Beyond the Technical: Innovative Approaches to Understanding Implementation of Waste-to-Energy in the United States

EPA Grant Number: FP917379
Title: Beyond the Technical: Innovative Approaches to Understanding Implementation of Waste-to-Energy in the United States
Investigators: Howell, Jordan P
Institution: Michigan State University
EPA Project Officer: Hahn, Intaek
Project Period: August 31, 2011 through September 30, 2014
Project Amount: $126,000
RFA: STAR Graduate Fellowships (2011) RFA Text |  Recipients Lists
Research Category: Academic Fellowships , Fellowship - Emerging Environmental Approaches and Challenges: Social Sciences


Americans are landfilling more garbage than ever before while simultaneously consuming increasing amounts of electricity generated by fossil fuels; both activities have negative environmental and human health side effects. Modern solid waste incinerators (waste-to-energy, or WtE, incinerators) can preclude many of these harmful effects, but the deployment of this technology remains very limited in the United States. This research project examines the social and cultural foundations for such reluctance, contributing directly to the understanding of the ways in which technologies with significant environmental impacts succeed or fail.


This study will examine the published and unpublished statements, papers, project studies, policy briefs and archival materials generated by and about the development of WtE facilities in the United States, focusing on both specific case studies and WtE technology in general. The study also will analyze legal documents, laws and news media representations of WtE along with the records of environmental and industry interest groups. In addition to these written sources, other “texts” related to WtE will be studied, including films, websites, signage and logos, advertising campaigns, facility architecture, artwork, music and sounds, along with more abstract “texts” like conferences, trade shows and academic and industry research programs. From these raw materials, this study will build on the insights of actor-network theory and discourse analysis to map (both literally and figuratively) the arguments involved in both promoting and resisting the deployment of WtE facilities in the United States.

Expected Results:

Preliminary research suggests that limits to the deployment of WtE technology hinge on continuing public fear over incinerator emissions and by-products, incineration’s “low-tech” image and economic disincentives for project development. These challenges have less to do with WtE technology itself than with public perceptions of it, perceptions that exist because competing entities (pro-/anti-WtE) have mobilized various resources (scientific papers, agencies, images, fear, “the environment,” solid waste) in the construction and extension of their own positions ( for or against WtE plants) and thereby projected power over both physical and ideological space (whether WtE plants are built; what people think of them). Describing and mapping (both literally and figuratively) these constructions represents the crux of this research, and as such the project will produce not only an empirical study of WtE technology in the United States, but also a framework for analyzing other problems lying at the intersection of the environment, human health and technology.

Potential to Further Environmental / Human Health Protection

This project aids in the understanding of the factors that influence the deployment and public acceptance of technologies with significant environmental impacts. Although this research deals directly with WtE, it functions also as a more general framework for moving beyond “technical” and “hard science” research in the environmental protection arena, and contributes to a model of greater diversity in community and environmental planning.

Supplemental Keywords:

incineration, waste-to-energy, technology, geography, science and technology studies, social science, energy

Progress and Final Reports:

  • 2012
  • 2013
  • 2014
  • Final