The use of waste incineration, and waste to incineration plants, can be controversial.
Some say there there is nothing to worry about with new technology that protects the environment and human health against pollution and contaminants from burning waste.
Others say this is not the case, as air pollution (like dioxins), greenhouse gas emissions and even burnt waste residue like heavy metals are concerns with incineration.
In this guide, we outline how incineration might be good and bad for the environment overall.
Summary – Is Waste Incineration Good Or Bad For The Environment?
It depends, and some incineration plants are better than others.
Ultimately, incineration plants and waste to energy plants differ country to country, and old incineration plants with old technology are different to newer ones (with newer and better technology).
Each one has different efficiency rates, technology in place to protect human health and the environment, and meets different standards for things like toxin and dioxin release, greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution.
A modern incineration plant that meets pre determined safety and eco standards in these areas might be better than landfill for the environment, but generally it is recognised that reducing waste, re-using waste, recycling and composting are all more environmentally friendly options than incineration.
So, it may be one step above, or one step below landfill, depending on the incineration plant in question.
But, there seems to be other waste management options out there that offer more eco friendly results and are far more sustainable long term in terms of conserving resources along with other measures and indicators.
A modern incineration plant with advanced technology that passes regular health and environmental tests/audits, might form part of an eco friendly waste management strategy with reduction, re-use and recycling of waste as the top priorities where waste is managed first, followed by an alternation of incineration and landfill.
It can co-exist with other waste management options, but does appear to be one of our last priorities overall compared to other methods of waste management if being eco friendly and sustainable is something we strive for.
How Incineration Might Be Good For The Environment
Pursuing waste incineration over landfill means the environmental issues of leachate management and methane from decomposing organic waste in landfills are reduced
The newest incineration plants have technology to reduce negative environmental and health impacts such as efficient combustion, end-of-pipe treatment, selective catalytic reduction, and the addition of suitable inhibitors
Incineration does have a place to co-exist with recycling – it can provide the hygienic treatment of the remaining waste that is not suitable for sustainable recycling, and at the same time generating energy from it, rather than it being sent to a landfill.
Recycling and waste-to-energy are complementary to achieve lower landfill rates.
Countries with the highest rates of garbage incineration — Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, for example, all incinerate at least 50 percent of their waste — also tend to have high rates of recycling and composting of organic materials and food waste (e360.yale.edu)
How Incineration Might Be Bad For The Environment
According to some case studies, recycling is generally seen as a more eco friendly option in terms of global warming potential and energy use compared to incineration (but it can depend on the material)
Dust, sulphur dioxide (dioxins), toxins, heavy metals in certain materials burned, particulates and other air pollution and contaminants are all concerns in the waste and emissions from incinerators
Incineration may be better, but can be worse, from an environmental perspective, compared to landfill.
This depends on how the incineration plant runs/is set up, and the type of energy generation it is replacing if it’s a waste to energy plant
The incineration of waste can produce greenhouse gases in carbon dioxide, as well as air pollution in the form of carbon monoxide (CO) and noxious emissions, dioxins, toxins and particulates.
Burning certain plastic for example can emit toxins and dioxins.
Whether incineration, and waste to energy, is a net positive, can depend on the efficiency of the process, and the energy mix that waste to energy is replacing.
If it’s an inefficient waste to energy process and it’s replacing a low fossil fuel energy mix – incineration can be a net negative in terms of efficient energy generation and being low GHG emissions energy generation
Not every country has the same standards, and environmental and health safeguards in place on incineration plants – some can be very harmful to humans and the environment if not kept to certain standards and without using certain technology to heavily reduce toxins, dioxins, air pollution, GHG’s and increase efficiency
Incineration plants need continual external monitoring/auditing to make sure air pollution, GHG emissions and waste is/are safe for the environment
In some countries, such as China, there are some who report incineration plants and waste to energy plants manipulate external environmental auditing (with the way they use activated carbon), and that the plants have significant air pollution and GHG emissions concerns
Manipulating external emissions auditing for incineration plants can be common in some countries – some plants use more active carbon in the days before an auditing body visits (inspecting how much active carbon is being used – which absorbs dioxins well – is a way to tell how environmentally friendly a plant is being)
Incineration plants (mainly because of lower costs, higher profits and higher subsides) in some countries diverts a large portion of waste that can be recycled away from recycling plants
Auditing incineration plants can have uncertainties – such as dioxins being hard to detect, and weather playing a part in getting accurate readings
The ash incineration plants can produce via burning has high levels of heavy metals, which are not burned during incineration, and for this reason ash is listed as a type of hazardous waste.
If not disposed of properly and treated – this ash can be harmful in numerous ways
Some people say incineration and waste to energy incinerators are a renewable form of energy, but they aren’t.
Waste is a finite resource made from finite materials and resources.
Sun, water and wind energy on the other hand is infinite
Recycling most materials from municipal solid waste saves on average three to five times more energy than does burning them for electricity.
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