Waste Incineration

With the world producing 2 billion tonnes of garbage every year, the question of what to do with it is complex yet critical. With most of it ending up in dumps or landfills, it is essential to find a more eco-friendly and renewable way of managing waste. Previously, recycling seemed like the most promising solution as it allows us to recover materials that we’ve already used and keep reusing them. However, recycling is challenging, so a more tempting option is to burn our garbage to generate power, with some claiming that this is a clean and renewable source of energy. Various countries have begun creating waste incineration facilities, and Sweden even began importing garbage that they could burn for power. This is exciting technology for some, but it’s sparked debate over what the best approach to waste management should really look like. 


A Tale of Gas and Fire 

To understand the conflict between supporters and opponents of waste incineration, it is essential to discuss how environmental impact is measured in the first place. Carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane are greenhouse gases (GHG), meaning they absorb and conserve heat more efficiently than other gases, causing climate change. Nature has a way of regulating the amounts of CO2 in the atmosphere, as plants use it for energy. This movement of carbon between the atmosphere and plants is called the carbon cycle. Methane, however, is a much more potent GHG than CO2 and is not used by plants, separating it from the carbon cycle and making it much more difficult to manage. 

Like plants, we rely on carbon for both biological and electrical energy. Fossil fuels are ancient fossils of plants and animals that, after millions of years of exposure to heat and pressure, have become compacted into carbon deposits deep underground. But not all carbon is made equal, as carbon from fossil fuels stays enclosed in the Earth and does not participate in the carbon cycle. Because of this, extracting and burning it introduces more carbon dioxide into the environment than it is equipped to recycle. Some waste is biogenic, meaning it comes from an organic source such as plants, so burning it only emits CO2 that was already part of the carbon cycle and does not contribute to climate change. 


Abandoned and Ablaze 

The method for generating power from waste incineration is similar to the one used in traditional fossil fuel powered processes. Heat from incinerating municipal solid waste (MSW) is used to boil water, creating steam that turns turbines and generates electricity or heat. The ashes that are left can contain some recyclable metals, but they mostly get sent to landfills. People throw anything they do not want into the garbage including paper, plastic, wood, glass, metal, and biogenic waste from gardens and kitchens.  

While biogenic waste and paper can be considered safe to burn, plastics are made from fossil-fuel based chemicals and their combustion is ecologically harmful. In general, producing power from waste is less harmful than traditional non-renewable power generation methods because the former is only partially fossil-based while the latter is entirely reliant on them. Waste incineration also outperforms landfills in environmental safety, as it only emits carbon dioxide while landfills emit methane as well. 


An Incendiary Subject 

As some sing the praises of waste-to-energy, others take a much more skeptical approach. A 2020 report commissioned by UK-based charity ClientEarth criticized the move towards waste incineration as counterproductive. It argues that, while incineration does offer various benefits over landfills, it is ultimately a costly investment that distracts from better approaches to waste management. It also highlights that eliminating the methane emissions of landfills in the short term does not negate the fact that carbon dioxide from burning plastics can still cause a lot of environmental harm in the long run. Australian-based campaign group Zero Waste Oz takes issue with the way that using waste for energy incentivizes society to keep producing large amounts of it. They believe it undermines recycling efforts, which reclaim the materials being tossed out instead of reducing them to worthless ash. Other critics focused on the sociological factors of waste incinerators, which tend to be built in low-income areas. These facilities lead to increased truck traffic, unpleasant odours, and more severe air pollution in these neighbourhoods. 

The discourse surrounding waste-to-energy is multifaceted, encompassing both waste management and energy production. Although incineration can reduce the harmful, destructive effects of both landfills and fossil-fuel power plants, its use for electricity perpetuates an unhealthy reliance on wasteful consumption. However, with climate change being a pressing issue, any step toward harm reduction may be beneficial. The future of waste disposal depends on various social, economic, and political conditions, remaining ambiguous and obscure.