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Access Easily Burning Questions: Understanding the Mechanics of Incineration


Oct 24, 2023

Municipal waste consists of items like glass, paper and plastic. More than 90% of materials that are disposed of in landfills or incineration facilities could be recycled. By burning these valuable resources to generate electricity, we discourage conservation efforts and create incentives to generate even more waste.

In countries where waste is encouraged to be burned, recycling rates are usually low. In Denmark, data on household waste clearly shows that regions with higher incineration rates recycle less. Incinerators are wasting a large amount of recyclable materials to produce a tiny amount of energy. The amount of energy that is produced when burning waste can be saved by recycling or composting up to five times. In the US, for example, the energy wasted on not recycling aluminium, steel, paper, printed matter, glass and other plastics is equal to 15 medium-sized electricity plants’ annual output!

Companies that operate incinerators often promote “waste-to-energy” as an alternative source of renewable power. The waste generated is different from wind, wave or solar energy. Natural processes are infinite. The opposite is true, as it comes from finite resources such as minerals, fossil fuels and forests, all of which are depleted at an unsustainable pace. Subsidies that support incineration are better invested in environmentally friendly and energy-saving practices, such as composting and recycling. Here are four reasons recycling is much better than burning.

Burning waste can be hazardous to the health of citizens and the environment. Even the latest technologies can’t prevent the release and contamination of air, soil, and water with pollutants, which then enter the food supply. Incinerators release a large amount of carcinogenic pollutants, as well as tiny dust particles which can cause decreased lung function, irregular pulse, heart attacks and premature death.

Burning waste is not a climate-neutral practice. The CO2 emissions from incinerator supplier are higher (per megawatt hour) than those of coal, gas and oil-fired power plants. Denmark, the poster boy of Europe’s incineration sector, discovered recently that their incinerators are releasing double the amount of CO2 as originally estimated. As a result, they missed their Kyoto Protocol targets for greenhouse gas reduction. In comparison, the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s study concluded that Zero Waste could mitigate up to 42% of US greenhouse gas emissions.

The most expensive way to generate energy is to use incinerators. This also means that cities are burdened with a large amount of waste. Amager Bakke’s incinerator, infamously located in Copenhagen, is a good example. Incinerators have led to many municipalities being in debt, and others are stuck in contracts that force them to burn a certain amount of waste every 20-30 years to repay their investment costs. The city of Harrisburg (Pennsylvania) became the biggest US city in bankruptcy in 2011 due to financial costs incurred in upgrading the incinerator.

Recycling offers more jobs than “waste to energy” plants. Recycling is essential to the livelihood of millions of waste workers around the globe. According to studies, the recycling sector generates 10-20 more jobs than incineration. US recycling industries provide more than 800,000 jobs, with a rate below 33%. In developing nations like the Philippines building incinerators would take away jobs from informal workers such as waste pickers, recyclers, and hauliers. Investment in recycling and composting could enable informal workers to transition into these green jobs.

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