The Story of Incineration

By Lea Guerrero

The story of waste incineration doesn’t start at the incinerator facility. Nor does it start the minute we throw something in the waste bin. The story of incineration starts with “stuff” (as The Story of Stuff would put it). More precisely, the story of incineration starts the moment stuff is produced.

When things are produced, ‘waste,’ somehow, gets into the picture. ‘Waste’ is anything we no longer need; things we discard or throw away. Some ‘waste’ is made during production. For example, the shirt you’re wearing was cut out from a bigger piece of cloth and there are bits and pieces that didn’t make it into the shirt. Sometimes, the things that are produced also become ‘waste;’ for instance, your old shoes which no longer fit or whose soles got unglued. A lot of times, too, things are packaged in material that becomes ‘waste.’ Think of the plastic shrink wrap and styrofoam packing which contained your cellphone, or the plastic fastfood soda cup or toothpaste tube, after you finished the contents.

The word waste is in single quotes in the previous paragraph because labeling something as ‘waste’ is relative. Not everything we discard or throw away is actually ‘waste.’ Some of the things we put in the bin can be recycled, such as cardboard boxes or drink cans. Sometimes, old things (like shoes) we throw away can actually be repaired and reused. Other things can be put into another use, like cloth scraps which are turned into cleaning rags. And organic waste (vegetable trimmings, leaves, etc), can be composted.

But unfortunately, some of the other things we throw away were not created to be reused or recycled, like that plastic shrink wrap and styrofoam packaging, or that plastic fastfood soda cup and toothpaste tube. They’re created to be disposed. And many times, too, things that can still be repaired, reused of recycled, don’t. And while we’re talking about things that can’t be (or don’t get) repaired, recycled, reused or composted, think about the sheer amount of these things that are being churned out—in the millions—day in and day out, in factories all over the globe.

People already throw away staggering amounts of ‘waste’—and the amount is still increasing. A 2012 study by the World Bank estimated that in just one decade (from 2002 to 2012), waste thrown away by people in cities around the world doubled, from 0.68 billion tonnes in 2002 to 1.3 billion tonnes in 2012. The same study predicts that waste will increase more than three-fold, to 4.3 billion tonnes a year, by 2025.

Faced by mountains of ‘waste,’ people have coped by answering the question, “What do we do with all the waste?” In answer, human society has resorted to burying (in landfills), or burning (in incinerators), to keep waste out of sight. In the recent decades, incinerators have become an attractive option. The “logic” offered by incineration is that burning waste will make it “disappear,” as opposed to landfills which take up massive amounts of space.

And because people are producing more and more waste every year, governments are building more and more incinerators just to keep up. Today’s so-called “waste-to-energy” incinerators burn around 300 million tonnes of waste a year. If we peg the current amount of waste produced in 2017 at 3 billion tonnes, it would take 10 years for all these facilities to burn the waste produced in a single year. By this logic, the world needs to keep building incinerators to burn the things we’ve thrown away—to start with, at least 10 times more the facilities we have today. And, we have to keep building hundreds more incinerators every year.

Incinerators are premised on a game of catch-up with ever-growing volumes of waste. Going down the waste incineration path means never dousing the fires. Imagine a world where thousands of incinerators guzzle resources and people’s money while churning out toxic fumes 24/7—every single day of our lives. And yes, even after we die.

But do we even want to go there? Building incinerators is prohibitively expensive: it’s the most costly waste treatment option, and as an energy plant, it’s more expensive than coal or nuclear. They’re also a major source of toxic pollution, particularly dioxins, among the most deadly and persistent chemicals known to science. Increasing the world’s incinerator capacity means increasing the financial burden on cities and taxpayers and increasing the toxic load on this planet we call home.

It also means increasing resource extraction and production. A machine that was built to burn waste creates a demand for waste to be burned. The more and the bigger the machines, the greater the demand, justifying the need to produce more things that need to be thrown away and burnt. This just goes to show that burning isn’t getting us anywhere to solve the waste problem. Instead of reducing waste, we’re creating more of it.

Clearly, burning waste—and even in that fancy, shiny, new incineration facility—isn’t an innovation. There is nothing technologically amazing about a world where thousands of furnaces keep burning discards for as long as human beings live and breathe on the planet.

But how do we stop the burning? To stop the fire, we need to stop feeding it. The question shouldn’t be “What do we do with the waste?” but “How do we reduce the waste we produce?”

To start with, if the stuff we produce and use is reused, recycled, or composted, there would be very little left to burn, or even bury. Many cities and municipalities around the world have taken this route and succeeded, showing the world they don’t need incinerators, and that waste reduction is possible and practical. There are other measures that still need to be done: if manufacturers designed packaging to be reusable and durable, instead of disposable (think throwaway plastic bags, disposable cups and cutlery), and if municipalities and cities banned the use of these disposables, there wouldn’t be anything left to burn.

In the end, the questions we ask define what we mean by success in ‘waste’ and resource management. Do we measure success in how efficiently we burn what we throw away? Or does real success lie in efficiently making use of our planet’s limited resources, without turning them to ashes?

Lea Guerrero is the Climate and Clean Energy Campaigner of GAIA Asia Pacific.

This article appears on the first issue of Waste Not Asia, the official publication of GAIA Asia Pacific.
(Waste Not Asia, Vol. 1, Issue 1, January to March 2018. pp. 30-31)