Incinerators are facilities that treat waste by burning it. They come under many names such as “mass burn incinerators,” “thermal treatment facilities,” or so-called “waste-to-energy” (WTE) plants, and involve processes such as combustion, pyrolysis, gasification, or plasma arc. But they all have the same claim— “burning waste will make our waste problems disappear.”
Among the most aggressively promoted incinerators are “waste-to-energy” facilities. Not only do they claim to make waste “disappear,” they also claim to produce energy during the process.
But studies have shown that this premise is without scientific basis. The process of incineration merely transforms the waste into other forms of wastes, such as toxic ash and air and water pollution, which are harder to contain and usually more toxic than the original form of the waste. The term is also a misnomer—waste is a highly inefficient fuel and these facilities are barely able to generate even a small amount of electricity.
Detailed analysis1 shows us that incinerators waste more energy than they produce, primarily because what we incinerate needs to be replaced by new products. Extracting virgin materials from the earth, and manufacturing and processing these into new materials to replace the ones incinerated uses up tremendous amounts of energy compared to reusing or recycling what we already have.
This paper looks at the hard facts about “waste-to-energy” incineration, and how it fails both as a waste and resource management option, and as an energy generating facility.
Municipal and city administrators, as well as communities need to look beyond the PR of “waste-to-energy” companies and choose options that promote—not undermine—sustainability. A focus on Zero Waste approaches to waste and resource management, which include reduction, reuse, recycling and composting, are cost-effective and safer options that generate jobs while protecting the climate and the environment.