The Zero Waste Network considers waste-to-energy incineration as an unacceptable option for waste management.
Incineration refers to the combustion of waste materials, resulting in ash residues and air emissions. Gasification, pyrolysis, and vitrification are variations of incineration, and waste-to-energy refers to an incinerator that incorporates technology to generate power from the heat produced during the combustion process.
Waste incinerators do not eliminate waste – in fact they generate it. Since physical matter cannot be destroyed, an incinerator actually transforms the original wasted materials (or resources) into several new forms of waste: air emissions, ash, and liquid discharge (resulting from cleaning processes within the incinerator). Incinerators reduce solid waste to approximately 45% of its original volume, which exits the incinerator in the form of fly ash and bottom ash. (Claims of reduction to 25% of volume are based upon optimum incinerator operation, which rarely occurs). These new forms are far more difficult to deal with than the original, raw wasted materials.
Incineration has many downsides, including significant negative impacts on human health (i.e. cancer), low employment, large capital investment with low return and an ongoing landfill requirement for the remaining waste left over from incineration. Mixed-waste incinerators are inefficient energy producers, capturing only about 20% of energy generated by the waste. Waste-to-energy proponents stress their energy production potential and consequent reduced use of fossil fuels without addressing a far more important issue: the huge loss of resources and energy already used to produce the material being burnt. In fact recycling plastic saves 3.7 to 5.2 times more energy, recycling paper saves 2.7 to 4.3 times more energy, and recycling metal saves 30 to 888 times more energy than is gained through incineration (Stats from A Wasted Opportunity).
Alone, among waste management options, incineration knowingly creates hazardous waste where none existed in the feedstock (municipal solid waste).
In the past, incinerators were highly polluting facilities that pumped huge volumes of toxic pollutants into our skies. It’s true that today’s incinerators are much cleaner, but they’re still not perfect. Toxins that come out of incinerators include dioxins, mercury and cadmium that can cause cancer, nerve damage and birth defects. Anyone who lives downwind from an incinerator is in danger of breathing in these dangerous chemicals. Toxins also fall on the land to be eaten by livestock or washed into our rivers, harbours and coastal waters where they can enter our food chain.
While these toxins are dangerous, most of the gas coming from an incinerator is carbon dioxide. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports that each tonne of waste burnt produces up to 1.2 tonnes of carbon dioxide. As I’m sure you know, we’re looking for ways to urgently reduce our climate change emissions. Waste-to-energy incinerators work in direct competition with this goal.
Leaving aside air pollution, incinerators destroy valuable, non-renewable resources. Governments, businesses and communities everywhere are looking for ways to encourage people to reduce, reuse, repair, refurbish and recycle the things we use so we can conserve resources. Incineration works directly against these efforts.
While incinerator companies talk about the myriad uses of incinerator ash (IBA) in building, roading and construction, there are serious questions about IBA’s chemical stability in the environment, especially the potential leaching of heavy metals. Numerous studies have shown that heavy metals could be released from IBA and transported to the surrounding environment (see footnotes 5,17-19 in linked study). As the toxicity of many heavy metals is high even at low concentrations, the risks of heavy metal pollution is significant.
The fly ash from incineration would require a special waste landfill due to the concentrations of heavy metals. Its safe disposal usually involves additional waste miles and the need for specialist toxic waste landfill elsewhere.
While incineration companies are happy to point out that the waste they burn would be sent to landfill, they don’t mention that household waste is not a very good fuel. The World Energy Council found that, kilogram for kilogram, waste produces less than half the energy of coal and less than one-third the energy of natural gas while producing many times the amount of pollution. Here in Aotearoa, we currently produce 80% of our electricity from renewable sources, and we have a plan to increase that to 100% by 2035. Waste-to-energy incinerators compete with our renewable energy goals and undermine our commitment to a low emissions economy.
A key selling point used by incinerator companies is that they create jobs. The EU social enterprise reuse, repair and recycling group, RREUSE, recently looked into that and found that for every job an incinerator creates, recycling centres create 36 jobs, and reuse activities create 296 jobs. Waste and recycling services are set to become the fastest growing sector as our country moves towards a circular economy. Incineration is not part of this shift.
As a collective of organisations committed to the principle of zero waste, we recognise incineration as one the most destructive waste management methods. While we accept that waste is a problem, we know that incinerators aren’t the answer. Waste-to-energy incineration is a non-renewable source of energy that destroys our finite natural resources. We believe we can address our waste issues in a more constructive way that preserves resources, prevents pollution and creates jobs.