helped society to solve the problem of where to put it. However, landfills are associated with many problems, including the need to use large areas of land, and the production of leachate, which has been shown to leak from landfills and pollute groundwater. Landfills also are known to produce a lot of methane, which is a potent greenhouse gas¹.
In an effort to conserve land and reduce the demand for landfill space, many communities have now turned to incinerating their waste. This waste management technique is not a straightforward solution, however, and does come with advantages and disadvantages.
The Advantages of Incineration
There are a number of advantages to using incineration as a waste management method. Two of the primary advantages of incineration are that waste volumes are reduced by an estimated of 80-95%, and the need for land and landfill space is greatly reduced². For urban areas, this can be especially important, as urban land is often at a premium.
Waste incineration plants can be located near where waste is generated, which decreases the costs and energy associated with transporting waste³. Through Waste-to-Energy processes, incineration can be used to produce electricity and heat that can be used to power and heat nearby buildings, and the ash produced can be used by the construction industry⁴. Incineration also eliminates the problem of leachate that is produced by landfills.
The Disadvantages of Incineration
Incineration facilities are expensive to build, operate, and maintain⁵. The high costs associated with this method of waste disposal may encourage waste generators to seek other alternatives for dealing with their waste. These facilities also require skilled staff to run and maintain them.
Smoke and ash emitted by the chimneys of incinerators include acid gases, nitrogen oxide, heavy metals, particulates, and dioxin, which is a carcinogen⁵,⁶. While incineration pollution control technology is evolving to reduce these pollutants, it has been found that even with controls in place, some remaining dioxin still enters the atmosphere⁷.
Some critics of incineration claim that incineration ultimately encourages more waste production because incinerators require large volumes of waste to keep the fires burning, and local authorities may opt for incineration over recycling and waste reduction programs⁵. It is has been estimated that recycling conserves 3-5 times more energy than Waste-to-Energy generates because the energy required to make products derived from recycled materials is significantly less than the energy used to produce them from virgin raw materials⁸.
In developing countries, waste incineration is likely not as practical as in developed countries, since a high proportion of waste in developing countries is composed of kitchen scraps. Such organic waste is composed of higher moisture content (40-70%) than waste in industrialized countries (20-40%), making it more difficult to burn³.
So, What’s the Solution?
Recycling and waste reduction must be considered as our first line of defense to reduce our overall waste stream, and this also must include composting our organic waste instead of throwing it away. When we think about it, there truly is no “away,” as all waste must go somewhere. Many of the materials that are thrown away have the potential to be used to produce new items, and not reusing these materials is a large waste of resources.
Secondly, we can use incineration technology where appropriate as part of a sustainable, all-encompassing waste management and energy production system. Each individual community must decide whether the advantages outweigh the disadvantages and the associated costs. Instead of becoming overly reliant upon waste incineration as an energy source, renewable and sustainable forms of energy production such as wind and solar should be our go-to energy technologies, and we need to be using them as much as possible first. Waste incineration should be only one source among many energy sources that are even cleaner.
Waste incineration may not be feasible economically nor practically in many developing nations where funding and supporting infrastructure is limited and the majority of the waste that is being produced is organic waste with high moisture content. Such wastes should ideally be composted and used to enrich soil for use in sustainable agriculture systems.
The issue of waste incineration may not simply be a matter of “to incinerate” or “not to incinerate,” but perhaps we should instead be considering where it is appropriate to use incineration, where it is not appropriate to use, and how incineration technology can be a part of how we manage our waste in the future. We also need to ensure that there are strict regulations concerning emissions from incinerators, and seek to implement the most effective technologies to eliminate as many of these pollutants as possible.
The ideal scenario, of course, is to not produce any waste that endures, but to have an entire system where materials are returned and utilized again in some way. That is what nature does, and that is what we also must learn to do.