of drinking water was an additional top community concern.

After intense public debate regarding funding and options, the community moved forward with plans to build a WTE facility outside of the aquifer boundaries. At the time, this was considered the best alternative for managing waste in a landfill (Schabecoff 1987). Spokane closed both of its landfills during the nationwide wave of closures between 1988-1999 that led to approximately 70% of the nation’s municipal landfills being closed due to increased costs from stricter regulations (Salzman and Thompson 2019, 236). With $60 million in financing help from the State of Washington, the City of Spokane’s WTE facility went online in 1991 (City of Spokane n.d.). The combustion process reduces the waste volume by 90%, the weight by 70%, and generates enough energy to power 13,000 homes while providing around $5 million in revenue that helps maintain affordable waste disposal options in this lower income city (City of Spokane n.d.). Due to the health, air, and waste concerns from these activities, the WTE facility is directly regulated by the Spokane Regional Health District, the Spokane Regional Clean Air Agency, and the Washington State Department of Ecology. However, as new state environmental laws have been passed there has been a lack of understanding by regulators, policymakers, and environmental advocates as to how to best manage the only WTE facility in the state.

Solid Waste Management Regulations

The Resource Conservation Recovery Act (RCRA) amended the 1965 Solid Waste Disposal Act and included definitions to classify waste, track hazardous waste from creation to disposal, establish handling standards, and provide authority for mandatory clean-up of polluted treatment, storage, and disposal facilities (Salzman and Thompson 2019, 236-237). In RCRA, municipal solid waste is exempt from treatment as hazardous waste due to the sheer size of the waste stream and the relatively small amount, ~1%, of materials being hazardous waste (Salzman and Thompson 2019, 235-238). Under RCRA, waste generators, transporters, and treatment, storage, and disposal facilities (TSDs) face specific requirements for waste handling. TSDs, like the City of Spokane’s solid waste disposal department, must undergo complex and detailed permitting processes.

One of the two closed landfills, the Spokane Northside Landfill, was identified to be leaking tetrachlorethylene (PCE) into groundwater and nearby wells. The PCE levels in sampled sites were well above EPA’s Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs) that are regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act (EPA n.d.). Due to these issues, the site became a Superfund site regulated under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensations and Liability Act (CERCLA). The site required a detailed cleanup that included capping and enclosing unlined cells, extracting, treating, and monitoring groundwater, and management of the landfill gases. In 2020, the site was removed from the National Priorities List but monitoring options will be continued for at least five additional years until re-reviewed (EPA n.d.).

A goal of RCRA is to promote the waste hierarchy to first reduce, then re-use, then recycle, then landfill (Salzman and Thompson 2019, 246). Often that original hierarchy is amended to show “energy recovery” between recycling and landfilling (EPA 2022). While initially supported with funding by the state of Washington, recent updates to climate-focused state legislation have ignored this EPA hierarchy and has instead penalized the City of Spokane’s WTE with additional burdens that communities utilizing landfills do not face. Washington’s latest environmental regulations begin to regulate the WTE facility like an energy generator instead of a waste management facility recovering energy from the disposal of municipal solid waste (RCW 2021).

Figure 1. Waste Management Hierarchy

EPA 2022 Waste Management Hierarchy

Source: (EPA 2022).

Climate Commitment Act

In 2021, the state of Washington passed the Climate Commitment Act which required the Washington state Department of Ecology to develop rules to implement a cap-and-invest program to reduce Washington’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to net zero by 2050 (Ecology 2022b). This program would create additional air permitting and financial requirements for all emitters, including Spokane’s WTE facility. While a strong step towards reducing the state’s contributions to global warming, this new act has a variety of issues in how it overlaps into waste management regulations and highlights concerns with how complex environmental issues are not appropriately handled across multiple environmental statutes.

One of these issues focuses on property rights, which include tradable permits like the CCA creates, where it is difficult to determine initial allocations for those rights (Salzman and Thompson 2019, 56). In RCW 70a.65.120 and 130, electric and natural gas utilities receive allocations of no-cost allowances but solid waste utilities, like Spokane’s WTE facility, do not (RCW 2021). The WTE facility is the only solid waste utility included in the new regulations even though the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission (WUTC) recently ruled that Spokane’s WTE facility is not “baseload electric generation” (WUTC 2021). Additionally, Spokane’s WTE facility is a solid waste management facility that recovers energy and recyclable metal from the waste stream which reduces statewide emissions. If aiming to curb emissions in a fair and comprehensive way across industries, regulators and policymakers need to ensure that WTE facilities should be provided no-cost allowances like electric utilities since the excess energy is provided directly to the electric utility and is created from the management of the state’s citizen’s waste.

In rulemaking procedures, it is important that the rule structures developed are based on reason or principle. However, the handling of WTE facilities do not appear to follow these important elements. WTE is included in this program with utilities and industry, however, landfills and other waste management efforts have been removed for special handling (Washington State Legislature 2022). WTE facilities being handled as a baseload energy generation instead of its primary purpose of waste management appears arbitrary and not in line with previous WUTC rulings and solid waste industry designations. WTE facilities should be included in the same rulemaking process as landfills since they are both down-stream solid waste management systems that are essential to public health. Policies and laws regarding the emissions from landfill solid waste do not align with the air quality requirements for a WTE facility, especially when looking at stronger non-carbon greenhouse gas emissions like methane.

Similar to landfills with gas capture technology, a waste-to-energy facility achieves additional benefits from the waste management process versus landfilling alone. WTE also avoids more emissions that come from solid waste than landfills or landfills with gas capture (Minnesota Pollution Control Agency 2010). The EPA has shown that solid waste combustors are estimated to reduce 1 ton of GHGs per ton of solid waste combusted (EPA 2016). WTE facilities should be included in the rulemaking with landfills and its emissions reductions appropriately considered for offsets and allowances. However, these latest policies and rulemaking procedures do not review solid waste management from a holistic perspective.

Moreover, the misclassification and treatment of WTE facilities within the CCA’s rulemaking creates unintended consequences that should be avoided. Perverse incentives that penalize better waste management practices versus landfilling should be removed. The current rules appear to arbitrarily favor landfills over WTE even though WTE is more beneficial from a greenhouse gas life-cycle approach. Spokane’s WTE facility has permitted, measured, and reported emissions, whereas landfills do not have to report all the emissions they release (CDC 2008, 5-13). Compliance costs without allocations of no-cost allowances penalizes a low-income community that has taken their waste management in-boundary and utilized improved waste management principles over last resort landfilling. Reductions in solid waste system throughput and emissions are better managed through policy approaches like extended producer responsibility (EPR), and other up-stream waste programs, to reduce the waste on the front end instead of penalizing the end of waste stream management efforts of municipalities providing public health services to their communities.

The interactions between air and solid waste environmental regulations creates a compliance environment that is inefficient. Not only is it inefficient, but as has been showcased with the City of Spokane example, air quality regulations can create situations that disincentivizes better waste management hierarchy principles. During the rulemaking for another section of the Climate Commitment Act, the Department of Ecology provided a concise explanatory statement that covers their responses to all the public comments made. During this public comment period, many of the detailed comments by larger organizations, including the City of Spokane, still resulted in no changes to the rules even where there were some substantial issues (Ecology 2022a). The obstacles, timing, and response to public comments appears to be more of a procedural process than a substantive review process. The current environmental statutes in place do not require regulators and policymakers to use the public comments tool in a way that requires improvements from the feedback.

The Need for a Holistic Approach

Municipal solid waste management is a complex environmental issue. Waste materials can not only lead to landscape pollution but can also create water and air quality issues. While there are environmental laws that regulate solid waste, water, and air separately, the interaction between those laws can create many unintended consequences. Developing WTE facilities may reduce leachate issues for water quality but increases air pollution issues. However, WTE facilities reduce the volume and weight of material going to a landfill and WTE facilities can also permanently destroy hazardous waste like polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) that plague land and water (Rahuman, et al. 2000). A lifecycle analysis shows that WTE facilities also emit less greenhouse gas emissions than landfills (EPA 2016). Converting one material into another only shifts the burdens from one medium into another.

This complexity is often lost on environmental advocates and policymakers who are often not experts. Even expert agencies, like the EPA, have issues determining how to approach complex environmental issues based on the current statutes and tools available to them. The EPA’s siloed approach to managing solid waste or air quality leads to situations like the City of Spokane is experiencing where the community is effectively regulated twice for the same activities by the same agency. More comprehensive tools and overarching statutes are needed to improve this issue.

The core for most environmental laws were developed in the 1970s. At the time, environmental problems were so large that any action was beneficial to reducing the pollution issues for air, water, and land. However, over the past handful of decades, the easy problems have only been replaced by more complex issues. A systems thinking approach is now needed to solve historically straight forward problems since the solutions to those problems have created unintended consequences in other areas. Updated federal, state, and local environmental laws and rulemaking needs to encourage a more comprehensive approach to environmental issues.

Climate change is comprised of a variety of air, water, and land elements. With climate change being a global issue, updated policymaking should provide the authority for agencies to make decisions that regulate the proportionate share of our country’s emissions in ways that align with water and land practices as well. Instead of approaching each pollutant or environmental issue separately, a comprehensive framework should be developed that begins to look at carbon intensities, water-use intensity, and land-use methods holistically. Similar to using fax machines in today’s mobile internet age, it is time to update our old environmental laws based on new science and new understandings of complex environmental issues so government entities can have more sufficient tools and authority to manage these issues while minimizing unintended consequences.

Author: Logan Callen


CDC. 2008. “Landfill Gas Basics.” Center for Disease Control. Accessed June 28, 2022.

City of Spokane. n.d. “Waste to Energy Facility.” City of Spokane. Accessed August 14, 2022.

Ecology. 2022a. “Concise Explanatory Statement Chapter 173-441 WAC Reporting of Emissions of Greenhouse Gases.” Washington Department of Ecology. February. Accessed July 27, 2022.

—. 2022b. “Rulemaking: Chapter 173-446 WAC.” Washington Department of Ecology. Accessed July 27, 2022.

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RCW. 2021. “Chapter 70A.65 RCW: GREENHOUSE GAS EMISSIONS—CAP AND INVEST PROGRAM.” Washington State Legislature. Accessed June 28, 2022.

Salzman, James, and Barton H. Jr. Thompson. 2019. Environmental Law and Policy. 5th ed. St. Paul, MN: Foundation Press.

Schabecoff, Philip. 1987. “With No Room at the Dump, U.S. Faces a Garbage Crisis.” The New York Times. June 29. Accessed August 15, 2022.

Washington State Legislature. 2022. “HB 1663 – 2021-22 – Reducing Methane Emissions from Landfills.” Washington State Legislature. Accessed June 28, 2022.

WUTC. 2021. “UTC Case Docket Details – Docket Number 210247.” Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission. Accessed June 28, 2022.

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