A long hard look at incineration

Photo by quasireversible via flickr

According to the EPA, in 2006 there were 117 incineration facilities in the United States. In the last two years, incineration technologies have re-emerged, and their promoters have tried to reposition them as a viable, sustainable solution to the waste problem in the U.S.  Companies have tried to rename their processes “waste to energy” (WTE), “energy from waste” (EfW) and “energy recovery”. Energy recovery shouldn’t be confused with recovered energy, which is using the heat that escapes from industrial processes in a productive way. WTE, EfW and energy recovery’s promoters have made bold statements about the sustainability of their business model, but their claims of sustainability are usually made only in terms of energy—energy produced, energy “recovered”—or in terms of being less bad: less mercury and dioxins created than through burning coal. These arguments are often used to justify an undertaking that is expensive in both material and economic terms.

Source: Environmental Protection Agency

Garbage in… but what comes out?

It should be pretty obvious why incineration makes for an unsustainable business model. It’s not new information. First, incinerators are very expensive to build and to operate. One publication reports that a facility capable of burning 2,000 tons per day cost $600 million to build in 1995. Another publication quoted a cost of $650 million in 2010. And, in order to finance them, bond investors have to be assured that municipal solid waste (MSW) will be available to power the facility until they get their money back. The industry term for this is “flow control.” The result is that in the U.S. nearly 12% of all garbage is incinerated. Communities that would like to develop reuse and recycling programs are stuck with a large capital commitment to burning and therefore can’t afford an alternative.

The argument for incineration is that it is one way to generate energy. Although it is not always the case, but when energy is generated, it is not necessarily an economic home run. At least for one major player in the industry energy revenues do not pay for the costs of operating a facility. In fact, the operating costs may be 3-4 times higher than the revenues from selling energy. If incinerators didn’t charge to take the garbage, they would be unprofitable. And the true cost to produce the energy is usually much higher than other more traditional sources—in the neighborhood of $0.16-$0.18 per kilowatt hour–and higher than a concentrated solar plant at $0.10-$0.14 per kilowatt hour.

Think cremation, without the ceremony and more toxic

What do you think of when you hear the word incineration? Garbage is probably one thing that will come to mind. Perhaps even fire and ashes—the same ideas that you may think of when you think of cremation. But there is no beauty or tradition in incineration. No one looks on to reflect on their life and the passage of time. Between 1900 and 1920 incineration was established and grew in the U.S. so that by 1938-1939 there were more than 700 operating units. The period between 1940 and 1960 saw a number of persistent operational problems with incinerators. These included major air emissions problems, and incomplete and poor combustion of the materials fed to these units.

Incinerators still require a lot of money to build and operate, and are considered to be an incomplete disposal method because they leave a substantial amount of toxic ash that must be managed after the incineration process is completed.

Photo by amanderson2 via flickr

The remaining ash is not a minor problem. Among the EPA’s highest-priority of persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic pollutants (PBTs) to eliminate are dioxins, caused by the incineration and backyard burning of MSW, medical waste, and coal-fired power plants. PBTs are chemicals that exist in the environment and increase in concentration within the food chain, and therefore pose risks to human health and ecosystems. The resulting pollutants include mercury, cause acid rain and perhaps asthma. The biggest concerns about PBTs are that they span geographic boundaries, easily transcending air, water and land. They also persist throughout generations although numerous manufactured PBTs have already been banned. These PBTs are right up there with the pesticide DDT and its derivatives DDD and DDE.

A series of studies beginning in the 1960s illustrated the operations of a typical incinerator, which included long-term neglect, no operating procedures and no planned maintenance. The initial findings forced several incinerators across the country to close, and led to more in-depth studies. Nearly a decade later, incinerators installed air pollution control devices such as scrubbers, but found that plants still operated far above or far below capacity.


In his book titled American Alchemy H. L. Hickman, Jr. provides the results of an EPA study that sampled the types of materials sent to seven incinerators in 1996. Over 25% of the materials were non-combustible, meaning they could never be used to create energy in an incinerator. The other 74% consisted of food scraps, yard debris, paper, wood, textiles, plastic, rubber and leather. 88% of those materials are easily recyclable.

Remember the old reduce, reuse, recycle? Reduce meant “reduce the consumption of natural resources.” In order to keep an incinerator going, a community would have to consume and discard single-use items at a breath-taking pace. It is impossible. The amount of trees, mountains and transportation fuels that would be needed to keep it going are not available on earth in perpetuity.

Real sustainability

Congratulations to the Recology companies that were awarded 2011 WRAP Awards: Recology Golden Gate, Recology San Bruno and Recology Vallejo. CalRecycle’s Waste Reduction Awards Program (WRAP) recognizes businesses for their environmentally-friendly practices. Recology was one of the 55 companies with multiple sites to win the award. According to CalRecycle, “the winning entries reported diverting more than 2.3 million tons of material from landfills and reported more than $200 million in cost savings.” We are proud of our long tradition of recovering resources through composting and recycling.

2 Responses to “A long hard look at incineration

  • Sidney Ruiz
    8 years ago

    Great atiivtcy! Thanks you so much for coming to our Sustainability Week. The children were really engaged and lent facts about the environment with out even knowing it.

  • Way cool! Some extremely valid points! I appreciate you penning this
    write-up and also the rest of the site is extremely good.

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