We’ve already put together an overview guide of the potential pros and cons of waste incineration and waste to energy facilities.
In that guide, we look at the environmental, economic, social, practical, and other aspects of waste incineration.
In the guide below though, we discuss whether waste incineration is good or bad specifically for the environment.
Summary – Is Waste Incineration Good Or Bad For The Environment?
Is Waste Incineration Good Or Bad For The Environment?
It depends on several key factors such as:
– The type of incineration technology, systems and processes used
Different incineration plants use different equipment, devices and processes to combust waste, and deal with by-products of the combustion process.
We discuss this point further in the guide below
– What the incineration plant is used for
Incineration plants can be used for waste management, but also for energy generation.
There’s a potential environmental footprint to consider for each of these uses
We discuss this point further in the guide below
Best Way To Manage Waste
In other guides, we’ve outlined what the best ways to manage waste might be, and also compared the different major forms of waste management to each other.
For some types of waste, waste incineration may be the best waste management option across environmental indicators and other indicators.
For other types of waste, waste incineration may not be suitable, or be as beneficial other waste management options.
How Incineration Might Be Good For The Environment
Some of the ways incineration might be good for the environment might include:
– When more eco friendly technology, systems and devices are used in the operation of the incineration plant
Incineration plants can emit both greenhouse gases, and also air pollutants and toxins.
Certain technology and devices that involve carbon capture, or pollutant/toxin/dioxin capture and storage, can make the incineration process more eco friendly.
Efficient combustion, end-of-pipe treatment, selective catalytic reduction, and the addition of suitable inhibitors are some of the specifically listed features of incineration plants that might be more eco friendly, although, this isn’t a comprehensive list of features
There’s also the waste by-product fly ash to consider
Some plants might do a more eco friendly job of treating, and effectively disposing of, or re-using this by-product.
– Some waste to energy plants may replace a certain share of less eco friendly energy generation
Waste can be combusted for energy recovery, with the captured energy being used for electricity and heating.
In places where waste to energy plants are being used, they may replace a certain % of less eco friendly fossil fuels being burnt for electricity or heat.
– Waste sent to incineration instead of landfill means that that waste isn’t contributing to potential environmental issues that landfills can cause
Different types of pollution and contamination can be caused by landfills when the liner of a landfill is breached, or, when leachate management systems aren’t adequate
Landfills also have the ability to release methane via decomposing organic matter
– Higher rates of incineration may in some instances be found alongside higher rates of recycling and composting
Assuming composting and recycling are more eco friendly than other waste management options for some types of waste, incineration may contribute to higher rates of these waste management options, and therefore an overall more eco friendly waste management strategy
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)
– Some specific types of consumer waste might be most eco friendly to incinerate
Some case studies on shopping bags (single use and reusable) in some countries indicate that incineration is a more eco friendly waste management option than landfill or recycling for some types of bags across some sustainability indicators
How Incineration Might Be Bad For The Environment
Some of the ways incineration might be bad for the environment might include:
– Not every city or town has the same environmental regulations and standards regarding incineration
Some cities and towns have environmental regulations and standards around the operation of incineration plants, but some don’t
Additionally, some cities and towns enforce these regulations and standards better than others
Monitoring and auditing may be part of these regulations and standards (but can also be part of an incineration plant’s internal quality and safety procedures too)
– Incineration plants may still contribute to atmospheric environmental issues
Even incineration plants with more eco friendly emission and pollutant capture and storage technology installed will still likely emit greenhouse gases, air pollutants (like particulates, carbon monoxide (CO) and noxious emissions), sulphur dioxide (dioxins), and dust
Burning certain plastic for example can emit toxins and dioxins.
– Incineration plants still produce fly ash
Incineration plants will still produce fly ash, which is the by-product left over from burning waste.
It can be hazardous, and contain leftover heavy metals and other potentially toxic or harmful substances or chemicals
– Some types of waste sent to incineration may be diverted away from more eco friendly recycling and composting waste management options
Some types of waste may be more eco friendly across certain environmental indicators to send to recycling or composting
Some cities though may send a fixed share of waste to incineration because of a variety of reasons, and in some instances, they may be managing this waste in a less eco friendly way
Politics, economics, practical considerations, and other factors can determine what waste and how much waste is sent to incineration plants
– Waste to energy can in some instances be less eco friendly than other energy generation methods and sources
A more sustainable and eco friendly way to generate energy than burning waste might be to use renewable energy such as solar or wind energy to generate energy
– Waste may not be classified as a sustainable fuel source
When waste is being burnt for energy, there are reports that argue that waste as a fuel source is not sustainable because a % of the waste is ultimately made from different types of non renewable resources, and are unsustainably produced
Potential Pros & Cons Of Waste Incineration
You can read more in this guide:
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