Incineration or waste incineration is a waste disposal method and part of the overall solid waste management strategy positioned as an alternative to landfill. As a specific waste treatment process, it involves the combustion of waste materials to convert them into carbon dioxide and other gasses, water, particulate matter such as ashes, and heat, thus effectively deconstructing their material composition and reducing their volume.
The arguments and counterarguments surrounding the construction and operation of incineration facilities within communities have been a hotly debated topic among environmental advocates, community leaders, government officials, and business owners, among others. Considering the viability of this waste disposal method, it is important to weigh its pros and cons or costs, as well as take into account the factors that could influence its cost and benefit.
Arguments: Advantages and Benefits of Waste Incineration
1. Elimination or Reduction of Landfills from Waste Volume Reduction
There are more than 2000 active landfills in the United States based on the data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In China, there are more than 620 landfill sites while in India, there are more than 300. There are less than 100 landfills in New Zealand.
A 2018 report from the World Bank noted that global waste production could rise by 70 percent by 2050. Note that the largest dumpsite in China that occupies a land area of almost 700,000 square meters was already full in 2019—25 years ahead of its schedule.
Landfills have environmental and social impacts. For starters, toxins and other pollutants leeching from piles of garbage can contaminate the surrounding soil, groundwater or aquifers, and nearby bodies of water. They also reduce local property value, disrupt transportation infrastructure, and reduce the quality of life among surrounding communities.
Evidently, a continued rise in waste production without other methods for waste disposal would prompt more countries to convert more land areas into dumpsites. Hence, waste incineration comes as a solution to eliminate or reduce landfill creation.
Incinerating waste materials could reduce waste volume by 90 percent. Furthermore, compared to dumpsites, incineration facilities take up less space. Land areas could be apportioned for either environmental conservation or more productive use. These are important for small cities, densely populated areas, and other areas in which space is scarce.
2. Alternative Source of Energy through Waste-to-Energy Conversion
Converting waste into energy is another advantage of waste incineration. Waste-to-energy or energy-from-waste via incineration is an energy recovery method that involves generating energy in the form of heat or electricity through the combustion of solid waste materials.
Modern incineration facilities are fundamentally equipped to recover energy from wastes. These facilities have specific advantages over other sources of energy. These include lessening dependence on fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and gas. They have a 70 to 80 percent heat production efficiency and 14 to 28 percent electricity production efficiency.
Furthermore, compared to other waste-to-energy technologies and methods, energy recovery through incineration has lower investment costs and lower emission rates. The process supports a circular economy because it repurposes discarded solid waste into valuable resources.
Germany is one of the leading countries in practicing waste-to-energy conversion with its incineration facilities providing about 4.3 percent of its primary energy demand. Denmark and Sweden also use waste incinerators to supply residential and commercial buildings with heat, thus expanding their heat production portfolio using alternative energy sources.
3. Reduction of Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Other Pollutants
Using solid waste materials as a fuel source reduces the need for the extraction, transportation, and utilization of fossil fuels. Note that the upstream, midstream, and downstream components of the fossil fuel industry are energy intensive. Of course, for several decades now, global warming and climate emergency have been attributed to the consumption of coal, oil, and gas for energy.
Landfills are also a source of greenhouse gasses. Biogas from these dumpsites contains about 46 percent carbon dioxide and 54 percent methane. In addition, about 11 percent of methane gas produced by humans comes from trash. The U.S. is the largest contributor to methane emission from landfills followed by China and Mexico.
The natural biodegradation of organic waste such as discarded food and food byproducts, as well as other yard waste, is the main source of methane emission. As a greenhouse gas, methane is more than 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere.
Advance incineration facilities also reduce contaminants coming from discarded and dumped solid waste materials. The bottom ash residues produced as a byproduct of incinerating solid waste materials are relatively non-hazardous waste, provided they underwent proper treatment. These residues could be safely put into landfills or upcycled as a construction aggregate.
There are also some indications that waste incineration promotes recycling. A 2016 report by the European Environment Agency noted that countries with the highest penetration of incineration also ranked high in recycling performance.
Note that several jurisdictions and facilities have protocols for sorting solid wastes and determining items that could be salvaged for recycling and upcycling. Furthermore, glass, stones, ceramics, as well as ferrous and non-ferrous metals could be recovered from combustion residues. These materials are used as construction aggregates.
Counterarguments: Disadvantages of Waste Incineration
1. Cost Limitations Because Facilities Are Expensive to Build and Maintain
Waste disposal through incineration is almost exclusive to developed and developing countries. Jurisdictions with low incomes or poor economic growth and unfavorable economic outlook cannot simply afford to build and operate incineration facilities. Hence, it is not a readily available alternative to landfills because of the cost implications.
Researchers S. Shilkina and A. Niyazov analyzed the financial and economic model of waste incineration plant construction. Their findings revealed that building a new plant is cost-inefficient because the entire project would not push through or repaid without substantial subsidies from the government.
There is also the maintenance cost. A 2018 report from The World Bank showed that compared with other methods of solid waste disposal such as landfills, composting, and anaerobic digestion, waste-to-energy facilities are the most expensive to maintain. Specifically, they have almost twice the maintenance cost of landfills and composting.
Furthermore, energy generation from these facilities costs 4 times more than solar power and wind power. They also cost twice as much as natural gas and are even more expensive than coal power plants by 25 percent.
A more detailed comparison from numerous reports reviewed by D. Moon in 2021 revealed that an incinerator would require USD 134,000 to burn 1000 tons of municipal solid waste and generate 573,000 kWh of energy. On the other hand, managing the same amount of waste through separate collection, recycling, composting, and controlled use of landfills, as well as generation of 573,000 kWh of energy from solar power, would only cost USD 56,000.
2. Still Produce Hazardous Pollutants and Discourage Recycling
Remember that incinerating solid wastes reduces greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants that would come from landfills and through improper disposals. However, note that another notable disadvantage of waste incineration facilities is that they still produce pollutants that are potentially hazardous to health and the environment.
Ash residues and gasses produced from the combustion of waste contain dioxins, acid gases, nitrogen oxide, and heavy metals. Dioxins can cause problems with reproduction, development, and the immune system. Prolonged exposure to acid gasses can lead to severe illnesses while the release of nitrogen oxide is a greenhouse gasses that can also affect vegetation.
Heavy metals are environmental contaminants with health-related implications. Particulate matters are small enough to enter the lungs, thus causing serious respiratory issues or aggravate existing respiratory conditions such as asthma or chronic lung disease. Note that these pollutants could be distributed across the food chain.
Another argument against waste incineration is that it can potentially discourage recycling practices. Of course, note that while countries with established waste-to-energy infrastructure also have commendable recycling practices, critics still argue that this waste disposal method reduces the incentive for recycling solid waste.
Nonetheless, as an alternative to fossil fuels and a specific energy recovery technology, waste-to-energy facilities are not a clean source of energy compared to nuclear and renewable energy sources. The utilization of complementary technologies and protocols is needed to minimize the environmental impacts of waste incineration.
3. Availability of Several Alternatives to Solid Waste Disposal Methods
Critics and advocates have argued that waste incineration is not a viable solution to the growing waste problem of the world because of the presence of alternatives. The report of D. Moon presented numerous options for more affordable and sustainable alternatives to solid waste management.
More specifically, using the same amount of money it takes to construct a modern waste incineration facility, or more specifically, about USD 1.2 billion, policymakers and city planners can build 3 in-vessel composting facilities that can handle 1 million tons of organic waste, and 8 material recovery facilities that can process 1 million tons of waste for recycling purposes.
The remaining money from the USD 1.2 billion can also be used for operating different collection systems for more than a thousand years, construction of 12 to 24 reuse centers and recovery parks, and the building and maintenance of 12,000 re-use drop-off sites. The combined capacities of these facilities and processes could handle 1 to 1.5 million tons of waste per year.
As regards energy generation, because waste-to-energy is not a clean energy source, critics and advocates have positioned renewable energy sources such as solar power technologies to include concentrated, and photovoltaic, as well as wind, and geothermal power as cleaner and more sustainable alternatives. Nuclear power through nuclear fission, as well as the promises of nuclear fusion open possibilities for cheaper and safer substitutes.
In a Nutshell: The Pros and Cons of Waste Incineration
The advantages of waste incineration include elimination or reduction of landfills due to a reduction of waste volume, alternative energy source through waste-to-energy conversion, extraction of metals and other materials for recycling, better recycling and upcycling practices, and reduction in greenhouse gas emissions such as methane using proper technologies.
However, this method of waste disposal has several drawbacks and limitations that center on cost inefficiency, as well as probably environmental and health-related backlashes, and the availability of more cost-effective and sustainable alternative solutions and practices.
The fact remains that developed and developing countries are not gearing away from building and maintaining waste incineration any time soon. As a workaround to minimizing the costs and maximizing the benefits of this waste disposal method, jurisdictions have laid down standards and protocols while researchers are continuously exploring complementary technologies.
FURTHER READINGS AND REFERENCES
- 2019. “A Rubbish Story China’s Mega-Dump Full 25 Years Ahead of Schedule.” BBC. Available online
- European Environment Agency. 2016. “Municipal Waste Management Across European Countries.” European Environment Agency. Available online
- Global Methane Initiative. 2011. “Landfill Methane: Reducing Emissions, Advancing Recovery, and Use Opportunities.” Global Methane Initiative. Available via PDF
- Kaza, S., Yao, L., Lisa, C., Bhada-Tata, P., Van Woerden, F. 2018. What a Waste 2.0: A Global Snapshot of Solid Waste Management to 2050. World Bank. Available online
- Levaggi, L., Levaggi, R., Marchiori, C., and Trecroci, C. 202). “Waste-to-Energy in the EU: The Effects of Plant Ownership, Waste Mobility, and Decentralization on Environmental Outcomes and Welfare.” Sustainability. 12(14): 5743. DOI: 3390/su12145743
- Moon, D. 2021. The High Cost of Waste Incineration. Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives. DOI: 46556/RPKY2826
- Shilkina, S. and Niyazov, A. 2018. “Financial and Economic Model of Waste Incineration Plant Construction.” IOP Conference Series: Materials Science and Engineering. 365(6): 062024. DOI: 1088/1757-899x/365/6/062024
- Weber, K., Quicker, P., Hanewinkel, J., and Flamme, S. 2020. “Status of Waste-to-Energy in Germany, Part I – Waste Treatment Facilities.” Waste Management & Research. 38(1S): 23-44. DOI: 1177/0734242×19894632