This article appeared in the April 2024 issue of Resource Recycling. Subscribe today for access to all print content.

The recycling, anti-incineration and zero-waste movements offer successes and lessons from the past several decades.

There have been three movements of grassroots activism in the United States that provide a legacy for today’s activists to build on to address climate change and achieve a circular economy. We will need to use the lessons from these efforts to stem the waste crisis, as industry is gearing up for a major onslaught to propel virgin plastic production and incineration beyond anything we have experienced in the past.


The first movement was the recycling movement that started in the late 1960s, when groups started drop-off centers that supplied glass, metal and paper to local scrap companies for processing.  More than 2,000 recycling centers were started immediately after Earth Day 1970. Americans were eager to participate at local centers located at old gas stations, backyards and front porches. Soon community-based curbside collection enterprises sprang up serving households. By the ‘80s, popular demand and innovations in contracting and funding of programs resulted in cities all over the country establishing programs. When the Garbage Barge Mobro in 1987 was rejected from dumping New York’s wastes at multiple locations along the Eastern Seaboard, recycling was catapulted into the media, and state and local officials didn’t want to see the same thing happen to their community.  Major “rates and dates” laws were adopted by most states within five years to achieve 25% recycling rates or more.  National recycling rates surged through the ‘90s until reaching 35% in the early 2000s. 

Whereas the recycling movement was based on optimism for the future with a “let’s do it” attitude to improve the environment, the second movement, the anti-incineration movement of activism, was born out of fear for public health and environmental injustices. Despite the Federal Clean Air Act of 1970, in the early ‘70s the U.S. EPA funded planning grants for incineration plants in every major population center in the country. The U.S. Department of Energy provided commercialization grants to build incinerators. An estimated 400 were planned, but only about 90 were built. Throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s a spontaneous revolt of organized citizens and small businesses rose up to defeat 300 facilities. People were afraid to breathe what was in effect a landfill in the sky: a toxic mix of particulate matter embedded with lead, cadmium, mercury, dioxin, hydrochloric acid, sulfur dioxide and more.

Recycling and anti-incineration activism reinforced each other. Recycling was the alternative for anti-incineration activists. Anti-incineration activists began preaching and teaching recycling in support of their recycling colleagues and their goal to stop incineration in their communities.

The third movement, zero waste, built on the first two movements of grassroots activism with the waste sector. It arrived on our shores in the mid-’90s from far-off New Zealand and Australia thanks to the work of Dr. Dan Knapp, founder of the iconic materials management company Urban Ore in Berkeley, California. Zero waste offers a comprehensive array of policies, programs and enterprises aimed at reclaiming 90% or more of the materials and products in the waste stream. In sum, it’s an environmental policy crafted as if every molecule matters. Its motto: Zero Waste, or Darn Close.


The legacy of the three movements is the model cities and counties that have reached major milestones on the path to zero waste. High recycling rates were the result of heated campaigns to stop incineration and were long and difficult, lasting decades — a testament to the stamina of the citizens who remained focused. 

In 1986 Los Angeles, for example, the anti-incineration forces included multiracial and multiclass coalitions that united the mostly white environmental group Save the Santa Monica Mountains with Latino, Black and Korean groups threatened with having one of five incinerators built in their neighborhoods. To defeat powerful incumbent Mayor Tom Bradley, activists sought and received help from State Sen. Ray Torres and federal Rep. Maxine Waters. When the city decided to recycle by contracting out to a waste hauling company in 1987, the citizens again reacted and the plan was dropped. The city invested in zero-waste planning in 2013, involving over 100 public community meetings and 3,000 stakeholders. Today Los Angeles is recycling at 76%, the leading city with 1 million residents or more in the country. Unionized city crews now collect recyclables and compostable materials and deliver them to a network of local processing enterprises and compost sites.

In Alachua County, Florida, in 1986, Penny Wheat appeared at a town hall meeting and expressed opposition to a planned incinerator. She was told to go back to her kitchen. After she did, she launched her successful campaign for county commissioner, garnering more votes than any other commissioner in the history of the county. The county is well on its way to becoming the first county in the state to reach the state’s 75% recycling goal, without incineration. The county built a 40-acre Resource Recovery Park to host composting and anaerobic digestion facilities to take advantage of a Zero Waste Ordinance, which requires that all food discards be rescued for people or composted. 

Our Battles

The City Council of Austin, Texas, stopped an incinerator that was already under construction in 1987 when activists pointed out that it would cost $120 million more over a 20-year period than investing in composting and recycling. Immediately afterwards, the City Council formed a Zero Waste task force, which produced a Zero Waste Strategic Plan. The Department of Solid Waste became the Department of Resource Recovery, which then oversaw the development and implementation of a Resource Recovery Master Plan in 1988.

These were dramatic examples of citizen power that propelled communities to more and more recycling and composting. None was more impactful than in San Diego County, which showed how quickly citizen power can affect change. Right after the county rejected two incinerators planned for the cities of San Diego and San Marcos in 1988, it invested in alternative measures. The County began to restrict materials from going into its landfill, established a $1-per-ton tip fee and used the proceeds to build recycling infrastructure in its cities starting in 1989. This cut the amount of waste going to landfills by 50% by 1992. Remarkably, today the county’s 3.2 million people send the same amount of waste to the landfill as in 1990 when the county population was 2.5 million.

Throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, the drama continued across the U.S. A dozen planned plants in California toppled like dominoes from San Francisco to San Bernardino, Los Angeles and San Diego. In the early ‘90s, plans for 16 incinerator plants in New Jersey were eliminated by orders from Gov. James Florio’s administration.


In 1994, 29 towns filed for bankruptcy as a result of put-or-pay clauses in their contracts with the Wheelabrator Claremont Incinerator in New Hampshire. Over $1 billion had to be spent by the state of New Jersey to bail out incinerators in the state. The largest single creditor in Detroit’s bankruptcy was their incinerator. Famously, rebuilding the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, incinerator bankrupted that city in 2011, as anti-incineration leader Mike Ewall of Energy Justice Network warned the city council would happen eight years before. In 2023, Hennepin County and Minneapolis were $37 million in debt after paying off their incinerator’s initial bonds. 

Garbage incinerators are a leading source of point-source air pollution in every county they operate in. If they are not the No. 1 source, they rank among the top handful alongside coal power plants, airports, cement kilns and oil refineries. 

Financial and environmental burdens have plagued the incineration industry for decades. Despite hundreds of attempts, no new commercial-scale trash incinerator has been built at a new site since 1995. While a handful have been expanded or rebuilt in that time, only one new incinerator has been built, adjacent to an existing one in Florida. Citizen campaigns to stop incineration now focus on shutting down existing facilities, with campaigns underway in Baltimore; Washington, D.C.; Montgomery County, Maryland; Delaware County, Pennsylvania; Newark, New Jersey; Saugus, Massachusetts; Minneapolis; Long Beach and Stanislaus County, California; and Westchester and Dutchess counties, New York. 

In Ulster County, New York, citizen power never let incineration be considered at all. As a result, explained Manna Jo Greene, county legislator and member of the County Resource Recovery Authority, “We moved forward because we never considered incineration as an option. We did not have to spend time on proposals to build an  incinerator and we invested in composting, reuse, and recycling.” Ulster County is implementing a comprehensive composting program and is building a joint venture Reuse Center to house new and expanding reuse enterprises. 

By contrast, neighboring Westchester County and Dutchess County were not so enlightened, and citizens in these jurisdictions are now waging a campaign to shut down the two aging, polluting and costly incinerators.

Another anomaly of the anti-incineration/zero-waste nexus is San Jose, California, which has a recycling rate of 74%. That city responded not to the threat of an incinerator but to the fear that one of the two biggest waste companies in the country controlled the only landfills in the ‘80s, which made the city vulnerable to constantly rising pricing due to this monopoly. Zero waste helped them gain leverage over these monopolies; tip fees were reduced.

This legacy is important, as these jurisdictions used policy and program strategies that are available to any other city or county in the country to reach high levels of diverting waste from landfills and incinerators. Today federal grants can provide funding to cities and counties to build the infrastructure needed to reach high levels of recycling, composting, reuse and zero waste. 

To be sure, there are notable exceptions to the above pattern of anti-incineration battles leading to zero-waste policies and programs. Detroit went through decades of citizen opposition to one of the largest garbage incinerators in the U.S., yet its recycling rate is just 8%. This is largely because the incinerator was closed abruptly without any zero-waste planning and development of alternatives. Philadelphia’s interracial coalition of environmental groups and organized citizens defeated a planned facility in the Navy Yard in 1986. The city chose not to invest in recycling and has been using an out-of-town incinerator. Its recycling rate did rise to 20%, only to fall back to 7% under recent administrations.


There is a discernable pattern to these examples and others in Seattle and King County; Portland, Oregon; and San Francisco. Once the threat of incineration was defeated, these communities became the leaders in reaching 50%, then 60%, then 70%, then approaching 80% diversion through waste reduction, reuse, recycling and composting.

The legacy of these three grassroots movements is the path to zero waste pioneered by our leading cities and counties with active and organized communities. Today, the recycling, anti-incineration and zero-waste movements have grown significantly, and with it the realization that incinerators are obsolete, costly polluting dinosaurs that pose financial and environmental threats.

Most recently, plants have closed in Layton, Utah, and Harford County, Maryland, as customers for steam have found cheaper ways to run their facilities. In February, the garbage incinerator in Long Beach, California, closed after it lost its power purchase agreement that accounted for more than 60% of its profits, putting it in the red. That was largely the result of a new state law that eliminated incinerators getting renewable energy credits for the power they produced. In addition, the city estimated that it would have to invest $33 million to keep the incinerator operating safely.  Long Beach has issued an RFP for an aerobic digestion facility.  

The last remaining incinerator in California in Stanislaus County has also been the focus of a decades-long effort to shut down the facility. California has been moving away from incineration as a disposal option. In 2022, California also adopted a law that jurisdictions can no longer count incineration as a means of diverting waste from landfills to meet state recycling requirements.  

Still other incinerators across the country are facing the loss of subsidies under the Renewable Portfolio Standard as states have declared that energy from incineration garbage is not eligible for this incentive, which was designed to stimulate wind and solar energy.


A series of zero waste studies have recently presented a pathway to transition away from incineration. Each time an incinerator battle is won, it reinforces and energizes campaigns in other jurisdictions.

Westchester Alliance for Sustainable Solutions in late 2023 convinced Westchester County to budget for $90,000 to hire a consultant to prepare plans for reducing waste. Zero Waste Dutchess and its network of grassroots organizations are petitioning their officials to do the same.

These plans contain a new generation of actions that were not in play in the past, which can lead to the elimination of incineration as an acceptable solid waste management tool.  

Neil Seldman is cofounder of Zero Waste USA, Institute for Local Self-Reliance, Zero Waste International Alliance and Save the Albatross Coalition. He directs the Recycling Cornucopia Program at Zero Waste USA, which provides pro bono assistance to community and environmental organizations as well as small businesses.