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Waste incineration: a destructive energy source
Incineration is a waste treatment technology that involves burning commercial, residential and hazardous waste, including paper, plastics, metals and food scraps. Heat is one of the by-products of the incineration process, along with ash, gases, air pollutants, waste water, and waste water-treatment sludge. The incinerator industry is trying to push ‘Waste to Energy’ as a low-cost and ‘renewable’ energy source.
The highly destructive impacts of waste-to-energy incineration and the misleading claims about its supposed low cost and potential as a renewable energy source have been well documented by the Global Anti-Incineration Alliance (GAIA). Municipal waste is itself largely non-renewable, consisting of materials such as paper, plastic and glass that are derived from finite natural resources such as forests that are being depleted at unsustainable rates. According to GAIA, burning these materials in order to generate electricity creates a demand for ‘waste’ and discourages much-needed efforts to conserve resources, reduce packaging and waste, and encourage recycling and compostingi. More than 90 per cent of materials currently disposed of in incinerators and landfill can be reused, recycled or composted.
Waste-to-energy incineration is also high in greenhouse gas emissions. Waste-to-energy incinerators and landfill contribute far higher levels of greenhouse gas emissions and overall energy throughout their lifecycles than source reduction, reuse and recycling of the same materials. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), incinerators emit more carbon dioxide per unit of electricity (2988 lbs/MWh) than coal-fired power plants (2249 lbs/MWh). Furthermore, incineration also exacerbates climate change by encouraging new, energy-intensive resource extraction and processing rather than the reusing and recycling of resources. Zero waste practices such as recycling and composting conserve three to five times the amount of energy that waste incineration produces.
Waste-to-energy incineration poses significant environmental and health risks to incinerator workers, neighbouring communities and the general population. Even the most technologically advanced incinerators release thousands of toxic pollutants, including mercury and ultra-fine particlesv. Waste-to-energy incineration is a very expensive and economically-inefficient source of energy. Incinerators require large amounts of material inputs in the form of waste in order to generate small amounts of energy because of the low calorific value of wastevi. Yet despite this clear economic case against waste to energy, governments around the world are spending billions of dollars of taxpayers’ money subsidising the construction and operation of incinerators.