Did you know that humans produce about 1.3 billion tons of waste every year? That means the amount of garbage that we create is 75% more than the combined weight of each person in the world today. What is problematic about this fact is that over 60% of the trash will eventually make its way to a landfill.
The number of landfills is growing rapidly as we seek more ways to control our habit of creating garbage. Proper management techniques can help many of the items we throw away to start decomposing, but there can also be a serious rodent problem in the places where we manage our refuse.
When we look toward the future of trash management, it is clear to see that continuing the landfill habit is not a viable choice. That’s why evaluating these incineration pros and cons leads communities to a new solution that they might not have considered otherwise.
List of the Pros of Incineration
1. Incineration allows us to be more effective with how we use space.
If we were to start incinerating all of the trash that we produce each year, then we could reduce the total mass by up to 85% each year. The overall volume of what we create would also shrink by up to 95%. That’s why smaller countries are looking at this option if they have not implemented it already. By providing a way to eliminate the bulk of what requires processing, it is possible to take care of current refuse needs while reducing the amount that is in storage having already been processed as well.
2. It reduces the issue of groundwater contamination around a landfill.
When you have precipitation fall on exposed garbage, then it creates a liquid that we call leachate. It is something that looks a lot like pea soup, and this thick slurry forms every time a landfill has rain or snow interact with it. This runoff needs to go somewhere, which means there is a risk to the local water supply is there is a significant amount of moisture falling from the sky. Flash floods and severe storms could present severe problems to the local environment as well.
When we use incineration for waste management instead of landfills, then we can reduce the risks of leachate almost entirely.
3. This waste management option gives us a power-generation opportunity.
There are more than 2,000 waste-to-energy power plants operating around our planet today. These facilities burn garbage at high temperatures to boil water so that steam generators can produce electricity. It operates in a similar way to coal-fired or biomass facilities. The average incineration plant can burn as much as 3 million tons of garbage each year while giving us the power that we need for our homes and businesses. It gives us a way to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels while taking some pressure off our landfills at the same time.
4. It creates a lower carbon footprint for communities that use this technology.
When we burn any organic material, then the carbon in that item will release into the atmosphere. Having too much of it go up there can cause issues with global warming, and it could even be one of the reasons why we are seeing record temperatures on our planet today. When we incinerate trash, then we’re going to emit a significant quantity of CO2 as we create electricity. Every ton of garbage that we eliminate using this method places the same amount of carbon dioxide into the air we breathe.
When we compare the carbon dioxide release to what landfills generate, the benefit is clear. We create a lot of methane with the traditional storage methods, a greenhouse gas that is up to 20 times more powerful than CO2. If we allow the organic matter in our landfills to break down on their current schedule, then the impact of the gases could accelerate the warming trend by up to 30%.
5. We can place waste incinerators almost anywhere.
It is possible to place a waste incineration facility near where the trash generates, which gives a community several ways to reduce the costs of refuse management. A closer facility will reduce transportation costs, the impact of energy expenditures to create electricity, and naturally cap the emissions that come from these activities all at the same time.
6. Filters can help to trap many of the dangerous compounds that incinerators release.
The primary concern that most communities have with the incineration of solid waste is that it can release dioxin. Because they are usually the byproducts of industrial processes, their toxicity level depends on the number and positioning of the chlorine atoms. What we have also discovered is that effective filtration can make the potential for toxins become almost negligible. We can capture carbon from coal-fired power plants, which means we can do the same for this technology as well. Most of the pollutants can be collected and disposed of correctly so that the incineration plant falls into the recommended limits published by the Environmental Protection Agency.
7. It can be useful as a revenue generation tool.
It was announced in October 2018 that the Treasury in the UK was considering the imposition of a tax on waste incineration. London burns over 50% of the trash it produces each year compared to the 30% that enters a recycling program. For the rest of the nation, 39% went to incinerators while 44% went into recycling. By creating small taxes on the power that gets generated from this process, it is an effective way to generate more revenue for the community to use for social needs.
List of the Cons of Incineration
1. The capital cost of building a waste incineration facility is quite high.
Incineration facilities must go through a series of site studies, permit evaluations, and construction efforts to create something usable. There might be infrastructure modifications that are necessary to facilitate a project like this as well since road access, water, and power are needed for a successful experience. There are labor and material expenses to think about too. Although this technology will help most communities, states, or countries save money because it reduces the need for a landfill and reduces the environmental impact of the garbage, the costs might be too high for some to handle.
2. There is still the possibility of hazardous or toxic pollutants.
Modern incineration plants have corrected the emissions problems that the previous generation of facilities encountered when disposing of garbage. The levels of heavy metals and toxic items like dioxin have been cut to a minimum, a positive when comparing them to the older facilities. It is essential to remember that these items still occur when creating power with this method, so there must be frequent testing for arsenic, mercury, and other problematic materials.
The fears that people have of toxic pollution are what will usually derail an incineration project before the work is complete. You will also create significant levels of carbon dioxide, so each community must weigh the benefits of disposal using this method with the potential environmental consequences that could occur.
3. The use of incineration could create double disposal charges.
We might be running out of space in our landfills, but it is also essential to remember that communities have already paid to process this garbage. When an incinerator becomes the top priority, then the only way to cut into the waste in the area is to process the refuse again. That means you’re paying twice to process the same garbage, which is the reason why some consumer prices can be high when using the energy created by this technology.
4. It would discourage the idea of recycling.
If each community were to effectively recycle all of their metal, glass, rubber, and plastic waste, then we could cut the amount of garbage production we experience each year by as much as 80%. That means we could limit the pressure on our landfills naturally by being more eco-conscious about our daily activities.
There are numerous ways that we can take trash out of our waste processing cycles. Through the practices of reuse and repurposing, it is entirely possible to create a society where zero waste becomes a possibility.
5. Incineration might encourage higher levels of waste production.
Incineration plants create power to manage steam turbines by burning the waste at high temperatures. It requires a large volume of trash to keep those fires hot, which means come communities might look at the idea of burning all of their refuse as a way to continue creating electricity. Some local authorities with this technology under their supervision have opted for using incineration over waste reduction programs and recycling because of the desire to maintain the availability of revenues.
6. The effectiveness of incineration is rather minimal.
When you compare incineration to landfill management, then the benefits of this idea tend to shine. Reducing the volume of waste takes pressure off of the area so that it is easier to manage the trash that comes through the system.
Landfills are also the only waste management effort that is worse than incineration for the environment. Communities often find that reducing, reusing, repurposing, and recycling efforts are far more effective at reducing costs. When you invest in more prevention and wisdom, then the amount that can be saved is often greater than the revenues that an incineration plan generates by burning garbage for electricity.
7. It tends to be an option that only works well in the developed world.
Waste incineration can work well in the United States, Canada, and the countries of western Europe because of the industrialized nature of those societies. The refuse that comes from nations that are not as economically advanced see a high proportion of trash in the form of kitchen scraps. The moisture content in these items can be up to 70% higher than what you find in other forms of waste, making it much more of a challenge to burn it effectively. Those items should be composted to enrich the soil instead.
8. Incineration can release particles into the atmosphere.
Have you ever seen wood particulates release into the atmosphere when a campfire burns? When we incinerate trash, the highest temperatures possible are used because that approach reduces, but does not entirely eliminate, the threat of particulates that enter the atmosphere. This issue is one of the reasons why asthma and other breathing issues can be more prevalent if there are homes in close proximity to a facility. If the toxins are not appropriately managed, then there could be severe health issues to consider.
Fly ash is the primary issue that impacts the environment from incineration. Even though there are air pollution control standards in place that require its capture, it may contain elements that are often classified as hazardous waste.
9. There can be odor issues with incineration.
Incineration facilities do an excellent job of removing odor issues from the surrounding community, but they do not eliminate smells entirely. When the wind is blowing in from the facility, then the smell of garbage can be overwhelming to some people. Landfills create a similar issue, but they also tend to be located further away from population centers whenever possible. This disadvantage can also create problems with property values, especially if the facility gets located in a neighborhood once the residential nature of the area is established.
Is Incineration a Viable Option to Consider?
Flexibility is essential for effective waste management techniques. Sweden proves this point well because only 0.7% of the garage that the country produces will end up in a landfill. That figure is 53% in the United States.
Almost half of the waste that Sweden generates goes into recycling programs. The rest is consumed by over 30 waste-to-energy incineration plants that produce enough heat and electricity to meet the demands of over two million households. That means the country’s perspective is that garbage is an exploitable resource instead of it being a burden.
That’s why we must evaluate the pros and cons of incineration carefully. It could be a way for us to create a sustainable future while taking pressure off of our landfills. This option could also create a new set of problems that we have yet to anticipate with the emissions that this technology generates.
Natalie Regoli is a child of God, devoted wife, and mother of two boys. She has a Master's Degree in Law from The University of Texas. Natalie has been published in several national journals and has been practicing law for 18 years.