Friday, May 21, 2010

On Customer Preference

We are dealing with a medical waste incinerator here in Alamance County called Stericycle.

There are several local activists trying to get the pollutant outputs from this facility more closely monitored, and some residents are ultimately trying to close the facility entirely. There is a hearing with state regulators on this issue next week.

One of the arguments against this facility is that most of the waste that is burned could be sent to a different facility (also owned by the same company and currently underutilized) called an autoclave. Autoclaving is a different process that produces much less pollution than a traditional incinerator.

Why would a company choose NOT to send their waste to a facility that they own, that is underused, and that produces a lot less pollution? I was sent this blurb today, originally on the web page of the industry group CHWMEG (a waste industry non-profit that helps companies in the garbage business) regarding the Haw River Stericycle facility:

The Haw River facility receives pharmaceutical, hospital, medical, infectious, and a limited amount of Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) waste .... Regular medical waste could be treated in an autoclave, but generators who prefer treatment by incineration send the waste to the Haw River facility." [emphasis added]

It seems like customer "preference" will be a key issue in this debate.

First we ask the company to stop burning crap that doesn't need to be burned. (NOTE: Paper?!? Really?!? Since when is paper medical waste?!? Even confidential documents could be shredded and burned. PVC? Plastic? None of this should be burned.)

"But the customer wants it" says the company.

Then we could attempt to reduce customer demand through education (and we should!), but if customers come from 23 other states, they might have an "out of sight, out of mind" mentality about polluting little ol' Haw River, so far away.

So we're at an impasse.

The job of a state regulator in this case is to see the Big Picture and disallow pollution when a company and customer see no incentive to reduce pollution themselves.

We see what happens when regulators stop regulating: the BP oil spill, the Massey Big Branch explosion. Those are just two from the past month.

I hope to put together some convincing arguments before Tuesday when we have the public forum on this incinerator.

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