Next to landfilling, incineration is the “other” major disposal option. Advocates will be quick to tell you that humans have been burning garbage just about as long as they have been burying it.
A lot of people will also make sure to say that incineration is better than landfilling, particularly if your incineration is WTE (WTE is Waste to Energy, which basically means you stick a powerplant on top of your burning garbage and create electricity and steam). Landfills are usually considered to be about the worst (and cheapest) means of disposal, while incineration occupies a slightly more lofty status.
“A solid waste hierarchy gives preference to energy-from-waste over landfills because EFW reduces the volume of waste by 90%, destroys bacteria and pollutants, prevents methane from being created, saves valuable land, recovers more energy from trash, and creates a more sustainable municipal waste management system,” according to the Canadian Energy-From-Waste Coalition.
The problems you’ll hear about when it comes to incineration are air pollution, ashes, and debts.
“Incinerators produce a variety of toxic discharges to the air, water and ground that are significant sources of a range of powerful pollutants, including dioxin and other chlorinated organic compounds that are well-known for their toxic impacts on human health and the environment,” says the Global Anti-Incinerator Alliance.
Garbage doesn’t burn up entirely, and every incinerator I’ve ever heard of produces ashes. The bottom ash (ash that is left over from combustion) isn’t generally considered hazardous, but fly-ash (the ashes that get captured through filtration of incinerator off-gasses) often are.
Debts enter into the picture because incinerators generally cost quite a bit to build and “Even if the incinerator is privately owned and operated, it puts a strain on the municipal budget, in a way. The municipality is “indebted” in the sense that it usually has to promise to deliver sufficient burnable trash to the incinerator throughout its lifetime or pay a penalty for any shortfall–what is called a “put-or-pay” contract.” (Porter, 72).
Hopefully you get the sense that there is not a lot of agreement about what the best way to get rid of garbage really is. The incinerator people say landfills pump methane into the air, toxic leachate into the water, and create toxic waste dumps mummified for the future. The landfill people say incinerators put really bad toxins into the air, are inflexible and expensive, and ultimately produce ash that has to be landfilled anyway.
My sense from the situation in Vancouver, BC, is that the one incinerator they have, burning about 25% of Metro Vancouver’s garbage, has been a good choice, even though it does create air pollution. They are planning on building more incinerator capacity near Vancouver in an effort to reduce landfill numbers. There’s a rousing argument around the topic which you can find online pretty easily.
Metro Vancouver has some lofty goals for recycling numbers: they want to divert seventy percent of their solid waste from the waste disposal stream by 2015. According to Metro Vancouver’s Integrated Solid Waste and Resource Management Plan, incineration is considered diversion as long as you are using the heat from incineration for something. You can begin to understand why Metro Vancouver seems more attached to incineration than landfilling.