Many people say we would need more than one planet if everyone in the world consumed like Americans. We need to start addressing the shocking amount of pure, unadulterated trash we produce—2.6 trillion pounds per year, according to a 2012 global estimate published by The Atlantic. In an attempt to handle our ever-growing need for waste management, we have turned to methods like incineration to keep our heads above water. The technology is promising, but there are also potential drawbacks.
Incinerating trash requires less space than landfilling it and it may generate less greenhouse gas emissions, but incineration can also produce harmful byproducts. What’s more, incineration doesn’t encourage us to actually reduce our consumption of the world’s finite, precious resources. Take a closer look at the following reasons why we should carefully weigh both the potential benefits and costs of waste incineration.
- The social costs of incineration are high, especially in developing countries. As you would imagine, burning trash requires heavy-duty, complicated machinery that is highly expensive and produces toxic solid ash as a byproduct, even when gaseous emissions are strictly limited.
- Some of the most toxic substances humans have ever been able to create in a lab are a group of substances known as “dioxins.” There are literally thousands of different kinds, and no matter how sophisticated an incineration plant may be, a small amount of these toxins are able to escape into the atmosphere. Metals such as lead, cadmium, mercury, and chromium may be captured initially by air pollution control mechanisms, but they ultimately become concentrated in a dirty, toxic ash that needs to be disposed of somehow. Often, this ash ends up in a landfill.
- While nanoparticles may sound small and harmless, they most certainly are not. They are tiny, miniscule particles that are produced when everyday items are burned at high temperatures. They are so tiny, in fact, they can cross the lung membrane and enter the bloodstream, essentially invading every tissue in the human body, including the brain. While all incineration plants have measures to control pollutants, there are currently no regulations for monitoring nanoparticles produced through waste management.
- In some cases, incinerators may consume more energy than they produce. Zero-waste practices such as recycling and composting may save more energy than that produced by burning trash.
- Incineration can undermine recycling efforts by encouraging a “don’t think about it, just burn it” mentality. Burning waste fuels a system in which resources are constantly pulled from the Earth, processed in factories, shipped around the world, and burned in our communities. This linear process of extraction, production, transportation, consumption, and disposal is ultimately unsustainable and could lead to a waste management crisis.
- Waste-to-energy plants can overshadow the benefits of cleaner, more renewable forms of energy, deflecting public attention as well as government and corporate investment away from wind, solar, and other clean energy sources. Incinerators are expensive to build and operate; in some cases, they may require significant public subsidies to exist. They can obtain tax breaks, credits, and other transferable benefits that would otherwise be spent on wind, wave, and solar projects.
- Mass incineration can be used as an excuse to buy more junk. That’s because it is a lot easier to justify that extra purchase of disposable holiday lights, or an outfit we really don’t need, when we know these items will just be “handled” somewhere down the line. We aren’t encouraged to consider if and how our purchases can be recycled, and where they will end up when we are done with them. The ability to simply incinerate our trash may encourage an “out of sight, out of mind” mentality.
- Burning biomass—or organic matter—can be particularly wasteful. That’s because organic matter decomposes into compost, a natural fertilizer that increases the productivity of soil and even helps it retain moisture. By burning our food scraps, grass clippings, dead trees, and other organic waste, we’re missing out on an opportunity to create a useful substance that can benefit both large-scale farmers and individual home gardeners.
- Taken to extreme, if we were to power our society solely by waste-to-energy plants, we would simultaneously be committing ourselves to producing a steady stream of trash. Without trash, there’d be no power—no electricity. It’s worth considering if that is really the direction we ought to choose.