Municipal governments throughout the world are facing choices about how to manage the unending stream of waste generated by their residents and businesses. In some places landfills and dumpsites are filling up, and all landfills and dumpsites leak into the environment. As populations continue to grow, the issue of waste becomes more urgent and more complicated. Many regions are already facing a waste crisis, and drastic measures are needed. Enter private companies with an “innovative” technology they claim will not only eliminate waste but will also generate energy. Some municipal governments, seduced by the idea that they will be able to turn their urgent problem into something of immediate value, have made the mistake of investing significantly in refuse derived fuel (RDF) projects, resulting in the burning of waste in incinerators, cement kilns, and other combustion units.

However, producing RDF does not make household and industrial waste disappear, nor is the technology completely new or “high-tech,” as the waste management companies selling it would have one believe. The basis of the technology is incineration, and the burning of garbage—whether in “waste to energy” (WTE) plants, incinerators, cement kilns, or other industrial burners—involves an unsustainable consumption of natural resources, pollutes the environment, compromises human health, and seriously disrupts the lives of huge numbers of informal sector recyclers.

All waste-burning technologies have the same fundamental problems, making them particularly inappropriate options for countries in the global south:

  • They produce poisonous and greenhouse gases, as well as toxic ash, which are inevitably released into the environment.
  • They destroy valuable resources, precluding their re-use and wasting the energy and labor invested in their production.
  • They undermine the livelihoods of millions of recyclers as the materials that these informal sector workers depend on are taken away and burned.
  • They encourage the generation of waste, while discouraging recycling and segregation of waste at the source—practices that have significant comparative health, environmental, and social benefits.
  • They require extra fuel to incinerate the large quantities of wet garbage that will not burn without extra treatment. Waste is an inefficient fuel due to its high moisture content, particularly in developing countries, which tend to have lower proportions of burnable plastic and paper.
  • In many cases, these burning technologies violate local laws and policies, such as the Indian Municipal Solid Waste Management and Handling Rules, the Philippines Clean Air Act, and the EU Waste Hierarchy, which mandate source segregation and maximum recycling. This report provides specific details relating to the impact of producing and burning RDF on the environment, public health, and informal recycler livelihoods. A description of the process used to produce RDF out of municipal solidwaste (MSW) follows.