"Waste Incineration: A Dying Technology”


Written by Neil Tangri of Essential Action, USA for the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives / Global Anti-Incinerator Alliance (GAIA).

Published July 2003


Executive Summary


Incinerators 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.


Section 1: The Problems of Incineration

Section 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.


Dioxins 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.


Incinerators 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.


Other 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.


Incinerator 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 standards.


When 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.


Incinerators 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.


Modern 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.


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 the poor.


Incinerators 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.


Most 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 even impossible.


Finally, 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.


Section 2: The Alternatives

Section 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.


The 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.


Municipal 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.


In 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.


The 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.


Using 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 Waste.


Health 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.


Potentially 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.


A 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.


Industrial 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.


Clean 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.


Several 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, non-incineration technologies.


Section 3: Putting out the Flames

Section 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.


In 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.


In 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.


In 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 Europe.


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.


Elsewhere, 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 incineration.


International law is also starting to bear upon incineration. Three principles of international law – precaution, prevention and limiting transboundary effects – conflict with incineration.


Precaution 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.


Prevention 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 practices.


Limiting transboundary effects is a common principle of international law; yet incinerator byproducts, because they transport globally, clearly contradict this principle.


The London, OSPAR and Bamako Conventions also place bans upon incineration at sea and in domestic waters.


The 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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