There are many pros and cons to waste incineration, and waste to energy plants.
In this guide, we summarise as well as list those potential benefits and disadvantages.
If you’d like to read about the pros and cons of incinerating plastic as a material specifically, you can check out this guide.
Summary – Do The Pros Of Waste Incineration & Waste To Energy Outweighs The Cons?
Old waste incineration plants and technology certainly seem to have potential environmental (air pollution, and greenhouse gas CO2 emissions) and human health concerns.
The same can be said for incineration plants in countries or States that don’t have stringent regulations/standards, or in places where those regulations/standards aren’t thoroughly enforced.
In the above cases, different chemicals and toxic substances can present risks to local communities, society at large, and the environment (air, water and land).
Another potential problem is the profit motive and financial incentive with incineration.
Significant upfront investment, taxes, incineration vs recycling and landfill rates (in dollars), having a consistent waste supply that is the right type of waste and has a certain heating value, plus other factors, can all influence how much profit an incineration plant makes, and even how much waste is diverted away from recycling to incineration.
Having said this – some sources indicate that the newest incineration plants have far better pollution and dioxin filters (and other technology) to protect the environment and human health.
Expanding on a point identified above, incineration can be location dependent – needing the right type of waste, a steady supply of that waste, and governments or organizations that have the ability to financially invest in, support or subsidize them.
With all of the above said, incineration most likely sits behind reducing, re-using and recycling as a sustainable and eco friendly waste management option.
Whether it is better than landfill or not depends on local context – but it might sit around par with it in some instances.
What might be done is to allow incineration to co-exist with recycling and landfill, and complement them by processing the waste that isn’t suitable for landfill or recycling.
A first priority with waste management might be to redesign products and innovate materials, as well as change business and consumer behavior to reduce, re-use and modify our waste streams.
A third priority might be to send the remaining waste to either incineration with energy generation, or to landfill with methane capture and leachate management – again, depending on the type of waste.
This holistic approach may get the most waste management potential out of each type of waste and waste management option, in terms of their characteristics and pros and cons they offer.
Read more about the best way to manage waste in this guide
Pros (Benefits) Of Waste Incineration & Waste To Energy
Don’t Have To Deal With Some (Pollution) Issues Specific To Landfill
Pursuing waste incineration over landfill means the environmental issues of leachate management and methane from decomposing organic waste in some landfills are reduced
There’s also the possibility that incineration prevents hard waste from getting out into the environment in the case where a landfill site is inadequately managed or not properly contained.
Energy Can Be A Product Of Incineration When Captured
Incineration can be used for waste to energy recovery where heat is used for municipal heating systems, or steam for electricity
Plastic Can Be Good For Incineration Or Burning
Plastic waste can be used in cement kilns as a fuel source because plastic has a higher energy output than some other types of waste (because of the petroleum that makes it up)
Ash Waste From Incineration Can Be Re-Used
Might be used as construction aggregate (once treated), or buried
New Incineration Technology Has Eco Friendly Features
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
Can Be Good For Land Scarce Or Land Poor Countries
Incineration can be a good option in countries where land is scarce, or other conditions like soil suitability, flood risks, or bushfire risks aren’t suitable to set up landfill.
Incineration doesn’t face the same limitation of landfill of running out of space, or having to manage and compact waste, as landfills might
Captured Energy Can Be Cheaper Than Other Forms Of Energy
In countries like China, incineration plants can be cheaper than new sustainable energy (wind and solar) projects
Waste Can Be A Stable Source Of Fuel
With a growing population in many places, there can be a stable source of fuel (waste) and easily available technologies for incineration plants
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 (such as non recyclable plastics), 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)
Some Waste Is Well Suited To Incineration Compared To Others
There might be some types of waste that are far more beneficial to burn, or burn for energy, compared to others.
But, a waste by waste approach might be taken.
For example, some plastics might be far too hard to recycle, and might provide good energy when incinerated – these could be a type of material suitable for incineration (and other plastics that are easier to recycle are recycled)
Incineration Can Be More Eco Friendly Across Some Measures For Some Types Of Consumer Waste Compared To Other Waste Management Options
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
Cons (Disadvantages) Of Waste Incineration & Waste To Energy
There Can Be Emissions & Air Pollution
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 and particulates, and even heavy metals like lead and mercury.
One source found that incineration facilities in New York ‘released up to 14 times more mercury, twice as much lead and four times as much cadmium per unit of energy than coal plants’ (theconversation.com)
Burning municipal solid waste emits ‘nearly as much carbon per unit of energy as coal, and almost twice as much as natural gas’ (theconversation.com)
Incinerators are extremely expensive to build — large, modern facilities in Europe cost $150 million to $230 million
There’s An Opportunity Cost To Investing In Incineration When The Money Could Be Put Into Recycling
Some sources say that focus incineration plants is hindering our investment in recycling plants [and so there is a missed opportunity cost in terms of financial investment], and there is a myth that recycling is harder and less efficient (due to sorting and processing).
These same sources say that recycling rates of 70%+ would be easily attainable if European countries and other countries switched their main focus and financial investment to recycling instead of incineration (e360.yale.edu)
Governments Can Be Pressured Into Incineration When They Are Facing Land Scarcity Or Waste Excess Issues (Instead Of Having More Long Term Waste Management Strategies)
Governments that are running out of space in landfill, or land for new landfills, can be pressured into making poor decisions to over invest in incineration plants which ultimately can have negative environmental and human health effects.
Instead, it could be argued more effort should be put into reducing the current waste stream, and re-using and recycling more materials
Benefits Of Incineration Can Depend On The Overall Waste System & Incineration Technology Being Used In A City
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 Environmental & Health Standards & Safeguards In Place For Incineration
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
Recycling Is More Eco Friendly In Some Ways
In terms of global warming potential and energy use compared to incineration, when it comes to some types of plastics
Landfill Is More Eco Friendly In Some Ways
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
May Need Constant Monitoring
Incineration plants need continual external monitoring to make sure they are safe from an environmental and human health perspective in terms of their emissions and waste that they produce
Reporting On Incineration Eco Impact Can Be Manipulated
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)
Can Be Hard To Audit Incineration Plants
Auditing incineration plants can have uncertainties – such as dioxins being hard to detect, and weather playing a part in getting accurate readings
Can Be Conflict Of Interest & Questionable Motives Involved In Incineration Plants In Some Countries
In some countries, such as China, there are some who report incineration plants and waste to energy plants fraudulently obtain government waste disposal subsidies, and have significant environmental concerns.
They also report these plants have complex vested interests (with governments and auditing bodies), and unwritten rules at work which can place profit over human health and environmental standards.
Profit Motives (When Taking Subsidies Into Consideration) For Investors Can Go Against Best Practice For Waste Management
There are generous government subsidies to set up and run them – but they take many years (20-30 years) to see a profit/return on investment, and investors have to put a certain amount of waste into them (per day, or per year) to guarantee a certain amount of profits and provide a certain amount of jobs.
This can lead to not only continuing to run older plants that are damaging to the environment and human health, but can divert waste that can be recycled away from recycling plants (because the incineration plants need it, and incineration rates might be much cheaper than recycling because of the subsidies)
Some Say Incineration Without Subsidies & Incentives Isn’t Profitable In Some Countries
Some sources say Swedish incineration is not profitable (forbes.com)
The costs to build the facilities [for incineration] and to run them are covered mainly by public funds with very little private contribution.
Therefore, its costs are, in reality, to be paid by the citizens through higher taxes and bills for waste management.
On the contrary, the recycling sector has developed into a successful business.
In Germany, its turnover increased by 520 per cent between 2005 and 2009
Taxes, Incentives, Rates & Economic System Might Be Set Up To Benefit Incineration When It’s Not The Best Form Of Waste Management
With Croydon Council in the UK, and perhaps other places, some believe there is an economic conflict of interest with governments, and private companies that manage landfill, recycling and incineration waste.
Because of the way the rates are set up and taxes work, diverting waste away from recycling to incineration is very profitable.
‘Contaminated’ recycling waste is a loophole companies might try take advantage of to divert more waste to incinerators and make more money
Can Hinder Recycling Efforts
Incineration plants, especially in places/countries where there is heavy subsidisation, can be an excuse to incinerate waste (which is the easier and cheaper option) over recycling.
The same can be said for organic waste and composting.
So, incineration can hinder recycling and composting rates in some countries due to profit motives or political agenda
Some Companies Own Both Recycling & Incineration Plants
This is a conflict of interest in itself, because if they can make more profit by sending waste to incineration plants, they will do this over recycling
There Can Be Protectionism With Incineration In Some Countries
In some countries like China, some say that local protectionism and relationships of other bidders to members of government, makes it very expensive and difficult to put in bids for new incineration plants, and have a competitive advantage over local bidders who receive big subsidies.
Some say it comes down to – your connections, your technology, your price – and there can be loopholes in certain bidder requirements
Incineration Plants May Not Be As Flexible As Landfill For Example Because It’s Dependent On A Consistent Waste Stream
Waste-to-power profits usually come from electricity sales and waste disposal subsidies. Costs include the purchase and maintenance of equipment and staff.
Those costs are basically fixed, but income depends on how much waste you process – with this being the case – if plants aren’t processing enough waste (they don’t get the supply they need), or they don’t get enough of the right type of waste (high energy, burns well) – the plant will turn a loss and it doesn’t make economic sense to keep it running.
With this the case – incineration plants are HIGHLY reliant on the amount of waste and the type of waste supply they are getting.
They may not be as flexible as a landfill or recycling plant in this regard.
Incineration Plants Can Be Location Dependent
Success can depend on geography, and suitability of countries and cities.
They tend to only do well in locations with waste with a high heating value and well-off local governments
Can Be Impacted By Local Electricity Prices
For waste to energy plants, they can be reliant on electricity prices in the area too (as it can affect their business model)
Incineration Plants Can Be Disingenuously Be Purchased & Operated For The External Benefits They Might Provide To Owners
Investing in incineration plants can come with a lack of accountability in some countries who have their own self interested agenda to set up and develop more of them.
Some investors buy non profitable plants so they can bid for and obtain much larger profitable ones (if pre owning a plant is a requirement of a bidding brief), and some investors let profit slip on some plants because they know they can pass on costs to government and state owned firms
Ash Waste Can Be Hazardous
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
Recycling Can Save More Energy
Recycling most materials from municipal solid waste saves on average three to five times more energy than does burning them for electricity.
Recycling Used In Combination With Composting Can Be Better Than Incineration Environmentally
A combination of recycling and composting can save three to four times more energy than an incinerator can produce (zerowasteeurope.eu).
Recycling can also save a significant amount of CO2 emissions
Recycling Can Be Better Economically
Recycling [might create] more jobs, and is more flexible and dynamic than incineration (zerowasteeurope.eu)
Removes Some Accountability From Citizens
Incineration takes accountability away from citizens and businesses about what waste they are generating compared to recycling
Some Say Resource Recovery Is A Better Long Term Option Than Burning Resources For Energy
With a growing population, and with some resources decreasing or depleting, it doesn’t make sense to burn waste, even for energy.
There should be more of a focus on re-using and recycling resources
Isn’t Really Sustainable Or Renewable Like Some Claim
Co-firing, or co-incineration, which involves the burning of waste alongside traditional fossil fuels like coal in facilities such as cement kilns, coal-fired power plants and industrial boilers – is seen as an unsustainable and nonrenewable form of waste disposal and energy generation
There Can Be ‘Greenwashing’ With Incineration
Operators use ‘clean energy’ as a label for incineration or co-incineration to get access to clean energy grants from the government, or to gain environmental credibility (which can be seen as a form of greenwashing)
There Might Exist Better Options For Reducing Waste In The First Place
Some point out that better options than incineration are redesigning products for recyclability or eliminating toxic, hard-to-recycle plastics
Can Be A ‘Magic Bullet Solution’ To Some
Some see incinerators as a ‘false solution to climate change that diverts precious resources, time and attention from more systemic solutions, such as waste reduction and real renewable fuels like solar and wind.’
The same might be said for co-incinerators, cement kilns and coal plants.
Can Incur Pollution Fines For Breaches
In the US, there has been a case of an incineration facility having to pay a significant fine (in the millions of dollars) to the EPA for pollution breaches
Recycling vs Landfill vs Incineration vs Composting: Comparison