Incineration: A Dying Technology”
by Neil Tangri of Essential Action, USA for the Global Alliance for
Incinerator Alternatives / Global Anti-Incinerator Alliance (GAIA).
are an unsustainable and obsolete method for dealing with waste. As global
opposition to incineration continues to grow, innovative philosophies and
practices for sustainable management of discards are being developed and
adopted around the world.
1: The Problems of Incineration
1 deals with the problems of waste incineration: pollutant releases, both
to air and other media; economic costs and employment costs; energy loss;
unsustainability; and incompatibility with other waste management systems.
It also deals with problems specific to Southern countries.
are the most notorious pollutant associated with incinerators. They cause
a wide range of health problems, including cancer, immune system damage,
reproductive and developmental problems. Dioxins biomagnify, meaning that
they are passed up the food chain from prey to predator, concentrating in
meat and dairy products, and, ultimately, in humans. Dioxins are of
particular concern because they are ubiquitous in the environment (and in
humans) at levels that have been shown to cause health problems, implying
that entire populations are now suffering their ill effects. Worldwide,
incinerators are the primary source of dioxins.
are also a major source of mercury pollution. Mercury is a powerful
neurotoxin, impairing motor, sensory and cognitive functions, and mercury
contamination is widespread. Incinerators are also a significant source of
other heavy metal pollutants such as lead, cadmium, arsenic, and chromium.
pollutants of concern from incinerators include other (non-dioxin)
halogenated hydrocarbons; acid gases that are precursors of acid rain;
particulates, which impair lung function; and greenhouse gases. However,
characterization of incinerator pollutant releases is still incomplete,
and many unidentified compounds are present in air emissions and ashes.
operators often claim that air emissions are “under control,” but
evidence indicates that this is not the case. First, for many pollutants,
such as dioxins, any additional emissions are unacceptable. Second,
emissions monitoring is uneven and deeply flawed, so even current emission
levels are not truly known. Third, the data that do exist indicate that
incinerators are incapable of meeting even the current regulatory
air pollution control equipment does function, it removes pollutants from
the air and concentrates them in the fly ash, creating a hazardous waste
stream that needs further treatment. Thus, the problem of pollutant
releases is not solved; the pollutants are simply moved from one medium
(air) to another (solids or water). Incinerator ash is highly hazardous
but is often poorly regulated. Even landfill disposal is not safe, as
landfills leak; but in some places the ash is left exposed to the elements
or even spread in residential or food-producing areas.
are often deliberately sited in low-income neighborhoods with minority
populations, on the theory that politically weak sectors of the population
will be less able to resist them. This is a violation of the basic tenets
of environmental justice.
incinerators are by far the most expensive approach to waste management;
construction costs alone can be hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars. The
costs of building and operating an incinerator are inevitably borne by the
public. Incinerator companies have devised various complicated financing
schemes to lock governments into long-term payments, which have often
proved disastrous for local governments. In the United States, many towns
have been driven into debt by their incinerators.
produce far fewer jobs per ton of waste than alternative technologies and
practices, such as recycling. Incinerators also usually displace existing
informal recycling networks, causing additional hardship to the poorest of
are often billed as energy producers, since they can generate electricity.
However, a detailed life-cycle analysis reveals that incinerators waste
more energy than they produce. This is because the products that are
incinerated must be replaced with new products. Extracting and processing
virgin materials, and making them into new products takes much more energy
-- and causes more environmental damage -- than would reuse, or
manufacturing from recycled materials.
of the history of waste incineration has been in Northern countries;
Southern contexts are likely to be even more problematic for this
technology. The lack of monitoring capability means that incinerators are
likely to be even more polluting than they are in the North.
Administrative problems, such as uncertain budgets and corruption, can
interfere with necessary maintenance. Different physical conditions, such
as weather and waste characteristics, can render operations difficult or
it must be understood that incinerators are incompatible with other forms
of waste management. Incinerators compete for the same budgets and
discarded materials with other forms of waste management, and undermine
the source separation ethic that drives proper waste handling.
2: The Alternatives
2 deals with the alternatives to incineration. Landfills are not a viable
alternative, as they are unsustainable and environmentally problematic.
Rather, alternatives must attack the entire notion of waste disposal by
recycling all discards back into the human economy or nature itself, thus
relieving pressure on natural resources. In order to do so, three
assumptions of waste management must be replaced with three new
principles. Instead of assuming that society will produce ever-increasing
quantities of waste, waste minimization must be given top priority.
Discards must be segregated, so that each fraction can be optimally
composted or recycled, instead of the current system of mixed-waste
disposal. And industries must redesign their products for ease of
end-of-life recycling. These principles hold across various waste streams.
mixed nature of the municipal waste stream destroys much of its value.
Organics contaminate the recyclables and toxics destroy the usefulness of
both. Additionally, an increasing portion of the waste stream is made up
of synthetics and products which are not designed for easy recycling;
these need to be redesigned to be compatible with recycling systems or
phased out of use.
waste programs must conform to local conditions to be successful, and no
two will look exactly alike. In particular, programs in the South should
not be patterened exactly after programs in the North, as there are
different physical, economic, legal and cultural conditions. In
particular, the informal sector (wastepickers or scavengers) are a
significant component of the existing waste system, and the improvement of
their employment conditions must be a central component of any municipal
waste system in the South. One such successful example is that of the zabbaleen
of Cairo, who have self-organized a waste collection and recycling system
which diverts 85 percent of collected waste and employs 40,000 people.
general, North or South, systems for handling organic waste are the most
important components of a municipal waste system. Organics should be
composted, vermicomposted or fed to animals to return their nutrients to
the soil. This also ensures an uncontaminated stream of recyclables, which
is key to the economics of an alternative waste stream. Recycling creates
more jobs per ton of discards than any other activity, and generates a
stream of materials that can feed industry.
greatest barrier to recycling, however, is that most products are not
designed to be recycled at the end of their useful lives. This is because
manufacturers currently have little economic incentive to do so. Extended
Producer Responsibility is a policy approach that requires producers to
take back their products and packaging. This gives them the necessary
incentive to redesign their products for end-of-life recycling, and
without hazardous materials. However, EPR may not always be enforceable or
practical, in which case bans of hazardous or problematic materials and
products may be appropriate.
product bans and EPR to force industrial redesign on the one hand, and
waste stream disaggregation, composting and recycling on the other,
alternative systems can divert the majority of municipal discards away
from landfill or incineration. Many communities have reached 50 percent
and higher diversion rates, and several have set their sights on Zero
care is the source of a significant amount of wastes, some of which can be
quite expensive to manage. But not all health care waste is potentially
infectious or hazardous. The vast majority of the waste produced in health
care facilities is identical to municipal waste. A rigorous source
separation system is essential to keep the small percentage of waste that
is potentially infectious or chemically hazardous segregated from the
general waste stream.
infectious wastes do need treatment and disposal, and several
non-incineration technologies are available to disinfect the waste. These
technologies are generally cheaper, less technically complicated, and less
polluting than incinerators.
wide range of chemically hazardous wastes, including pharmaceuticals, are
produced in small quantities in health care facilities. These are not
amenable to incineration. Some, such as mercury, should be eliminated
through changes in purchasing; others can be recycled; the rest
should be carefully collected and returned to the manufacturer.
Case studies show how these principles work in widely varying
environments, such as a small maternity clinic in India and a major urban
hospital in the United States.
process wastes tend not to be as mixed as municipal or healthcare wastes,
but many of them are chemically hazardous. Clean Production is an approach
to industrial redesign that seeks to eliminate hazardous byproducts,
reduce overall pollution, and create products and subsequent wastes that
are safe within ecological cycles. The principles of Clean Production are:
the Precautionary Principle, which calls for precaution in the face
of scientific uncertainty
the Preventive Principle, which holds that it is better to prevent
harm than remediate it
the Democratic Principle, under which all those affected by a
decision have the right to participate in decision-making
and the Holistic Principle, which calls for an integrated
life-cycle approach to environmental decision-making.
A variety of tools are being employed to implement Clean Production, from policy measures like right-to-know and tax reforms, to UN assistance to firms engaged in Clean Production.
Production cannot answer the problem of existing stockpiles of hazardous
wastes, which need some form of treatment besides incineration. A number
of programs are developing technologies to address this problem. The
standards that have evolved for such technologies are:
high destruction efficiencies
containment of all byproducts
identification of all byproducts
and no uncontrolled releases.
emerging technologies fit these criteria, and have been selected in Japan,
Canada and Australia for PCB destruction, and in the United States for
chemical weapons destruction. The U.S. chemical weapons program is a
success largely because of strong public participation, which pushed an
unwilling government to investigate and eventually select safer,
3: Putting out the Flames
3 discusses the growing rejection of incineration across the globe. Public
opposition has killed many proposed and existing incinerators, and is
being incorporated into local, national and even international law.
Popular resistance to incinerators is global: hundreds of public interest
organizations in dozens of countries are engaged in the fight against
incineration and in favor of alternatives.
the United States, business interests and a perceived landfill crisis
drove an incinerator building boom in the 1980s.
But the boom spawned a massive grassroots movement that defeated
more than 300 municipal waste incinerator proposals. The activists fought
for higher emission standards and removal of subsidies, which virtually
shut down the industry by the end of the 1990's.
Japan, the most incinerator-intensive country on Earth, resistance to
incineration is nearly universal, with hundreds of anti-dioxin groups
operating nationwide. Public pressure has resulted in over 500
incinerators being shut in recent years, but Japanese corporations and
government are still heavily invested in the incinerator industry.
Europe, resistance has taken the form of implementing alternatives. Some
areas have cut waste generation dramatically even as populations have
climbed. As a result, there is little market for new incinerators in
Mozambique, citizens organized across class and color lines to form the
country’s first indigenous environmental organization. Widely hailed as
the return of civil society after the civil war, the organization
succeeding in stopping a proposal to incinerate pesticides in a cement
kiln in a residential neighborhood.
activists have had to resort to protests and direct action to stop
incineration. Increasingly, however, public opposition is being manifested
in the law. Jurisdictions in 15 countries have passed partial bans on
incineration, and one country, the Philippines, has banned all
law is also starting to bear upon incineration. Three principles of
international law – precaution, prevention and limiting transboundary
effects – conflict with incineration.
is cited in the OSPAR, LRTAP, Bamako and Stockholm Conventions and the Rio
Declaration, among other documents. Because incineration is effectively an
uncontrolled process, with unknown byproducts, and because many of those
byproducts are already affecting human health, precaution argues that
incineration should be avoided.
and minimization are widely referenced in international law, most
specifically in the Bamako Convention, which explicitly defines
incineration as incompatible with prevention and Clean Production
transboundary effects is a common principle of international law; yet
incinerator byproducts, because they transport globally, clearly
contradict this principle.
London, OSPAR and Bamako Conventions also place bans upon incineration at
sea and in domestic waters.
Stockholm Convention, although it does not ban incineration, places severe
restrictions on its use. Four of the 12 chemicals subject to the
Convention are byproducts of incineration, and the Convention calls for
their continuing minimization and elimination. Significantly, the
Stockholm Convention talks about total releases, not only air emissions,
and clearly calls for countries to prevent the formation – not just
release – of these chemicals. Since formation of those four chemicals is
virtually inevitable in incineration, this provision sends a clear signal
that incineration’s end is drawing nigh.
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